The Yellow Submarines stunned the world on Wednesday as they bagged their first-ever UEFA Europa League trophy by edging past Manchester United in a nail-biting penalty shootout. The Spanish club beat all odds to hold off a full-fledged Red Devils squad to take the game late into the night, with David de Gea’s missed penalty shot making the difference in a close contest. Unai Emery’s Villarreal, a side that never stepped foot into finals of any major competition before, were crowned champions at the end of a gruelling two hours of football.
Here is our tactical analysis of the UEFA Europa League final as it panned out on the field:
The Red Devils entered the fixture as overwhelming favourites, with an impressive Premier League season performance behind their back. But their gap on Manchester City is huge, and there were many questions that Solskjaer had to answer on Wednesday, including the club’s ability to win trophies. The Old Trafford side were looking for their first trophy in four years, and it seemed like the fixture at Gdansk would be the beginning of United’s comeback journey.
This was Villarreal’s first major Europa League final, which also happened to be the Spanish side’s first major final in domestic or European competitions. But the Yellow Submarines are under the charge of Unai Emery, who oversaw Sevilla’s run of three successive Europa League titles. Villarreal’s domestic season has been a mixed bag – they failed to qualify for the next edition of the Europa League, finishing seventh in the La Liga.
Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer deployed a full-strength attacking squad for the final, with Edinson Cavani flanked by Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes and Mason Greenwood in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Starting XI: De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Bailly, Lindelof, Shaw; McTominay, Pogba; Rashford, Fernandes, Greenwood; Cavani
Substitutes: Henderson, Grant, Maguire, Diallo, Telles, Matic, James, van de Beek, Mata, Williams, Fred, Tuanzebe
Unai Emery fielded a 4-3-3 formation, intent on holding off United’s attackers and taking the match as deep into the night as possible.
Starting XI: Rulli; Foyth, Albiol, Pau Torres, Pedraza; Capoue, Dani Parejo, Trigueros; Yeremi Pino, Gerard Moreno, Bacca
Substitutes: Asenjo, Gaspar, Funes Mori, Dani Raba, Estupinan, Alcácer, Alberto Moreno, Coquelin, Pena, Costa, Gomez, Fer Nino
HOW THE MATCH PANNED OUT
The match opened with a shaky few minutes, as both sides sought to find their rhythm going into the rest of the night. The stakes for both sides were high and it reflected on the player’s faces, especially with fans back in the stadium. Both sides created a few far-off chances, but it was Gerrard Moreno who slipped past Luke Shaw and out-ran Victor Lindelof to score the first goal of the night for Villarreal in the 29th minute.
Manchester United showed no hurry to score the equaliser, with the first half ending in favour of Unai Emery’s side. Edinson Cavani, the only decent performer of the night for the Red Devils, scored the equaliser ten minutes into the second half, and it looked like Solskjaer’s men were on course for another comeback victory as has become typical of them. But Emery’s astute experience in dealing with the big clubs of Europe allowed him to squeeze the life out of United’s attackers, frustrating them into resignation.
Thirty minutes of extra-time showed no conclusive end to the match, with both sides engaging in a fierce contest, albeit laden with misplaced passes and long balls to nowhere. The match had to be decided with a penalty shootout, the likes of which will be rare in the future. Twenty out of twenty kicks from both teams saw the back of the net, with David de Gea’s unfortunate miss being the deciding factor, handing the Spanish side their first Europa League trophy.
HOW THEY PERFORMED
Despite fielding an attacking lineup, it hardly seemed that the Red Devils were out to attack at any point during the night. Their performance in Gdansk mirrored their performance in the Premier League – moments of brilliancy surrounded by heaps of lethargy. Their defence struggled to contain Gerrard Moreno, and it was pure luck that he did not manage to score more for the Spanish side. The absence of Harry Maguire was keenly felt.
Solskjaer was reluctant to make changes to the team – he waited until the 100th minute to make his first change, replacing Mason Greenwood instead of the out-of-form Marcus Rashford. Edinson Cavani was the only saving grace for the Red Devils, who positioned himself cleverly and gave United a chance to win the match outright. But lacking support from Rashford and Fernandes, both of whom were squeezed out by some spectacular defensive tactics from Emery, he could not do much rather than hope for a few more chances.
Villarreal on the other hand were well-organised. Under the charge of three-time Europa League winner Unai Emery, they showed discipline and composure on a night when they were aware that the odds were against them. Emery’s strategy for the night was clear: prevent United from scoring and frustrate them in the process. They defended deep, with their 4-3-3 formation easily coalescing into an eight-man defence. They were able to tire out the likes of Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes, so much so that the Red Devils almost gave up hopes of scoring a goal in the last third of the match.
Villarreal have scripted a romantic story of an underdog beating all odds to claim European glory with their win on Wednesday. The victory also gives them a direct berth in the UEFA Champions League next season, allowing Unai Emery’s men to forget the mixed La Liga season results they had.
Manchester United on the other hand have many issues to address. The gap on Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City – who can field two teams that can compete in the top four – remain wide. The Red Devils have not added a trophy to their cabinet in half a decade and combined with the anti-Glazer protests, their future course of action will be keenly watched.
The much-awaited all-English UEFA Champions League final will be held on Sunday, where Manchester City and Chelsea will be battling it out for the ultimate European crown.
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