As Manchester United piled more and more second-half pressure onto a flagging Villarreal defence, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would have loved to have introduced some fresh legs from his subs bench.
His opposite number Unai Emery was able to make five changes during normal time, ensuring his solid and well-organised team was refreshed and held firm.
But when Solskjaer looked behind him at the United dug-out, he clearly saw nobody capable of dragging his team over the line to glory.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer cut a distraught figure as Man United came up short in the final
Paul Pogba tried to console a visibly heartbroken Bruno Fernandes after the final whistle
It wasn’t until the 100th minute – 10 into extra time – that he finally moved to replace Mason Greenwood with Fred. The other four changes the United manager made were to introduce suitable penalty takers as the inevitable loomed.
In United’s 61st match of an exhausting season, the fact Solskjaer completely lacked game-changing options from his substitutes was a damning indictment of the lack of depth in his squad.
It also doesn’t say much about those named on the bench in the Gdansk final that despite several starters running on fumes towards the end, Solskjaer still didn’t feel he could make changes.
Solskjaer didn’t feel able to turn to his bench for fresh options as United chased the victory
It wasn’t until the 100th minute Solskjaer made a sub, with Fred replacing Mason Greenwood
Or, in the opinion of Sky Sports pundit Paul Merson, Solskjaer was actually afraid of upsetting under-performing stars like striker Marcus Rashford by hooking them and was ultimately left ’embarrassed’.
‘Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got embarrassed really,’ Merson said. ‘Villarreal made the five substitutions and it was really clever from Unai Emery.
‘They had the fresher legs in extra time and they didn’t really look like losing. They looked the better team and Solskjaer just didn’t react. He just didn’t change it up and they paid the price in the end.
‘It just all seems too friendly to me. It seems like he didn’t want to upset anyone.
‘Marcus Rashford just had one of those games. Sooner of later, as a manager, you’ve got to realise it is just one of those games for him and that it just wasn’t happening.
United’s manager didn’t take off the underperforming Marcus Rashford during the final
Pundit Paul Merson believes Solskjaer ‘didn’t want to upset’ Rashford by subbing him off
‘Everything he tried just didn’t come off. I can’t remember him doing anything in the game that was any good.
‘Looking on, it looks like Solskjaer didn’t want to bring him off in case it upset him.’
Nobody understands the importance of a super sub more than Solskjaer, who had been summoned from the bench on that memorable night in Barcelona 22 years earlier to decide the Champions League final and win the Treble, so the decision-making was certainly strange.
The lack of squad depth will certainly alarm him and it’s something he will surely push the club’s owners to address in the summer transfer window.
We take a closer look at those named on the bench in the final and why Solskjaer didn’t call upon them earlier or at all.
The Brazilian midfielder has been a regular starter all season but Solskjaer left him out of the final to accommodate Paul Pogba in a No 6 role.
The United boss knew that Villarreal would be compact and sit in, allowing United plenty of the ball and so the thinking was Pogba could make better use of it.
That was the correct decision because Fred, for all his application and work rate, does give the ball away an awful lot for a £47million footballer.
Fred still divides opinion among United fans and wasn’t picked to start in Wednesday’s final
It’s pretty remarkable he has started 27 Premier League games this season and the majority of United’s European ones as well.
Though he has shown some signs of improvement this season, the fact United still require a summer signing in his position tells you everything you need to know.
If that signing happens, we can expect to see less of Fred in Solskjaer’s starting line-ups next season.
James was brought on for Pogba with five minutes remaining and made no mistake taking United’s seventh penalty.
The winger may have been disappointed not to get out there a little earlier as a fresh injection of pace could have perhaps pierced the Villarreal rearguard.
But James has become accustomed to warming the bench at United and he has frequently ended games unused.
Daniel James will have hoped for more from this season after playing regularly in 2019-20
It’s definitely been a big regression in game time from 2019-20, when he started 26 Premier League games and featured in 46 games overall.
The 23-year-old will await with interest whether United do bring in a right-sided attacking player such as Jadon Sancho in the summer.
If they do, James might as well seek more regular game time at another club.
Replaced the tiring Eric Bailly at the heart of United’s defence with four minutes of extra time to go and was successful with their ninth spot-kick.
Academy graduate Tuanzebe, 23, did his best to force himself up United’s defensive pecking order with a fine display in the Champions League win over Paris Saint-Germain back in October.
Axel Tuanzebe converted his spot-kick having been brought on with a few minutes remaining
But with Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof so established as the first choices at centre-back, opportunities have proved very elusive despite the draining schedule.
He is fourth choice on the list behind those two and Bailly as it stands but United will look to sign a top quality central defender over the summer, pushing him further down.
It may be that a loan spell or even a move to another Premier League club could be the only route to regular football if that happens.
United paid Porto around £15m for Telles last summer to offer competition for Luke Shaw in the left-back position.
His arrival has had the effect of forcing Shaw to up his game and he has certainly done that, even returning to the England team.
But the consequence of that is that Telles has spent the season becoming well acquainted with various dug-outs of English football.
