Manchester United's erroneous tactical change in Europa League final, 'Wu Wei' factor and other talking points from their season

Not just on Wednesday, United have often in big matches took on the role of a team underplaying themselves. In the end the match took on the form of a callous bar fight with the inebriated participants missing more punches than they hit, and often landing one on themselves until one eventually trips on the barstool. United tripped on the bar stool.

Srijandeep Das May 27, 2021 13:25:27 IST
Manchester United's erroneous tactical change in Europa League final, 'Wu Wei' factor and other talking points from their season

A disappointed trio of Bruno Fernandes (Left), Alex Telles (Centre) and Fred at the end of the Europa League final on Wednesday. AFP

Villarreal won the UEFA Europa League 11- 10 on penalties against Manchester United at the Gdańsk stadium.

No, that is not a typo. It's an epic. One final that will be forever etched in the annals of history for its contrapuntal music of moments that highlights not just a final but aspects of Manchester United's journey here.

Gerard Moreno scored on the 29th minute for the Spanish side, Villarreal, while Edinson Cavani scored on the 55th minute to take the match when it eventually went: David De Gea, the Manchester United goalie, missed a penalty kick in a shootout to resign the favourites to a secondary character in light of Unai Emery's fourth Europa League trophy and Villarreal's first ever major honour. But, publication pursuing that tact and history remembering it as so would be unjust on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s progress as a manager and this team as a whole.

Firstpost takes a step back — because oftentimes you have to — and takes in the bigger picture of what it means to be Manchester United in this moment of time. Here are our talking points.

Wu Wei and the art of doing nothing

There is a philosophy in Daosim that has inspired many across space and time, from the mercurial pianist and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, to Arsene Wenger when he was the manager of Nagoya Grampus Five. It seems to have been rubbing off on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season.

Wu Wei literally translates to actionless activity. A paradox at first glance, but delve deeper it has roots in nature and extremely informed Chinese rationale used over centuries . It is radically different from inactivity that stems from fear, inertia or indecision. When action is required it arises from alertness to react not from conditional emotional responses, but from the depth and weight of understanding of the problem. And problems can’t occur unless you are faced with challenges in the first place; at this point, it would be fair to say Ole Gunnar’s Manchester United has gone through a fair share of that.

Think back to the start of the season where Manchester United were cast into a role into caricature of a club in decline even before a ball was kicked:

Early August, club captain Harry Maguire had the predicament of an oxcart in a bog, prisoned in Greece for an impetuous, ego-raved altercation with police officers. He was quoted saying something along the lines of whether the officers knew who he was, flouting his stature as captain of the arguably the biggest football club in the world.

Few footballers in the world can boast of as many memes being generated across social media as Harry Maguire did at that point. He was made a public example of and the public did not hold back with their ridicule. Many wrote off the incident as indicative of Manchester United being a club in mismanaged disarray.

He was charged and plead guilty on counts of aggravated assault, undermining law enforcement, bribery and attempt to flee from the scene. Two nights in a jail cell reminded the multimillionaire that talent does not privilege behaviour.

In September, Manchester United wonderkind Mason Greenwood violated COVID 19 curfew rules, while on England duty, of both the FA and the UK government for a night out. He was duly sent home by England manager, Gareth Southgate.

Later Edinson Cavani was slapped with a £100,000 fine for using the word “negrito” as a response on social media.

The football world was getting the repeated impression of ‘this is a club with no authority or control over their own players.’ And this reflected poorly on a Solskjaer’s management style.

Solskjaer’s skills as a modern day football manager, one of a communicator and a spokesperson for the club were thrown to the cliff-end along with him without insomuch as an inflatable doughnut or a rubber duckie. But swam through the torrents, relentlessly, said the right things and kept putting out PR fires with the coolness of a Nordic firefighter crossed with a stoic.

He had to fend off fires on both fronts. On the field, the 6-1 loss to Tottenham Hotspur at fortress Old Trafford caused grave embarrassment up, down and across the world. Then came the exit at the Champions League group stages. Problems abounded like warts.

Daoism says, ‘nothing’ as a response is offered when a solution isn’t fully formed yet, and the solution isn’t rushed but instead is allowed time to make the answer obvious.

In footballing terms, seeing what fails often enough to know how to fix it. Just ask Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and their defence, going from Van Dijk and Joel Matip to Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips and yet shoring their strengths enough to cover for their weakness with a fortitude of erstwhile champions.

There are lessons Manchester United can learn from Liverpool unbegrudgingly. The exuberant naïveté of that early Klopp Liverpool team suffered three back-to-back major final losses before they took up the mantle of “ mentality monsters.”
But it wasn’t before they understood the nuances of resilience, canniness and the plain and not-so-simple trait of winning badly and scruffing hard in a mud fight. Before Liverpool went on their transcontinental romp of winning the Champions League, Super Cup, Club World Cup and the Premier League they were handed bee-sting lessons from Manchester City, Sevilla, and Real Madrid.

There are certain matches you need to lose, to feel bad enough, to eventually win something. That’s consistent in the development of any young team with championship ambitions.

