Nobody remembers the runner-up. 2nd is not good enough but it is progress. What went wrong for Solskjær’s United?

Abdel Rahman El Beheri
8 min readMay 30, 2021
United players and manager Solskjær in tears after their penalty shootout vs Villareal.

Manchester United were considered favorites going into the Europa League final and why wouldn’t they be, they managed to knock out Real Sociedad, AC Milan, AS Roma on their way to the final but perhaps this is the very reason why they were beaten by 7th placed Villareal from La Liga.

Solskjær and his coaching staff got it wrong on the night, they came prepared for a certain game and Villareal decided to give them another. Manchester United, basically, studied the team but not the man behind the team and ultimately it was their downfall.

To be fair to United, Villareal are a possession-based team and its reflective in their possession statistics. They have the 4th highest possession stats (54.7%) — similar to United — and scored the 4th most goals in their league. They also have 8th best defense in the league as they leaked quite a few goals (44) — also similar to United in numbers. Their pressing statistics in PPDA (Passes Per Defensive Action) is 9.85, it’s the 10th best in La Liga but compared to the premier league, it is the 5th best, which is better than United and City in pressing — slightly under Chelsea and Liverpool.

Given the data above, it is understandable why United chose the XI that they did — especially Pogba in the pivot. They expected Villareal to give them a game, come at them pressing and try to keep the ball from them.

Enter Unai Emery. If you have followed Emery’s career at Sevilla, PSG, Arsenal and Villarreal, you’ll know he’s a very pragmatic manager when it comes to big games especially cup games— whether he has an average team or the best talents in the world (i.e. Barcelona’s remontada vs. PSG 2017).

If you look at Villarreal’s lineup compared to the regular starting XI in the La Liga, you’ll notice that RB Mario Gaspar was dropped for Juan Foyth who is more defensively-minded. This immediately gave the indication that Villarreal came here to defend. Villarreal knew that if they tried to take-on United, they will get absolutely done on the counter. In a more open game, Villarreal’s defense is not that good but when they put 10 men behind the ball, they can be a very organized unit and stifle their opponents.

Figure 1: Villareal’s pressing vs Man United.

On the rare occasions that Villareal did press, they were more concerned with denying the double pivots and Bruno Fernandes the ball. However, their press was relatively ineffective. Manchester United were okay in progressing the ball up the field through their FBs. Although, it did show how touch-tight both Villarreal’s front two and midfielders were to Pogba and McTominay.

As such, McTominay dropped as a 3rd CB to create the initial overload and Fernandes pushed very high up — as high up as Cavani. This made United look like they had a shape of 3–1–6. Fernandes’ positioning (+the lineup) gave away a slight confirmation onto Solskjær’s thinking. He was planning to kill Villarreal on the counter using the quartette of Bruno, Cavani, Rashford and Greenwood. He was using the same tactics he used vs. Real Sociedad. Villarreal, unfortunately, didn’t play into Solskjær’s hand like Sociedad did.

With that being said, the 3–1–6 framework is not a bad one to break a very deep low block, it is what your forward 6 do within that framework that counts. How they occupy pockets of space between the lines and drag midfielders out of position to create those those pockets of space?

Figure 2: FBs pushing further up forcing Villarreal wingers to drop deeper.

United FBs tried to push further up to create a 2v1 vs Villarreal’s FBs but Villarreal’s wingers dropped and tracked them. Villarreal looked like the have a back 6 at many points in the game. They literally went man for man vs United’s forwards. In addition to Bruno Fernandes — United most creative player this season — stuck high up as a second striker as Ole asked him to do, he was not able to get on the ball. In fact Fernandes ended the match with the fewest touches on the ball compared to 8 of United’s outfield players — Cavani, Greenwood, and De Gea being the exceptions. Plus, being man marked by Capoue did not help his cause.

To get on the ball Fernandes started dropping deeper to the left and dragged Capoue with him. This opened a space up for United to use.

Figure 4: Fernandes dropping deeper.

.…And use it, they didn’t. Later however, Villarreal responded to close off that potential threat. Capoue started leaving Fernandes to Pino as the space they gave up in the left half-space/center was very dangerous and had United started using it, it would have caused Villarreal A LOT of trouble. So Capoue was withdrawn, this could have played into United’s hand with one less man on the left hand side. So Villarreal shifted their entire lines to the left hand-side to make up the numbers. Basically, they said we can afforded to leave AWB alone on the right as he is not supported and he’s not a great threat offensively.

