The yellow confetti had only just descended on the field in Gdansk and the celebration of Villarreal when the investigation into the defeat of Manchester United began.
A penalty shootout was all that separated them from glory in the Europa League final, but United – and their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – are all too familiar with the fine margins that define success and failure in football.
A fourth season without a trophy means the club is stuck in its worst dire period since Sir Alex Ferguson’s turbulent early years at Old Trafford.
For Solskjaer, what could have been a summer of quiet gratification will now involve a considerable amount of soul exploration.
The Norwegian and his employers have questions to answer and problems to solve if United wants to make the improvements needed to become winners again.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has some problems at Manchester United this summer
Solskjaer wants up to four new players to close the gap at Manchester City and keep up with other rivals such as Liverpool and Chelsea, who are expected to be stronger again in the Premier League next season.
United are looking for a forward to play from the right, and Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho is at the top of their goals list for the second straight summer.
They also want a forward, but signing Sancho would mean there probably isn’t enough money left to compete for his clubmate Erling Haaland or Tottenham’s Harry Kane – assuming either could be persuaded to move to Old Trafford – after already pledging £ 15 million on Edinson Cavani’s salary for another year.
Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho is one of the club’s top right-wing transfer goals
Solskjaer is in the market for a left mid-back and United have been known to covet Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane and Pau Torres, a key member of the victorious Villarreal side.
A defensive midfielder is also on the list, but United knows West Ham will demand a huge fee to part with Declan Rice.
Diogo Dalot, Andreas Pereira, Axel Tuanzebe, Brandon Williams and Donny van de Beek could be sold to generate more transfer funds.
Problems have surrounded Paul Pogba almost from the moment he returned from Juventus to Old Trafford in a then-world record deal of £ 89 million in 2016.
The move didn’t work out as everyone had hoped, and Pogba and his agent Mino Raiola have made no secret of his wanting to leave a second time.
United has resisted so far, but next month marks the beginning of a crucial phase in the saga as Pogba enters the final year of his contract.
United must decide whether to cash in this summer, try to persuade the Frenchman to sign a new deal, or keep him for the last year knowing that he will leave for nothing at the end of next season.
The future of Paul Pogba has caused uncertainty to hang over the club earlier and perhaps again
Having so much uncertainty about such a key figure is in no one’s interest, so it is imperative that the problem be resolved this summer.
However, finding a buyer who could return United a significant chunk of their money and meet Pogba’s wage demands dramatically narrows the field.
In theory, United already has a replacement in their team in Van de Beek. But the Dutchman’s regrettable first season at Old Trafford was summed up by the fact that he was not one of 16 players Solskjaer used in Wednesday’s final.
DE GEA A STAY?
David de Gea will go down like the trap in Gdansk for his failure to save or convert from the penalty spot, but United already had problems with the Spanish goalkeeper.
After losing his number 1 spot to Dean Henderson, De Gea did enough towards the end of the season to secure a starting spot on Wednesday after Henderson failed to take full advantage of his opportunity.
But it is inconceivable that De Gea could spend next season on the bench if he is the club’s biggest earner at £ 375,000 a week.
David de Gea had a night to forget on Wednesday, but he can’t sit on the couch for the next semester
United should move De Gea up or down and consider letting the ambitious Henderson leave.
They plan to sign Tom Heaton on a free transfer from Aston Villa, mainly as a replacement for third-choice goalkeeper Lee Grant.
But Heaton, a fixture in the England squad until recently, could easily become number 2 if De Gea or Henderson go. Regardless, it’s a big call.
Solskjaer defied the critics who said he was just keeping the manager’s chair warm, but he knows how quickly things can change.
The defeat to Villarreal has changed the season. Progress has been made towards second place behind City and reaching the Europa League final, but Solskjaer admitted that another trophy-less campaign cannot be considered a success.
Now more questions will be asked. Wednesday night specifically: Could he have been smarter with his tactics and substitutions, including replacing De Gea for the shootout? Unai Emery seemed to make better use of his team.
Solskjaer will need concrete evidence in the form of trophies next season to fully convince
More generally, is he the man who will help United move forward in the long run?
Much of Solskjaer’s tenure has been defined in holistic, cultural terms. But at United, can he have the impact that Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp or, more recently, Thomas Tuchel have made on their clubs?
There is no doubt about Solskjaer’s future, but doubts will grow unless there is more tangible evidence that he is moving in the right direction.