A dejected Alex Telles, who came on right at the end, following the penalty shoot-out defeat
He has received more opportunities in European competition, however, but was introduced with mere seconds remaining on Wednesday night before sticking away United’s second spot-kick.
Will hope Solskjaer adopts more of a rotation policy with Shaw next season to get out on the pitch a bit more.
The Spaniard, 33, has been a terrific servant to United and has never let them down so this match proved to be a disappointing curtain call.
Mata’s contract expires in the summer and he looks set to depart Old Trafford after eight years with the club.
Was involved from the start in a number of Premier League games at the start of the season but game time has since become a precious commodity.
Despite his advancing years, you’d imagine Mata could still do a job for someone at a pretty high standard for another couple of years.
Late substitute Juan Mata scored his penalty but his potential United farewell was a defeat
DONNY VAN DE BEEK
Named among the substitutes – inevitably – at the conclusion of what must have been a baffling season for the man signed for £35m from Ajax last summer.
At no point of the final was Van de Beek ever likely to come on and replace either Pogba or Scott McTominay in the United midfield.
Just four Premier League starts all season tells its own story with the Dutchman wondering what exactly he needs to do in order to get a decent run in the team.
Donny van de Beek has surely been baffled by the lack of opportunities received this season
Has been accused of allowing the game to pass him by when he is involved but regular football and sharpness go hand in hand.
If United add to their midfield stockpile in the summer and if Pogba agrees a contract extension, you wonder if there’s any point in him hanging around.
Much of that also applies to 32-year-old Matic who was also never likely to be asked to emerge from the bench and run the midfield on Wednesday night.
He has somehow featured in 36 United games this season, which puts him above Van de Beek in Solskjaer’s affections, but behind Pogba and McTominay.
United agreed a three-year contract extension with Matic last summer which means he’s unlikely to be moved on this summer and you do have to question why a then 31-year-old got such a deal
Having said that, he is clearly trusted by Solskjaer to do a tidy job in midfield when called upon, especially off the bench.
Nemanja Matic still has another two years on his United contract and plays fairly regularly
Williams, 20, hasn’t been able to kick on after a breakthrough 2019-20 campaign in which Solskjaer played him frequently on the left side of defence.
A combination of injury struggles and the form of Luke Shaw on the left and Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the right have limited the youngster to just five starts all season.
Barring an injury to one of the full-backs, he was never likely to come on during the final.
Remains a useful back-up player to have in the squad, however, and will hope for a bit more action next season.
Brandon Williams has featured less this season for United after a breakthrough 2019-20
An exciting signing made last summer who arrived from Atalanta in January and announced himself by scoring in the last-16 tie with AC Milan.
Maybe the 18-year-old could have provided the spark United were desperately looking for as their waves of second-half attacks crashed and rolled back.
Had United been trailing for longer in the game, Solskjaer almost certainly would have thrown him on late on looking for the equaliser.
Amad Diallo has started to make an impression at United and has a bright future in prospect
But even during extra time, when the team’s threat had fizzled out, Solskjaer didn’t look to Amad and he was left on his knees praying while watching the shoot-out.
It’s obviously early days for the Ivory Coast international and United fans are excited to see what he can produce next term.
A heart-breaking end to the season for United’s captain and who knows whether his leadership on the field could have inspired United to victory.
Perhaps he would have got a clearing header on Dani Parejo’s delivery that led to Gerard Moreno scoring Villarreal’s opener or at least got closer to him.
Instead, Maguire was reduced to walking up and down the touchline, knowing his ankle injury precluded him from coming on despite being named among the subs.
Harry Maguire was only fit enough to be named among the subs after his ankle injury
The England international has emerged from his spell on the sidelines with his reputation enhanced because United’s defence has looked lost without him.
Will be equally important in United’s renewed push for silverware next season – hopefully with a more reliable central defensive partner alongside him.
There was a lot of talk over whether Henderson should have been brought on to replace David de Gea in the minutes before the penalty shoot-out.
He clearly has the superior penalty-saving record and this was born out when the Spaniard didn’t come close to saving any of Villarreal’s 11 kicks.
That means De Gea has now let in the last 36 penalties he has faced since saving one from Everton’s Romelu Lukaku in April 2016.
Dean Henderson has a superior penalty-saving record to David de Gea but wasn’t introduced
By contrast, Henderson has saved eight of the 17 penalties he has faced in his career to date.
So all the evidence suggests Solskjaer should have been more ruthless and ‘done a Louis Van Gaal at the 2014 World Cup’ by replacing his keepers.
He admitted he did consider the switch but didn’t do it and United paid the price.
It’s another reason why Henderson could easily start next season as United’s No 1.
United’s third choice keeper, 38, was never likely to get on barring an absolutely catastrophic turn of events.
Grant has still only played two games for the club and is often only seen in the expanded subs list of the European competitions.
With 35-year-old Tom Heaton returning to United for next season, Grant could be on his way out.
Sportsmail reported last month that United withdrew the offer of a one-year extension for Grant.
Back-up goalkeeper Lee Grant rips off his runners-up medal after United’s loss to Villarreal