Analysis: Villarreal 11 Manchester United 10

How United lost the Europa League final penalty shoot-out

What a way to win, and lose, a final. After 21 consecutive converted penalties, Villarreal won the Europa League when Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea saw his penalty, struck right-footed, GK-Independent, to his non-natural side, saved by Geronimo Rulli.

Photo: Maja Hitij / Getty Images

Rather than analysing the shoot-out kick-by-kick, as I did when Barcelona beat Real Sociedad earlier this season, I want to look at a few key elements that emerged from this fascinating shoot-out. (Please note: this is not intended as a critical piece – but for coaches, players, and fans to increase their knowledge and enjoyment of future shoot-outs.)

First of all, here’s the shoot-out in all its glory:

There were two big decisions made before the first penalty-kick was struck that might have proved decisive. I should preface this with the fact we often view shoot-outs in a rear-view mirror, but when I work with clubs on planning strategies and scenarios, we envisage every potential outcome and maximise every opportunity to gain an advantage. So, although this seems ‘easy to say after the event’, it’s also exactly the same things I would have said before the event.

The first happened while the game was in play: as United coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made his late substitutions, I wondered if he might send on Dean Henderson as a goalkeeper switch.

The reason for this was not David de Gea’s penalty-taking ability, which ultimately cost United, but his record at saving penalties. And I use the word ‘record’ in the most generous sense of the word, because going into this final, since April 2016, United’s goalkeeper, whose struggles with Spain and United are detailed in Dermot Corrigan’s excellent piece, had failed to save any of his previous 25 penalties.

I also looked at De Gea’s penalty shoot-out record. He played in three shoot-outs before this final:

July 2018, World Cup, Round of 16: Spain lost 4-3 to Russia. Russia scored all of their four penalties.

October 2015, League Cup fourth round: United lost 3-1 to Middlebsrough. De Gea made no saves, though David Nugent missed the target for Boro. United missed three of their four penalties.

February 2014, League Cup semi-final: United lost 2-1 to Sunderland. De Gea saved two penalties, from Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson, but United missed four.

Three shoot-outs, and three defeats. What’s going on here? I am not a goalkeeping specialist so in this instance I bow to goalkeeping analyst John Harrison, who has pinpointed De Gea’s penalty issue before. He says that De Gea makes a ‘negative step’ just before the penalty, which moves his feet further from, rather than closer to, the corner where he wants to dive.

De Gea was jumping around, active on his line, before the first few penalties, but then was much more static after penalty three. It was as though he had decided that tactic was not working. He dived the right way four times out of 11 penalties, against Paco Alcacer (pen 3), Alberto Moreno (pen 4), Dani Parejo (pen 5, with a dive was so late there were shades of Peter Shilton) and Rulli (pen 11). The first three players have all been Spain team-mates of his - perhaps he had an insight into their preferences, but he was not able to make it count. His effort to make Pau Torres (pen 10) wait on the spot with the ball for an extra five seconds didn’t work either. So, would Henderson have done any better?

Of course, we don’t know. But his penalty record might suggest so: Henderson has kept out 8/19 penalties, a saving record of 42 per cent. And according to Harrison, his technique is more suited to stopping penalties.

Solskjaer admitted after the game that he had considered subbing in Henderson:

“You go through every scenario, of course. It had crossed my mind in the build-up to the game but we were confident in David and we had prepared. But in a shoot-out, anything can happen. I stuck with the keeper who played all the game.”

In Solskjaer’s defence, the subs that he did make – particularly Juan Mata and Alex Telles, kicking 1 and 2 – all scored their pens. He made four subs in the last three minutes of extra-time, but he still had one sub available to make. So he could have switched the keepers! Last week, Esperance of Tunisia showed subbing on a goalkeeper could work: Farouk Ben Mustapha saved two penalties to win the African Champions League quarter-final shoot-out against Chabab Belouizdad.

And then we come to the second moment of the night that might haunt United fans. The coin toss. It looked like Bruno Fernandes won the toss to decide who should kick first and he and chose to let Villarreal kick first. This Onda Cero match report says the same.

I mean really, I do not expect everyone to have read Twelve Yards or subscribe to this newsletter, but for captains of high-profile teams to STILL not be told by the analytics or coaching staff that that teams can improve their penalty chances to up to 60 per cent by kicking first... I guess I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.

The reason behind this difference is that as the shoot-out continues, the chances of each penalty being converted change depending on if the player is kicking to win, or to avoid defeat. In one analysis, the success rate to stop a team from losing the shoot-out drops to 62 per cent, while the rate to win the shoot-out rises to 92 per cent. This is why FIFA brought in the ABBA penalty trial (which they have disbanded, even though the results were 50-50 success for teams kicking first and second).  

And yes, you could reasonably argue that for the first ten United players, kicking second did not affect their performance. And fair play to those six United players who scored when kicking to avoid defeat. But in terms of improving your chances of success, Bruno’s decision was surely the wrong call.

PEN PALS:

  • We need to talk about Marcus Rashford. He didn’t have the best of games, he looks injured but WHAT a penalty he took. A player who has clearly learned from Gareth Southgate and Twelve Yards: Rashford waited over seven seconds after the referee’s whistle to start his run-up, which took almost as long. As my pal Professor Geir Jordet, author of this paper on Temporal Links to Performing Under Pressure put it: “Composed, in control and crushes every response-time record from past research.”