Figure 5: Capoue withdrawn and Pino pushed up.

Although Fernandes dropping created space — that was later closed by Villarreal — they caused another problem for United. Fernandes and Pogba — their two most creative players were too deep and they had Villarreal’s entire deep block in front of them to navigate. It is also worth mentioning that Gerard Moreno made sure that all lanes to Pogba are blocked deep into Villareal’s own half.

To solve this problem, United to had 2 ways to go about it. One, United had to have their forwards drop between the last line and 2nd line of Villarreal’s defensive shape and combine fast with their FBs. Unfortunately, their movement was static and labored (no intensity), which made it easier for Villarreal to defend.

Two, United needed to add creativity from the right hand-side where Villarreal was not heavily defending (or ignoring). To Solskjær’s credit, he did move Fernandes to the right hand-side in the second half, which started to cause some problems for Villareal but not a lot (i.e. Rashford’s chance). The reason being, United’s right hand-side is very weak. It lacks incise vertical passing from McTominay and AWB.

To Scott’s credit, however, the only threat came from him driving with the ball & disrupting Villarreal’s organization. The problem with Scott’s runs, though, they were very suboptimal, meaning, he’s running into traffic and ultimately either losing the ball or the pass coming off wrong due to being under pressure. Even when trying to combine with Bruno/AWB, he would make inaccessible runs off the ball that his teammates can not find, as such forcing them to re-circulate.

Another way United “created” — putting it mildly — from the right was Greenwood taking on men to drive into the penalty box 1v1.

Figure 6: Fernandes shifting to the right to create/help the right side.

Switching Fernandes to the right was the only tactical change Solskjær made. The moment he saw how deep Villareal was playing, he should have pushed Pogba higher up — on the wing — with Fernandes to break down that deep block. This is what served him well in the league vs deep blocks, previously.

This is where I have to be critical of Ole. I understand the lack of options but this is a FINAL, you have to risk. If you don’t want to risk early like the 1st half, risk 2nd half. There are several solutions Ole could have tried. One, Matić on 2nd half — since Fred is not fully fit — Pogba pushed up and either Greenwood or Rashford off. Preferably Rashford as he was not having a great game. Two, Rashford off, Van de Beek on and switch to 442D. Van de Beek will move around creating space for Pogba on the left or Fernandes on the right.

Villarreal played for a draw. In the 1st half, Villarreal’s shots came from set-pieces only. Villarreal is a good team on dead-ball situations so they decided to play a game of a few eventful actions and very high variance. The lack of threat from Villareal was a combination of United’s good pressing and counter-pressing but also their willingness to relinquish the ball to United. I mean, even Villarreal’s substitutions were all like for like except Bacca for Coquelin. This when Emery decided to shut up shop even more after conceding.

They gambled on a set-piece either giving them the win or a draw to take it to penalties…..And they got exactly what they came to Gdansk for. Unai Emery got exactly the type of final he wanted.


Manchester United’s woes in the final isn’t all down to Villarreal’s “astonishing” defending or Emery’s ground breaking tactics. It was not also because Victor Lindelöf didn’t track a run from Moreno on his blindside or David De Gea being very bad at penalty saving or taking for that matter.

United’s woes came because they lacked a good attacking structure to break down a very deep block, a very weak right side (unbalanced team), and Solskjær’s inaction on the sideline or you can call it over-trusting his starting XI.

I understand, also, that this team is very unbalanced and is very delicate to balance it out but Villarreal had no intention of attacking, as such I expected Solskjær to risk.

We can make up reasons as much as we want but that XI was enough to beat Villarreal even if Solskjær didn’t prepare of a deep block going in to this game. The team should have had a good attacking structure that when faced with such a strategy — that is legitimate if overly boring — they can face it and overcome it.

The positive from this loss is it is a very hard lesson to this team and manager to never take any opposition lightly and seeing them in tears — as much as it hurt — could be the catalyst they needed.

I will write another article on United’s attacking structure or lack thereof and whether or not Solskjær can take that next step with United. Stay tuned.

Image 2: Fernandes, Telles, and Fred at Fulltime.

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