Manchester United have little time to dwell on a third semi-final defeat of a 13-month season after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted they let Sevilla “off the hook” to miss out on Friday’s Europa League final.
Solskjaer was desperate for a trophy, United’s first since 2017, as tangible reward for the improvement the Red Devils have made in 2020 and to cement his status as the man to lead the club forward.
A 2-1 defeat in the heat of Cologne on Sunday night was just United’s second in 25 games, a run which has at least ensured a return to the Champions League next season.
The much-needed income that will bring, even for a commercial behemoth like United, is especially welcome given the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and will help as Solskjaer aims to build a squad capable of taking the Premier League title fight to Liverpool and Manchester City next season.
United’s progress and problems were on show in equal measure in their 59th game of the season.
Bruno Fernandes continued his perfect record from the penalty spot since his January signing turned United’s season around to give the English side an early lead.
Even after Suso levelled for Europa League specialists Sevilla, United should have been out of sight early in the second half as Bono denied Anthony Martial three times in one-on-ones, while Fernandes and Marcus Rashford also saw chances come and go.
When Sevilla knocked United out of the Champions League two years ago in a tie that signalled the beginning of the end for Jose Mourinho’s reign at Old Trafford, it was David de Gea who was the busier goalkeeper.
That Bono was Sevilla’s hero with eight saves shows that on another night United would have won comfortably.
But after the Spaniards struggled to get out their own half in the first 10 minutes of the second half, Julen Lopetegui turned to his bench to change the game.
Luuk de Jong and Munir El Haddadi offered more physicality and pace as an out ball to release the pressure and De Jong ghosted in behind Victor Lindelof to net the winner 12 minutes from time, provoking Fernandes to point the finger at the Swedish defender on the pitch.
Despite the energy-sapping conditions, a long season and the need for a goal, Solskjaer did not make his first change until three minutes from time.
The Norwegian admitted afterwards United “need to strengthen the squad depth” ahead of what will be an unprecedented season with four competitions plus internationals crammed into an eight-month schedule.
United will be back in pre-season training in two weeks and could begin their Premier League campaign in less than a month.
“I cannot say when or if transfers are going to be done, but we are looking at it. It is a quick turnaround. We just have to be 100 per cent sure when we do those deals,” added Solskjaer.
Initial talks over the signing of Jadon Sancho have stalled with Borussia Dortmund insisting the England international will remain in Germany next season after United failed to match their reported asking price of 120 million euros.
Lindelof’s error highlighted the need for a more reliable centre-back partner for Harry Maguire, while Solskjaer seems to have little faith in Dan James, Juan Mata or Odion Ighalo to deputise for Rashford, Martial or wonder kid Mason Greenwood.
“We know what it means to play for this club: losing isn’t acceptable. Getting to semi-finals isn’t acceptable. We’ve got to now really concentrate on taking it further, taking another step,” said Maguire, who cost a world record £80 million for a defender a year ago.
United have not been shy in spending money in recent years, but have not always done so wisely.
Smart and speedy recruitment is now needed to ensure a promising few months does not fizzle out into another false dawn in the club’s decline since Alex Ferguson retired as manager in 2013.