UEFA Europa League Final 2020/21: how Manchester United’s loss to Villarreal reflected its “unsuccessful” season – tactical analysis
The UEFA Europa League 2020/21 final between Villarreal CF from Spain and Manchester United from England was played at Stadion Miejski in Gdansk on Wednesday night. After 120 minutes and a long penalty shootout, the Spanish side emerged victorious, winning their first-ever European trophy, while this was the fourth time that manager Unai Emery has won this competition, with three previous wins at Sevilla. On the other hand, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team were unable to put the finishing touch on what would have been a successful season, but is now ultimately tinged with disappointment after coming so close.
This tactical analysis will explain both teams’ tactics and strategy in this match.
Villarreal lined up in their usual 4-4-2 formation, with only one change from their final La Liga game of the season, as Juan Foyth returned from injury to replace Mario Gaspar at right-back.
Manchester United also played with a strong team in a 4-2-3-1. One of the big talking points was the involvement of Mason Greenwood from the start, as Paul Pogba dropped into midfield in place of Fred. Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani formed a threatening front four, while David de Gea started in goal in what may turn out to be his final appearance for the club.
United’s struggle to break the block
United had 59.47% possession but failed to take advantage of this to create clear-cut goalscoring opportunities. They had only created chances worth 0.16 xG in the first 15 minutes and their xG total for the match, after 120 minutes, was at 1.45, which is a reflection of their struggle to break Villarreal’s defensive block.
This is not an isolated incident, as United have had problems against sides that sit deep and defend all season. Unai Emery’s tactics may not have been pretty to watch, but they were effective at nullifying United’s creative threat, especially Bruno Fernandes.
The first image shows Villarreal’s mid-block, in a 4-1-3-2 shape. The Yellow Submarine’s initial 4-4-2 formation had only two midfielders and could be easily overloaded, so Emery made his strikers sit deeper and closer to the midfield line, with the wingers also coming infield and staying narrow, to ensure that Villarreal’s midfield pivot was not pulled out of position.
The aim of this shape was also to keep Fernandes under check, with one of the two central midfielders staying deeper to close off space and passing lanes for the Portuguese international.
This also meant that Villarreal forced United wide, as they successfully clogged the central zones.
Manchester United were unable to take advantage of this space on the flanks, and their attack was quite ineffective throughout this match. Despite Villarreal sitting back in a deep block for the first 20 minutes of the game, United barely created any chances with all the possession that they were able to have.
One of the biggest issues for the Red Devils was their use and manipulation of space. While Villarreal forced United to go wide, they did not position themselves to take advantage of this. United maintained a wide 4-4-2 shape where the full-backs were staying deep, leaving only the winger higher up the pitch. The image shows how Rashford is forced to pass back to Luke Shaw, with the left-back needing to be higher up the pitch to try and tempt the Villarreal players out of their block and therefore create space.
Fernandes’ movement was also an issue – the 26-year-old kept making runs from in to out to try and receive possession behind the opposition full-back. However, these runs were usually not timed well, and additionally, this took away any central presence that United had in the half-spaces. The highlighted space in the image shows how United vacated the central space completely, rather than trying to play quick passing moves through that area to open Villarreal up.
Solskjær did recognize this problem after around 15 minutes or so, with United then becoming more aggressive in their positioning. The full-backs moved higher, allowing Rashford and Greenwood to come infield, while Fernandes stayed central, almost akin to a central striker to create a 2v2 with the Villarreal centre-backs.
We can see how Rashford is now in the half-space, offering himself as a passing option for Victor Lindelöf, with Shaw outside on the overlap as Foyth is drawn infield towards Rashford.
However, conceding a goal seemed to knock the wind out of Manchester United, as they lost their structure and became slightly chaotic. The image shows how the first and second lines of the team are completely separated, with very little chance of connection and creativity between the lines. There was no occupation of space between the Villarreal lines, and United once again tried to go wide of the block, rather than continuing with trying to manipulate the Villarreal players out of the block.
With Fernandes dropping deep to get on the ball, either Pogba or McTominay needed to move forward to create a more staggered shape and offer passing options between the lines.
Villarreal were committed to defending in this game. When United’s wide threat grew as the match developed, Emery’s wingers defended even deeper, forming a back six at times. Yeremi Pino and Manu Trigueros did a lot of hard work to track the runs of the full-backs and defend the wide spaces with Foyth and Alfonso Pedraza picking up the wingers. This prevented United from being able to isolate the opposition full-backs and create 2v1 overloads. We can see Villarreal’s compact shape in the image – it was almost a 6-3-1 shape with virtually no room for United to progress centrally.
In the second half, United looked better on some occasions as Solskjær tried to attack through the central zone. The centre-backs were encouraged to bring the ball out more often, and they tried to play more vertical passes, only looking to release the wider options closer to the penalty area. However, the Red Devils were still a little conservative, as Pogba and McTominay stayed deeper to guard against the counter-attack – one of them could have moved upfield to create another vertical passing option.
