Manchester United slips on Solskjaer’s ‘stepping stone’

GDANSK, Poland — Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted the Europa League final to be a “stepping stone” to future success. Instead, United slipped up.

The bruising 11-10 loss to Villarreal on penalties after a 1-1 draw on Wednesday left Solskjaer and his players wondering how to fix errors in their game so that the long rebuild at United finally brings trophies.

“In the league we finished second. Second doesn’t count for nothing,” forward Marcus Rashford told broadcaster BT Sport. “Manchester City win the (English Premier League), we finish second, it doesn’t mean nothing. Villarreal win the Europa League, we finish second. For us it means nothing.

“I don’t want to hear, ‘They were so close’. It doesn’t mean anything,” he continued. “There is one winner and one loser and today we lost. We have to find out why and make sure next time we don’t lose.”

Solskjaer said in the buildup that a Europa League win — which would have been the club’s first trophy since 2017 — “might be the stepping stone for something better to come, a bright future because this team is a young team.”

Progress has certainly been made after three semifinal defeats and third place in the EPL in 2019-20. Still, United was only in the Europa League this season because it couldn’t get out of a Champions League group that included Paris Saint-Germain, Leipzig and Istanbul Basaksehir.

The final was decided in an unusual way when goalkeeper David de Gea’s penalty — the last of 22 that were taken in an epic shootout — was saved. But there were plenty more prosaic moments for United to work on.

There was the confused set-piece defending which allowed Villarreal to score the opening goal when Gerard Moreno got away from his marker Luke Shaw and darted past Victor Lindelöf to score off a free kick.

United had won 12 games this season after coming from a losing position but struggled to break through Villarreal’s compact defense. Villarreal effectively marked Bruno Fernandes out of the game, leaving Scott McTominay tasked with more of the creative play in midfield.

Solskjaer also seemed reluctant to trust his injury-depleted bench of substitutes, even when Villarreal brought on fresher players and started to take the initiative in extra time. Solskjaer eventually made five changes, but none before the 100th minute, and two of them were specifically to bring on penalty takers before the shootout. That meant United, for all its spending power, effectively had a shallower squad than the seventh-place team in the Spanish league.

“We’re getting closer and closer and better,” Solksjaer said after Wednesday’s final. “We were one kick away today from having a trophy and a good night, but we’ve got to have the desire to come back next year and make sure we improve, get better.”

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