Manchester United must make ruthless David de Gea decision after Europa League final

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Take a moment to step away from the simmering anger Manchester United fans are still feeling after Wednesday night’s agonising Europa League final defeat, and try to apportion the blame in a fair and calculated manner.

It’s absolutely right that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer takes a chunk of it. Undoubtedly the Norwegian got his (lack of) substitutions criminally wrong, while players like Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba didn’t perform to their capable standards

Solskjaer should have hooked Rashford at some point in the 120 points — probably inside 70 minutes — but showed so much loyalty it bordered on blind faith. It’s debatable whether Rashford should have even started the Villarreal game in the first place; he

Yet the ‘Ole Out’ arguments that bubbled up to the surface on social media, no doubt fuelled by the agony of United losing a final on the 22th penalty kick of a unique shoot-out, were missing the point. They are kneejerk and unnecessary after a progressive United season.

Yes, Solskjaer made mistakes on the night in Gdansk, but he would have been lauded as a European managerial mastermind had his goalkeeper bailed him out.

Unfortunately for the Norwegian, David de Gea never looked like doing so. He performed his best impression of Peter Shilton’s gutless display for England in their 1990 World Cup shootout against West Germany, sometimes appearing to dive out of the way of the oncoming penalties.

It should have been no surprise to see De Gea fail to get close to saving 11 successive Villarreal penalties. He hadn’t saved the previous 25 he’d faced, the last stop coming from Everton’s Romelu Lukaku in April 2016.

In that time, Lukaku joined and subsequently left United, Britain voted to leave the European Union, there have been three different Prime Ministers and the country has experienced three lockdowns because of a global pandemic. It’s comforting to know some things never change.

“You go through every scenario, of course,” Solskjaer explained when asked why he didn’t change his keeper. “And it had crossed my mind in the build-up to the game but we were confident in David and prepared.

“Anything can happen in a penalty shootout. I stuck with the ‘keeper who played all of the game.

“I’ve got to say the penalty shootout was high quality, but we didn’t do enough in the 120 minutes to score more goals and that’s the disappointing bit.”

In fairness, De Gea’s elasticity, agility and shot-stopping ability are rivalled by very few goalkeepers around the world. There’s no tangible reason why he should be so poor when it comes to saving penalties.

But whereas you feel Solskjaer can recover from the mistakes he made in Gdansk, you wonder whether that was De Gea’s final bow in a United shirt. As he was comforted by Sir Alex Ferguson before collecting his runners-up medal — then performatively tugging it from around his neck — there was a look of resignation to the Spaniard.

The simple fact is United have an excellent alternative in Henderson who, for many, should have started the final in any case.

You cannot imagine Henderson looking so small and timid as De Gea did before the players in yellow rocked up to take their kicks. The Cumbrian is brash and bold and would have imposed himself on the situation.

De Gea didn’t. He then compounded the situation by missing his own kick.

The volume of matches United played (61 in the season), helped by their involvement in the Europa League, allowed him to pacify both men with enough game-time. But now is the time for Solskjaer to make a ruthless decision, to install Henderson as the coming force in goal, and put all his eggs in that basket.

It won’t be a straightforward process, given De Gea is United’s top wage-earner and the club’s longest-serving player, a league winner and survivor from the Ferguson era, but it’s time.

It would be a sad end for De Gea, to leave on such a bum note. On this occasion, however, he has paid the penalty for his own shortcomings.

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