This, as José Mourinho might drily observe, is football heritage.
To lose one semi-final might be considered unfortunate. To lose two a coincidence. But in United’s third unsuccessful attempt to grease their season with silverware could be identified a clear pattern running through the club. It is not a problem that can be solved by signing Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish. Rather, it is something more systemic and deep-rooted, a malaise that took years to set in and may well take years to cure.
It is the lack of anything remotely resembling a process, a plan, a blueprint: something that sustains you through the tough parts, that gets you over setbacks. Here, against the wily Sevilla, it manifested itself most clearly in the lack of composure, an inability to concentrate for the full 90 minutes, on the inability to find solutions on the pitch, on Solskjær’s unshakeable faith in his starting XI, to the point that he resisted a substitution until the 87th minute, despite his side’s increasing fatigue.
Marcus Rashford had a poor game after winning an early penalty. Bruno Fernandes faded from view after converting it. The full-backs Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Brandon Williams looked increasingly adrift as the game went on. And perhaps tellingly, it was a loss of possession high up the pitch by an exhausted Mason Greenwood that led to the move from which Sevilla scored their winning goal: the final act of a team that, in more ways than one, had run itself into the ground.
Of course, United have a loose philosophy and style of play, based largely on their electric front five with its multiple options for cutting you to pieces. But insofar as they possess a strategy, it seems to consist largely of letting their gifted individuals do their thing, and entrusting the rest to timing and self-expression, good feelings and blind faith. Here again, as in their other losing semi-finals, against Chelsea in the FA Cup and Manchester City in the League Cup, Solskjær and United discovered that momentum is not a tactic.
The temptation will naturally be to curse their luck, to lament the string of missed chances that might have put them out of sight at the start of the second half, to praise the Sevilla keeper Yassine Bounou and file this away as a simple failure of shooting. Yet for United the alarming part of this game was not the failure to take advantage of their dominance but the ease with which they surrendered it after about the 55th minute: running out of legs and running out of ideas.
The early auguries, it had to be said, were very good. As they would later do at the start of the second half, United began at a fair lick, moving the ball briskly and following it in with numbers. It brought their deserved early goal: Rashford skilfully drawing the foul from Diego Carlos, Fernandes even having time to execute a ballet sauté while running to take his exemplary penalty. On the touchline Solskjær applauded regally, as if from a box at the Bolshoi.
The big question, as ever, is what would happen when Sevilla breached United’s crude first press. We would not have long to wait. Orchestrated by the imperious if increasingly immobile Éver Banega, and with the full-backs Sergio Reguilón and Jesús Navas pushing heroically high up the pitch, Sevilla were able to work the ball into the United final third with relative ease. And above all, you got the sense that Sevilla – five-times winners of this competition – simply expected to equalise, that United’s early goal had simply been a kink in the space-time fabric that would shake itself out soon enough.
This was perhaps the biggest difference between the two sides. United were a better team, but a softer team, too. The equaliser was almost inexcusably slack: Sevilla working the ball up the pitch while most of the United team were still protesting against the award of a throw-in. And as United flung themselves forward early in the second half, Sevilla deftly managed to regain control of the game with tactical fouls and gamesmanship. As Luuk de Jong stole in to win the game late on, Victor Lindelöf and Fernandes angrily squared up to each other in the United defence: each trying to shirk the blame for a collapse that had been collectively mismanaged.
And so United’s season draws to a close: one that has seen clear progress, a third-place finish in the Premier League, a stirring end to the season, the return of the swagger and bluster that characterised this club’s greatest eras. But what we still don’t know is whether this side is capable of learning. Whether Solskjær as a coach is capable of growth.
What will he take from these semi-final defeats? Will he reflect on the brittle mentality and tactical shortcomings that have left them empty-handed this season, and emerge a better coach as a result?
Or will he simply plough on regardless, making vaguely positive noises about youth and attacking football? Twenty months into his eclectic reign, we still don’t really know the answer.