Unai Emery’s side started the final with a 4-4-2 formation. The two blocks of four sat deep, inviting United to break them down. This season, United have been a team whose forté has been exploiting spaces behind defences at near-breakneck pace and have had a hard time breaking down low-blocks; a well-set Villarreal side, hence, immediately put United in an uncomfortable position. With a midfield of Manu Trigueros, Dani Parejo, Étienne Capoue and Yeremi Pino, El Submarino Amarillo were more than happy to soak up the pressure and hope to pick United’s backline – which bore a massive Harry Maguire-shaped hole – out with an acute pass.
As it turned out, Villarreal ended up not needing to resort to that, although Maguire’s absence did come into play in the 29th minute when Gerard Moreno deftly moved himself at the end of a Dani Parejo ball from a free kick to slot in his 30th goal of the season and put his side ahead. Having taken the lead, the already-defensive side were now left with little onus to attack any further.
United, on the other hand, did raise their game after going down. After coming out for the second half, the Red Devils increased their tempo and started bombarding the Villarreal defence with more incisive balls from the midfield. They didn’t have to wait too long either, as their efforts bore fruit in the 55th minute when Edinson Cavani pounced on a loose ball to bring his side level.
That, though, was it, as far as goals were concerned. Having come back from one goal down, the game opened up nicely, with both sides making a go for it. However, neither side could really create any big opportunities. While Unai Emery made his substitutions liberally, Ole Gunnar Solskjær refrained from making any changes – for as long as he could – to what he thought was the best set of players he had on the pitch. United’s substitutions would come, but not before the 100th minute, when the players started showing real signs of fatigue after the game went into extra time.
Extra time bought with itself little jeopardy, as players from both sides started losing the accuracies of their passes and their reaction times. As had felt inevitable for a while, the match percolated into a penalty shootout.
Both sides clearly had prepared well for such a scenario, as one after another every outfield player from both teams converted his penalty. It was the eleventh iteration of the shootout that decided the match, when it fell upon the two goalkeepers to have a go themselves. Villarreal’s Gerónimo Rulli, after duly converting his own, saved David de Gea’s shot, raising the Yellow Submarine out of the water of the Underdog Sea and onto the vast green ocean of the Stadion Miejski. For a team associated with earning too many penalties by the virtue of their style of play, it was awfully poetic for Manchester United to lose a crucial cup final from twelve yards.
For Villarreal, a club hailing from a small town in the Castellón province of eastern Spain, whose only top-level success thus far had come in the years of the UEFA Intertoto Cup when they won it twice (2003 and 2004), this is nothing short of a fairy-tale. Unai Emery, having had his reputation decimated in the British Isles, has now fully resurrected his credentials as he picks up his fourth Europa League medal. Not only that, the victory also sends Villarreal into next season’s UEFA Champions League.
For Manchester United, their worst trophy drought in over three decades continues for at least another year. For all the gradual improvements Solskjær has made so far as United’s manager, not ending the season with a trophy, having come so close, will sting, as it should. As they collect themselves off the pitch and pick up their runners-up medals, the Red Devils conclude this season and now find themselves with time to recuperate, plan and prepare for what is set to be a long, gruelling summer.