Manchester United finished their league season at Molineux as a youthful team prevailed 2-1 winners to finish second on 74 points behind neighbours City.
There was nothing riding on game no.38 of 38, but it was a satisfying way to end the season as several young players made their mark and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side secured only a second runners up finish since 2013.
All eyes will now turn to Gdansk on Wednesday as Solskjaer attempts to win a first trophy as United manager in the Europa League and put the seal on a satisfactory season. Following our last day win in the west Midlands, here are three observations from the game.
United complete unbeaten away league season
United may have fallen short of the ultimate prize – the Premier League title – but still created a piece of history at the end of a unique season. For the first time ever, the Reds have gone an entire campaign without defeat on the road in the league. Only the Invincibles of Arsenal and Preston in 1888/89 and 2003-04 have ever replicated such a feat (the Gunners also did so in 2001/02) – heights not even City’s historic centurions of three seasons ago were able to hit. United therefore only become the third club to do it and whilst there’s no prize for setting this record (United are in fact the first team to do it WITHOUT winning the title), it shows just how difficult it is to do (if it was that easy how come it’s hardly ever happened before). For the record, United’s form on the road in 2020-21 reads: P19, W12, D7, L0 with all six defeats coming at Old Trafford. We need to try and improve that next term if we’re to make a serious challenge for top stop – the next logical step for this side. But even so, to go an entire campaign unbeaten on the road is a seriously impressive showing and one that probably won’t get the recognition such a feat deserves. United haven’t lost away from home since a 0-2 defeat at Anfield in January 2020 – an incredible, record-equalling run of 26 games without defeat.
The old and the new catch the eye
With second place long since wrapped up, all United’s focus is on Wednesday’s European final with Villarreal in Poland. That was reflected in Solskjaer’s selection at Wolves – a ground that has been a far from happy hunting ground for the Reds since Wolves returned to the top flight. Of the XI, you would think only Dean Henderson and one of Axel Tuanzebe and Eric Bailly will be anywhere near the team for the final. There was a smattering of experience but it was the sprinkling of youth talent which caught the eye. Anthony Elanga showed glimpses of his potential in the defeat to Leicester earlier in the month but he was given another chance here and took it. Elanga put United ahead with his first senior goal as the 19 year old Swede caressed home a header in the 13th minute, becoming the 19th teenager to score a Premier League goal for United in the process. Amad also started and there were debuts for newly crowned Under-23 Player of the Year Hannibal Mejbri, fellow Academy graduate Will Fish and another cameo for Shola Shoretire, adding to his appearance against Newcastle in February.
At the other end of the scale, a player at the end of his career also made his mark. Juan Mata’s contract is up in the summer and he is yet to renew it, so this might have been his final game in the Red of United after seven years and 271 games. If so, then he ensured a fitting send off with the match-winning penalty in the absence of usual spot kick king Bruno Fernandes. Mata has been a great servant for the Reds and, if he does go, can leave with his head held high and an FA Cup, League Cup and a Europa League winners medal in his back pocket – with the chance of another in the latter to come in midweek.
All eyes on Gdansk for European final
If the game at Molineux was the aperitif, then Wednesday’s date with destiny is very much the main course. United have the chance to turn a season of progress into one of prizes, albeit in the Europa League – a competition we are only in because we somehow turned a position of overwhelming strength into a painfully premature Champions League KO. I don’t agree with the current format which allows the group’s third placed team to drop into the Europa League – it rewards failure and is a bit of a slap in the face for those sides to have come through the lengthy qualification rounds. But that’s UEFA’s problem, not ours, and you still want to try and win it to get a trophy – Ole and the lads need one. This feels a seminal moment for this side and could provide a springboard, a launchpad to bigger and better things. The team for the final picks itself with one exception – who will play at the back alongside Victor Lindelof. On the evidence of Molineux, it should be Axel Tuanzebe after an impressive performance from the centre-back – if Solskjaer is yet to make up his mind, then this may have helped the manager to do so. So second in the league – not, of course, where you ultimately want to be – but an upgrade on last term’s third place, eight more points and much closer to the winners – undeniable progress. But that second place will look so much better with a glistening piece of silverware alongside it – let’s bring it home lads!