The longest season ever is over now and in the very short time before the new season gets underway it is time to rest and more importantly reflect.
United’s European adventure in the Europa League was ended in the semi-finals by eventual winners Sevilla, they lost 2-1 to the Spanish side and then Sevilla beat Inter Milan 3-2 in the final.
Now, after the clubs third placed finish in the league they will be in the group stages of the Champions League for the 20/21 season. But can United use the lessons learned to help them go deep in the competition next season?
They got through to the semi-finals with no real mishaps and used it to give experience to a lot of the young players at the club, those players got game time and to travel with the squad and will be better for it in the long run.
However, the first time United came up against a very handy and capable team in Sevilla they lost the game. Even after the went in front courtesy of a penalty from Bruno Fernandes they didn’t control the game in the way you have to at the top level.
Ever Banega started to control the tempo of the game and suddenly United fell asleep in the wide areas and allowed Suso to ghost in at the back post to equalise.
At the start of the second half United upped the tempo and created numerous chances with Anthony Martial going close twice but Sevilla held them at bay and then began to keep the ball and slow the tempo.
Sevilla took all the sting out of the game and began to get a foothold; a few changes were made including bringing on Luuk De Jong and he immediately he scored after United fell asleep again defending a cross allowing De Jong to score.
United huffed and puffed after that but it was not enough and even though Sevilla only had 3 shots on target, they scored twice and put United out. An important lesson has been learned and that is you have to take your chances. Sevilla did and United didn’t.
Sevilla are perennial European competitors and they are the perfect test for any club with European ambition; they know how to play in this format and understand the subtleties needed to navigate either the Champions League or Europa League.
Bayern Munich beat PSG 1-0 to win the Champions League and over the last few months have looked virtually unbeatable; they are the benchmark and the team to aspire to be. United look a million miles away from being the team to beat in Europe, but a few transfers and bit of experience could help them.
The next few seasons (if they continue to qualify that is) would be good for United under Ole as they could play in the group stages mostly as favourites apart from facing the team in Pot 1 which for next season will be Bayern Munich, Sevilla, Real Madrid, Juventus and PSG. Porto and Zenit are the other two teams in Pot 1(Manchester United are drawn in Pot 2 for next seasons competition) but United would be favourites for those games should they be drawn together.
If United, get through the group stages then they could do well against the big teams if they play their counter attacking game with their pace and guile in the transitions. Whether they could hold out defensively against those teams is another thing altogether.
However, in ties they are favourites for, teams will play a counter-attack style against them and if they haven’t figured out a way to break down the low block, they have struggled with in the past then they could be on the wrong side of an upset.
Ole will need to use his squad to pick teams to be ready for both scenarios; sometimes your best eleven is not right for the game you are playing. Different teams throw up different challenges and you need to be more aware of the tactical battle plus injuries/suspensions and fatigue will necessitate changes.
Most fans will want United to play like they do in the league but the usual result of big clubs beating the smaller clubs because they have better players does not always happen in European Football.
European football has a different tempo and needs a better more thought-out game plan to be successful. Most league games can be like basketball games (end to end). In Europe it is a chess match.
Sir Alex Ferguson found this out in the mid 90’/early 00’s as each year they would do well against the big teams in the group stages but would be tripped up in the knockout stages by teams who most people thought United would beat at a canter (Monaco, Dortmund, Porto spring to mind). Instead he carefully added different facets to his squad, he always had enough to win or at least go close to winning the league each year but the fact he kept pushing to build a better team made United win the Champions League in 1999 and 2008.
United throwing money at the squad won’t make them go further into this competition, we only need to look at our neighbours across the city for evidence of that. Signings need to be not only good players but experienced ones to go with the youth and that will help this team develop not just in Europe but domestically too.
If you want to climb to the top of the mountain you not only need the right equipment but help from people who have been there before.
Also ,a great bonus for the club will be that the youth team will compete in the Uefa Youth League as a result of the Senior team’s qualification for the UEFA Champions League, meaning the youngsters will get a taste for European action as well with Marcus Rashford, Axel Tuanzebe, Mason Greenwood, Dylan Levitt, James Garner, Brandon Williams and Tahith Chong having featured in it and done very well in it over the last few seasons.
The Sevilla result is not what Manchester United wanted but what they needed. A reality check of their place in Europe at this time and a point in the development of this side under Solskjaer. They are the perfect team to play to gauge where you are, if you are better than Sevilla in Europe then your team is going the right way and needs only experience and a few tweaks to be a contender. However, if you are not as good then you make a few changes, and this helps a lot rather than suffering a humbling like Barcelona did to Bayern.
Next season should be spent going as far as you can in Europe but also learning what you need to compete at the highest level and giving experience to the young players to those who need it, using the lessons of the past to avoid mistakes in the future.