Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been justified so far in hanging his hat on the partnership of Fred and Scott McTominay in midfield. The duo paired up effectively in Manchester United’s seismic Champions League victories away at Paris Saint-Germain under the Norwegian and have solidified the side at key points over the past two Premier League seasons.
They are nailed-on starters against Villarreal, though some would rather see a more aggressive team selection from Solskjaer in midfield, in the shape of Paul Pogba. Yet the Frenchman is likely to start out wide, meaning there’s only room for one of Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood on the other flank, to accommodate ‘McFred’ centrally.
A potential issue with that is how United looked far more dangerous in their recent 4-2 defeat to Liverpool when both Rashford and Greenwood were on the pitch. Fred and McTominay were overrun that day and it didn’t bode well for their next big game… this final.
The pair are valued for their energy, industry and ability to protect their back four. So they must start the game quickly and prevent Villarreal gaining ground through midfield, giving the rookie Axel Tuanzebe — likely to start at centre-back — some early security.
At the same time, they must play progressively enough to link the defence and attack. There’s plenty of pressure on them.
The formbook ought to give the United boss only one answer. Rashford has scored just once in his previous nine appearances, while Greenwood has hit a real purple patch lately, scoring 8 in 13 but also looking generally far more dangerous.
It also goes without saying that Greenwood is the far more natural pick on the right flank, not only for his ability to cut inside and shoot with that lethal left foot, but also because it allows Pogba to play in his more suited role on the left. Pogba was so effective in previous Europa League knockout ties against AC Milan and Roma in that position; United’s attack looks to have better balance this way, with Bruno Fernandes and Edinson Cavani completing the front four.
The Rashford or Greenwood dilemma is the only genuine debate really for Solskjaer when picking his team in Gdansk tonight. Don’t be surprised if he picks the more senior man, a long-time favourite of his, and ignores the formbook.
The Emery factor
Unai Emery may have been something of a joke figure during his time in charge of Arsenal in the Premier League, but he’s far from that when it comes to the Europa League.
In any case, Mikel Arteta and the current Gunners iteration are showing that getting Arsenal back into the elite of English football is a harder task than Arsene Wenger made it appear. That Emery got them into the Europa League final — albeit losing to Chelsea — was a feat in itself.
But when it comes to managing Spanish sides in the latter stages of the competition, nobody has a record quite like Emery’s. He won the competition in three successive years with Sevilla — an achievement that has never been matched.
His experience and nous of how to navigate these games clearly outstrips Solskjaer’s, so Villarreal understandably feel they have the edge in the dugout battle. Tactically, Solskjaer must be at his best.
Wildcard involvements from the bench
Besides one of Greenwood or Rashford, it would appear that Solskjaer doesn’t have too many other options he can introduce to make a telling impact off the bench.
The United boss, however, should need no reminding how important substitutions can be in turning European finals on their head. Tonight’s game in Gdansk comes exactly 22 years to the day since Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham transformed the fortunes of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side against Bayern Munich in Barcelona.
And while only a sentimentalist would get caught up with the May 26th date and the history surrounding Solskjaer, the Norwegian should recognise the value a wildcard sub could have if United need a late boost tonight.
Amad and Anthony Elanga haven’t travelled with the United squad just to make up the numbers. Their performances against Wolves at the weekend may have persuaded Solskjaer to use them if needed against Villarreal. United are allowed to name a matchday squad of 23, meaning 12 possible substitutions. It would be a crying shame if they didn’t explore every possible avenue to victory.
The transfer backdrop
Whether or not actually winning the Europa League trophy will strengthen Solskjaer’s negotiating position with the United board when deciding their summer’s budget seems a moot point.
Although one argument says another year without silverware would emphasise the need to invest, the flip side is the credit Solskjaer would get for lifting the cup.
Either way, the Glazers cannot use winning the trophy as a tool to pacify United’s fanbase and the programme of investment must continue apace. But if United’s possible weak points in central defence (without Maguire) and defensive midfield are exposed in a defeat, the club must act decisively in the summer window that follows.
Other potential transfer themes to emerge from the game may include Pau Torres auditioning for a possible move to United — despite his claim that he’s happy at Villarreal — while the final could even prove a shop window for Pogba to finally secure that lucrative move to Real Madrid or Juventus.
There is no shortage of subplots going into what ought to be a fascinating final.