Penalty shootouts are such an arbitrary way to decide a football match, it seems harsh in the extreme to judge an entire season on one, let alone when it ends up being decided by the ability of one goalkeeper to score from 12 yards compared to another.
But, as Manchester United flew home to lick their wounds after their Europa League trauma in Gdansk, thoughts about the long summer that lies ahead cannot be avoided.
Defeat by Villarreal, with United keeper David de Gea failing to convert the decisive penalty in an epic 11-10 shootout, leaves Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side facing up to some uncomfortable truths.
Firstly, by the time they next get a chance to win one, they will have gone five years without a trophy, which is the same length of time they went from 1985, before Sir Alex Ferguson won the FA Cup and changed the course of football history.
By the same point, Solskjaer will have been United boss for roughly as long as Ferguson had been before Lee Martin smashed home the goal that defeated Crystal Palace in the 1990 FA Cup final replay.
At a club the size of United, these are very long periods of time – and every manager knows the strength of their position usually comes down to results. In Poland, against a team of far fewer resources, they lost.
Improvement but what now?
First, the positives. It is beyond question United have improved this season.
In January they were actually in a title race – and briefly led the Premier League. It didn’t last, but Solskjaer’s players kept it together well enough to finish second and give hope for a brighter future.
The mood music out of United was that their popular boss had done enough to retain his job and, probably, have his position strengthened with a new contract.
But win or lose against Villarreal, Solskjaer’s target was never to win the Europa League. The trophy he really wants to win will be contested by Manchester City and Chelsea in Porto on Saturday.
The Premier League and Champions League are the competitions Solskjaer wants United to be judged by, not a competition they only ended up in because they weren’t good enough in a better one.
After failing to get close to either since Sir Alex retired eight years ago, Solskjaer’s task is to narrow the gap considerably – and after this setback, additional scrutiny will be paid to how well he is doing it.
However, it is fairly obvious the Norwegian needs help from United’s owners.
United must buy better players
In the aftermath of the Europa League final defeat Solskjaer was asked, for all his words of optimism and determination, if the only way United will make the improvement needed is by recruiting better players?
“I’ve been delighted with the effort, the desire, the determination of the players – I can’t fault them at all,” he replied. “We have probably done as well as anyone could imagine.
“We need to do better, work harder, cleverer, but we need two or three players to strengthen the starting XI and the squad all together. I’m sure our contenders will improve and we want to improve as well as we can.”
Solskjaer knows the areas he needs to strengthen.
In an ideal word, United would be funding the purchase of a central defender, a central midfielder, a right-sided midfielder and a striker.
The financial earthquake created by the coronavirus pandemic makes a shopping spree like that difficult.
Co-chairman Joel Glazer is due to address United’s fans forum for the first time on 4 June.
Amid the almost certain criticism Glazer will receive, it will be fascinating to see whether he makes any promises around the funding that will be made available to Solskjaer in the summer and, if not, what eventually transpires.
The concern for some is, instead of investing in players who could be described as ‘best in class’, United are making compromises which will condemn them to further years behind City.
For instance, is the additional year Edinson Cavani will spend at Old Trafford a reward for the impact he has made or a serious attempt at addressing striking issues?
Cavani has been excellent in the second half of the season but, at 34, he cannot be expected to carry United’s attack, nor make the kind of impact expected from Harry Kane, whose Tottenham future is the subject of so much uncertainty.
Defender Eric Bailly has been at United for five years. It is long enough to know his fitness record is patchy, while doubts remain over his ability.
Despite this, and Bailly’s own concerns about his perceived lack of playing time, United have just agreed a three-year contract extension that will keep the 27-year-old at the club until 2024.
Victor Lindelof’s current deal expires at the same time. Phil Jones, who hasn’t played since January 2020, has a contract to 2023.
Given United’s wage bill is among the highest in Europe, the situation raises the prospect of funding departures or being forced to keep players Solskjaer does not feel are at the levels he needs to challenge City.
Indeed, after waiting 87 minutes to make a change in last season’s Europa League semi-final defeat by Sevilla and leaving it until extra time to alter his side this time around in Poland, Solskjaer evidently does not feel his back-up players are capable of improving a difficult situation during a game.
What is going to happen with Pogba?
Then there is the situation around Paul Pogba. Lauded and criticised in equal measure, Pogba’s contract expires next summer.
Controversial agent Mino Raiola has said Pogba deserves a massive new contract or he could leave.
Sometimes, Raiola is best left to his comments. But, on this occasion, he might well be right.
For the money United pay Pogba, he has to deliver in the biggest games. Against Villarreal he adhered to the view some have of the Frenchman that if he doesn’t start a game well, he hardly ever improves.
That was the case against Unai Emery’s side.
Unlike Bruno Fernandes, who also disappointed, there is simply not enough credit in the bank to justify Pogba’s status.
He may attract attention on social media and be a superb marketing tool, but Solskjaer, or any other manager for that matter, needs Pogba to deliver on the pitch. Is he really going to be worth the amount that would need to be committed to get him to stay?
These are major decisions and, as they travelled back to Manchester, the United hierarchy may reflect on the need to get them right.
It is not only Solskjaer who is relying on that.m