This image shows Fernandes as a vertical passing option for Eric Bailly, while Greenwood and Aaron Wan-Bissaka made third-man runs inside and outside respectively for the potential lay-off. Manchester United were able to create more opportunities in the second half through this approach.
Villarreal’s open play threat constrained by United press
United’s PPDA of 6.27 in this match was nearly half of their season average of 12.42, which shows how their press was far more intense than usual. They were able to prevent Villarreal’s passing sequences from developing, and El Submarino Amarillo only made 430 passes in this match, even after extra-time, which is much lower than their season average of 508 passes per 90 minutes, and shows United’s pressing success. Emery’s team could barely play out from the back, and ended up going long far more than usual, with the 12.79% share of long passes being higher than the season average’s of 8.19%.
United’s pressing was in a 4-2-3-1 shape. They usually had four players very high to press, while the defensive midfielders stayed deep to protect the centre-backs. These were the key elements of United’s press: preventing a switch, covering the centre, and using the side trap to recover possession.
The first image shows United’s pressing shape. Since the central midfielders stayed deep, there was space in the highlighted zone, but Villarreal were not able to exploit this space due to their inabiilty to cope with United’s press. The attacking line behind Cavani stayed narrow to defend the central spaces, with the far-side winger coming infield to cover the midfielder so that United could limit passing options around the man in possession.
Cavani pressed the centre-backs laterally to prevent a switch of play.
Because of this, Villarreal’s wide 4-2 shape in the build-up was unable to stretch United. We can see this shape in the image, but with Cavani and another player blocking a switch, and Wan-Bissaka having moved upfield to press aggressively, they could not play out and were often forced to hit the ball long.
The Manchester United full-backs pressed extremely high, with the wingers moving infield to cover the half-spaces, while the ball-side central midfielder would also track the opposing midfielder if he moved wide to receive. This approach made it extremely difficult for Villarreal to play forward passes.
Of course, given that this match was at the end of a long season, United could not maintain this energy for the entire match, and their press became sloppier in the second half, which made it easier for Villarreal to advance. We can see the same pressing setup from United in this image – narrow wingers with the full-back pressing aggressively. However, fatigue meant that the pressing intensity was lower, and there was more space to exploit as well. Here, Wan-Bissaka is late to reach the left-back, while Pogba does not track Trigueros’ run from inside to out in the same aggressive manner that we saw from McTominay earlier. Thus, Villarreal were able to get behind the United full-back and advance up the pitch.
Villarreal’s biggest threat came from set-pieces, and we have analysed Gerard Moreno’s goal here
When fatigue came
Given the fatigue that inevitably set in, it was vital for the managers to make changes to get fresh legs on the pitch. Emery reacted to this far earlier than Solskjær, making changes that helped his side improve their defensive performance.
The Yellow Submarines had lost their rhythm a bit, taking too much time to move the ball around, which allowed United to press and close off passing options. For example, here, Foyth was unable to get out of the side trap as the team was moving the ball too slowly. When he received the ball, United had already closed down all available passing options, and he eventually lost the ball in a dangerous area as a result.
However, Emery noticed this and brought Mario Gaspar on for Foyth, who was immediately able to cope much better with the United press, as well as with Rashford running at him.
Through these changes, Villarreal had more energy than United and were even able to occasionally press high in their 4-1-3-2 shape during extra-time. Solskjær, on the other hand, did not make a change till the 100th minute, which affected their play by a big margin in this period.
Here, Villarreal were once again able to shut down central passing options through the energy of their substitutes, and forced De Gea to hit a long ball wide, where they could recover possession more easily.
Solskjær was insistent on keeping his first XI on the pitch for as long as possible, and we can see the impact of their growing fatigue here. McTominay had a superb game, especially in the second half, but he tired in extra-time as well, and was unable to track his opponent in the same manner as he was earlier in the match.
It seemed as though Solskjær was almost resigned to the game going to penalties, and therefore was not proactive enough at making substitutions earlier on in the game.
While a loss on penalties, especially after a marathon shootout like the one in this game, is always unlucky, Solskjær ultimately did not do enough to force the issue. Our analysis has shown where United’s problems were in this match, and there is a lot of work to be done, both on the training ground and the transfer market in the summer if the Red Devils are to end their four-year long trophy drought next season.
Of course, Villarreal and Unai Emery deserve a lot of credit for sticking to their approach and making it difficult for United to create opportunities in this match. The former Sevilla, Valencia and Arsenal manager won his fourth Europa League trophy, while Villarreal, from a town whose population would fit inside United’s Old Trafford stadium with over 27,000 seats to spare, defied all expectations to win their first-ever major trophy, also securing qualification to next season’s UEFA Champions League in the process.