Manchester United squandered the opportunity to reach a first Europa League Final since 2017, as they were pegged-back and beaten 2-1 by the competition’s record winners Sevilla in the semi-finals.
Bruno Fernandes‘ ninth-minute penalty had given Ole Gunnar Solskjær‘s men the lead, but goals from Suso and substitute Luuk de Jong in the 26th and 78th minute respectively, sealed an emphatic turnaround for the Spaniards.
The defeat ensured The Red Devils finished the campaign trophyless for the third successive season, condemning the club to their longest spell without silverware in 31 years.
Despite ending their Premier League campaign in third place, last night’s tournament elimination was their third at the Semi-final stage in all competitions this season, and taught us five things about about the current predicament of the club.
1. Drawing penalties
Manchester United’s quick, intricate play in the opposition’s area has seen them win 22 penalties in all competitions this season. Their 14 penalties in the league this season, was the highest figure in a single Premier League campaign. The penalty against Sevilla was also their fifth in the competition (a record in a single tournament).
It comes as no shock that they receive so many decisions. While rival fans presume a refereeing bias, United’s quick tempo in the opposition’s box, forces defenders to have a rush of blood and infringe play, doing anything possible to prevent an all-but certain goal.
The Red Devils like to send players into the box, play short, crisp passes and work the ball quickly. The pace at which, entices defenders to commit these challenges, often leading to the inevitable spot-kick.
United seemed to divert most of yesterday’s threat towards Diego Carlos, who conceded the penalty in the previous round against Wolves. Last night. the Brazilian caught Marcus Rashford late in the area, in an attempt to deny the forward, but the result ended in another penalty.
Knowing that they have an apparent penalty expert in Fernandes, it is no secret that United fancy their chances in the penalty area.
2. Lack of cutting-edge
Solskjær’s men dominated possession in the second-half of the game and possibly could have scored five goals within the opening ten minutes of the second period, had it not been for the heroics of Sevilla ‘keeper Bono.
The Red Devils were initially relentless since the interval. They produced successive waves of attack and peppered the goal, but missed a handful of one-on-one opportunities, including in the lead-up to the first-half penalty.
Attempts on goal
Over the course of the match, United produced 20 shots, with only seven going on-target. In the previous round against Copenhagen, they managed 14 from 26 attempts.
Surprising still, was the fact that forwards Anthony Martial, Rashford and Mason Greenwood, who had 64 goals between them in all competitions, couldn’t find the net in either match.
It was a baffling statistic considering fans have become so accustomed to the trio’s audacious and spectacular moments of quality in games. These clinical players, usually oozing in confidence, attempt ambitious lobbed-efforts, flicks and nutmegs, but tried the so-called ‘ordinary’ shots, albeit in vain.
One can certainly give credit to the inspiring form of the goalkeeper, but needless to say, two goals from 46 efforts is not good enough for a club with the stature of Manchester United.
3. Solskjær’s substitutions
One might argue that a change in personnel may have halted the attacking-momentum United were building. However, it may have been what the English side required.
By bringing another striker onto the pitch, during the ten-minute spell where the side were on top, it would have seen the already dominant United, go more direct. It would have forced Sevilla to retreat further into their own-half and prevented Los Nervionenses from finding an out-ball and going on the attack themselves.
It would have also allowed another player to become a target in the area for the usually-reliable Fernandes on set-pieces and crosses.
As it were, Solskjær waited until the 87th minute to make his alterations. It was nine minutes after Los Palanganas went in front and ultimately too late to inspire the team.
Moreover, he only introduced striker Odion Ighalo in the final minutes of the encounter, giving the Nigerian very little time to make an impact.
To make matters worse, De Jong, one of the immediate substitutions that Julen Lopetegui made while under pressure, went on to score the winner.
4. A United front?
In the moments that followed the concession of De Jong’s winner, Fernandes instantly appeared to point fingers at teammate Victor Lindelöf – accusing the player of being at-fault.
The Swede appeared to have lost his man in the area, allowing the striker to arrive unmarked and fire home past David de Gea.
Both former Liga NOS players appeared to exchange unpleasantries in Portuguese, with Lindelöf allegedly telling Fernandes where to go, colourfully.
Fernandes later dismissed the row, suggesting to BT Sport, that the incident was ‘normal’ and occurred in the heat of the moment. However, with such a high-profile bust-up, it raises questions regarding the team’s overall morale and the egos within.
5. Wish you were here
With defensive frailties at the back and a lack of clinical finishing up front, United will definitely need to bolster their squad if they are to end their barren run without a trophy. However, the club could have done with two of their three former players, who remain in the competition elsewhere with Inter Milan.
In hindsight, it seems as though United have rued the summer departure of Romelu Lukaku and January transfer of Ashley Young.
The Belgian is a threat from crosses, a potent finisher, can hold the ball up well and draw fouls in dangerous positions. Considering most of United’s play against Sevilla came along the floor, he would have provided an alternative option in the air, as a target-man.
With Fernandes’ excellent eye for a pass, Lukaku arguably would have thrived by making instinctive runs and creating space. The Belgian has 31 goals in 41 appearances overall for I Nerazzurri, including four in four Europa League games this season.
Young had been a terrific servant for United during his eight and a half year spell. He played as a full-back and midfielder and has now become a combination of the two at Antonio Conte’s Inter.
His experience as wide player, allowed him to adapt his game defensively – by getting into the correct positions to prevent crosses and send opposition players down the line. It was an area of his game that he excelled while at Old Trafford, and his absence was certainly felt against Sevilla.
Solskjær’s men failed to deny the crosses from Sergio Reguilón for the equaliser, and then Jesús Navas for the winner, as full-backs Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Brandon Williams were caught out of position on opposite flanks for both goals.
Given that both of the Sevilla’s goals came from wide areas, United could definitely have done with the experience of Young and his defensive instincts to prevent the threat.
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