These losses that add steel to the collective psyche of wanting to never go through that feeling of a final loss ever again. But also sets the path to get there again in the first place. Certain matches will be needed to be sacrificed unwittingly, unwillingly to the crash test dummy gods in order to calibrate the course of this Manchester United side.

Manchester United may know their strengths, but they will be unsure of it until they learn to use their opponents' strength against them. The loss at the hands of a wizened Unai Emery was a low-key masterclass of that tact — from the way his team conserved economy as well as threat, to the way his team’s shape was poised to make the most of United’s nervousness. There was a certain rare air of a conductor knowing his tour circuit and how to play the orchestra according to the occasion and the acoustics of the venue.

Something like that comes with failing at the highest level. Just ask Unai Emery’s CV and his former English teacher. Or, yeah, even Alberto Moreno.

Seeing a match through a viewfinder

I’m sure dear reader, you’ve heard of Orson Welles? The legendary director once said, “a film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.” Which is a roundabout way of saying that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, but with an added nuance of a viewfinder. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has good eyes.

When Harry Maguire, Mason Greenwood, and Edinson Cavani were being cast as villains by the media - as footballers out of touch with reality - Ole flipped the script and gave them the role of protagonists. Most notably with Harry Maguire.
Solskjaer’s response to the Harry Maguire captaincy suitability raised into debate by club legends and former greats moonlighting as TV pundits and columnists, after the Mykonos debacle, was to do exactly nothing about it (Wu Wei).

Manchester Uniteds erroneous tactical change in Europa League final Wu Wei factor and other talking points from their season

When the alleged Paul Pogba transfer request came in, and the news being compounded by Manchester United missing out on Jadon Sancho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on pure groundwork.

Harry Maguire was allowed to hold onto his captaincy. Ole seemed utterly convinced of the character of his captain even going as far as to call him a role model. And he carried out the role as only a method actor could — the archetypal cumbersome English centre-back showed the light touch of seasoned continental defender.

He was thinking two steps before he moved and thus on many occasions being the quickest to a situation despite being on principle yards slower than the turbocharged forwards that throng the Premier League.

Pan to the left and centre, and you saw a Paul Pogba playing with more defensive sensibility. A modern day miracle of football management — because the last time we checked Pogba was still throwing tantrums deluded by his own sense of privilege.

When the alleged Pogba transfer request came in, and the news being compounded by United missing out on Jadon Sancho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on pure groundwork.

Thus, when seen through a viewfinder and zoomed out, and focussed on the collection of moments since December 2020 that led them to finish second in the Premier League table with 74 points, this final loss is a minor counterpoint in this long and prosperous Manchester United feature film. But that doesn’t take away from the problems Ole still has to address as the director and screenwriter of this new United story.

99 problems and self doubt being one

As mentioned before, it’s not atypical of potential championship winning teams to have its growing pains preceding their growth spurt.

But the loss against Villarreal, the manner of which of not so much the result, had the suspicion of a team gripped with performance anxiety. It’s not rare that a team early in their conviction of how they play are undone by how the opposition team allows them to play.

Tactically, Villarreal sucked Manchester United into a game of tag. They led United into spaces and areas where the Spanish team wanted them to play. It was not dissimilar how killer whales drive us shoals of mackerel for diving gulls to feast on and then. The Manchester United midfield is that shoal.

While better than most midfield in the way they transition rapid-fire counters, this Manchester United midfield as the larger evidence shows, doesn’t know how to conserve a sequence of possession-based football.

Not that they can’t do it, just that they haven’t switched into that mode of play often enough. And that caused that deep sense of anxiety about them last night. Their game were scabbed with lethargy which they were trying to pass off as cool competence. Like the Fonz trying hard to be John Travolta from Grease, but ends up being cast in a sitcom (Happy Days).

For United, it has been a case of dress like job you want to have day, but finding out that the fit of the leather jacket was way off. It made them look infantile. The blinding Red charisma was missing, as well as the gravity and panache that comes with it. Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United walked like Humphrey Bogart as the blue-eyed, hard-boiled detective walking into a bar counter. This fledging United looked like a rookie passing off a fake ID to get his pint. Gripped by the newness of the moment.

Villarreal and Emery sensed the imposter syndrome and clasped things tight with two lines of four. Bruno Fernandes’ supply line was squeezed dry like a lemon. Not the first time teams have done this successfully.

Most teams have a Plan B when their midfield play has congealed. Chelsea turn to Chilwell, Liverpool turn Alexander Arnold for output. United, all due respect, had Aaron Wan Bissaka.

On the touch line, Solskjaer as if caught in a daze of the occasion took till the 100th minute to make his first tactical change. This was Wu Wei gone wrong. This was inaction out of anxiety of making a wrong tactical switch.

Not just on Wednesday, United have often in big matches took on the role of a team underplaying themselves. In the end the match took on the form of a callous bar fight with the inebriated participants missing more punches than they hit, and often landing one on themselves until one eventually trips on the barstool. United tripped on the bar stool.

For United, self doubt on the big occasion is just as big a challenge for them next season as Manchester City. The distance the need to travel is in their head as much as on the table.

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