Wednesday’s Europa League final pits continental heritage against relative newcomers as Manchester United face off against Villarreal in Gdansk. The latter are competing in their first ever European final while United are seasoned competitors at this stage of the season, going for their seventh major honor and another Europa League trophy to follow the one they raised in 2017.
Yet in the dugouts the roles are reversed as Unai Emery chases his fourth Europa League whilst Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looks for a first trophy as United manager. Will that lack of experience count for anything in a final where both teams could be missing key players? Let’s make some predictions:
United struggle to build without Maguire
What little hope Solskjaer might have had that Harry Maguire would be available for the Europa League final seemed to vanish on Tuesday night when the club captain headed down the tunnel at the Stadion Miejski without so much as getting his kit on to take part in training. This game has seen miraculous recoveries in the past — two years ago N’Golo Kante seemed certain to miss out for Chelsea against Arsenal when he limped out of the final pre-match session before a superb display in Baku — but with the European Championships on the horizon it may be too much of a risk for Maguire to take to the field against Villarreal tomorrow.
Equally if there is even the slightest hope that Maguire can play for United it will be hard for Solskjaer to resist the temptation. He may have his flaws but there are few players as crucial to the Red Devils’ play as their captain. The defensive side is naturally worth addressing but from the outset it should certainly be noted how vital the center back is in effectively advancing the ball up the pitch whether through his passing or his propensity to step into midfield.
Where Harry Maguire has delivered his passes to in the Premier League and European competitions since joining Manchester United
According to fbref.com only Luke Ayling and Ruben Dias carried the ball more yards towards the opponents’ goal than Maguire did in the Premier League this season. That’s partly a reflecting of the sheer volume of minutes the 28-year-old played but equally it is a sign of a player who is at ease with the ball at his feet and is not afraid of a dribble. On 57 occasions he carried possession into the attacking third, 40 times more than Ruben Dias and 33 more than Victor Lindelof for instance and a gaudy number for a center back.
Similarly since his arrival in the summer of 2019 he averages 6.48 passes into the attacking third, a number not all that lower than Fred or Scott McTominay. Maguire covers many of the playmaking deficiencies of that deep midfield pairing and, as the heatmap above shows, he is crucial in unlocking the left flank where much of United’s dangerous build-up comes through the likes of Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba.
Then there is the matter of how United fare defensively. The sample size is small indeed but opponents have had better shooting chances in the 10 Premier League and European matches Maguire’s team have played without him, which range from top tier sides such as Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool to Astana and Fulham. The opposition average 1.17 expected goals (xG, a metric that assesses the likelihood of any shot resulting in a goal) per game when they face United without their skipper, nine percent higher than when Maguire starts. Similarly they take 11.6 shots per game as opposed to 10.5. These might seem like small margins but those are exactly what can be exploited in one-off finals.
Emery won’t take advantage of United’s weaknesses
The question is whether an Emery team can make the most of those margins. It almost seems unreasonable to criticize the approach of a manager whose success in this competition is beyond reproach. He has already lifted the Europa League trophy three times, one more and he is clear of Giovanni Trappatoni as the most successful manager in the history of this competition. Not since 2012 has he lost a knockout tie in this competition.
Such records are worthy of caveating though. There have been near misses, a goal in the very last minute to scrape past Valencia, and some fixture lists that verge on the cakewalk. Before the semifinal this season Villarreal’s path through the knockout stages took them past Red Bull Salzburg, Dinamo Kiev and Dinamo Zagreb, hardly a cast of European giants. It is how he managed the semifinal against his former club Arsenal that might offer cause for concern.
It is not that Villarreal lacked the ability to impose themselves on Mikel Arteta’s side but more that their manager seemed loath to do so. It is a trait that Arsenal fans will remember well, where other managers might go for the jugular Emery would attempt to hold what he had. In the first leg El Submarino Amarillo were running rampant through their visitors but at the interval striker Paco Alcacer was withdrawn in favor of midfielder Francis Coquelin and the Gunners got a foothold in the game and subsequently the tie.
Even in the second leg when it was of course natural to drop deep and try to hold on to the lead there was no need to be quite as furtive as they were, packing men behind the ball and putting together eight shots worth a combined 0.35xG. When Samuel Chukwueze went off with injury so departed Villarreal’s attacking spark, the sense that something unpredictable might happen (and he will be severely missed if he is unavailable for the final). It was undeniably to the credit of Raul Albiol, Pau Torres and Coquelin that Villarreal held Arsenal at arms’ length but when one goal for the visitors would have wiped out the away goal advantage their opponents’ had accrued in the first leg it was perplexing that Villarreal showed no real attacking impetus.
That ought to be the cause for concern among Villarreal fans, not that their side is incapable of defending but that under Emery they are too willing to do so. This is a team that ranks dead middle in La Liga for points held from winning positions, 2.13 per game might sound like a healthy return but 12th placed Cadiz and Getafe, who ended the season in 15th, were among those who were more effective at protecting leads. It was a similar story in Emery’s sole full season at Arsenal where the Gunners were fifth among the ‘big six’ clubs when it came to average points taken from winning positions.
Such an approach is risky against any team, all the more so a Manchester United team who on occasion this season have given the impression that they need to concede first to awaken from their slumber. When they do they can rip teams to shreds in a matter of minutes. Emery would be well advised to ensure that his side do not simply allow Bruno Fernandes, Rashford and company to simply come at them should his side take the advantage in this contest.