Connect with us

Tactics & Analysis

United in Danger of Bilbao’ing Out of Europa League

Manchester United welcomed Athletic Bilbao to Old Trafford for the first-leg in the Round of 16 in the Europa League. Manchester United advanced to this game by beating Ajax in the last round, while Athletic Bilbao overcame Locomotiv Moscow. This is the first meeting between these two teams in Europe since the quarter-finals to the European Cup in 1957. Manchester United are currently sitting 2 points behind Manchester City in the Premier League while Athletic Bilbao is doing much better than expected this year in La Liga, currently sitting in 5th. They have been playing very strong in La Liga this year, and look in good position to earn a Champion’s League spot next year if they can continue their latest form.

Starting Lineups:

Manchester United

Sir Alex Ferguson decided on a much stronger team then he did in the home fixture against Ajax, which United lost 3-1 and Sir Alex Ferguson said that he had played too many young defenders in that game. So he decided to go with more experience in this game, especially in defense but he also played most of his first choice attacking corps.

Sir Alex Ferguson decided to play in a 4-4-1-1 that has become their standard formation this year, with a striker up front, with Wayne Rooney playing behind them. Rooney tracks back to make considerable contributions on defense, but he also goes back to link up the play from the midfield to the striker up front.

With Anders Lindegaard still out injured, David De Gea got the start in the goal. There were some changes over the game against Tottenham on Sunday, including starting Rafael at right back. Rio Ferdinand was rested, so Chris Smalling returned from his injury that he sustained while playing for the England team against Holland just over a week ago. Helping at center-back was Jonny Evans, with Patrice Evra starting at left-back and also wearing the captain’s armband.

The biggest changes were in midfield, where Phil Jones and Ryan Giggs played as the central midfielders. Phil Jones did extremely well early on in the season in midfield, but it’s been a few months since he last played this position. On the left wing was Ashley Young, who scored a brace against Tottenham on Sunday. On the right wing, Sir Alex Ferguson decided to rest Nani and give Park Ji-Sung a start to help Rafael deal with a very attacking Athletic Bilbao side.

Athletic Bilbao

Athletic Bilbao’s coach, the Argentine Marcelo Bielsa, went with his strongest team in hopes of at least coming away from Old Trafford with a draw. The manager who is known as Loco Bielsa has transformed Bilbao since he took over the club in 2011. Since his arrival, he’s turned Fernando Llorente from a target man, in the vein of Andy Carroll, into a goal scoring machine who is as deadly with his feet as he is with his head. Athletic Bilbao’s preferred system this year has been a very attacking 4-3-3, and he stuck with it for this game.

Gorka Iraizoz started in goal for the Basque team, with Jon Aurtenetxe at left-back. The center-back pair was Mikel San Jose and the much watched and highly coveted Javi Martinez. At right-back, Marcelo Bielsa went with Andoni Iraola. In the 3 man midfield, Athletic Bilbao went with a pair of more defensive midfielders in Ander Herrera and Ander Iturraspe, with an attack oriented Oscar De Marcos in the middle. The line upfront is led by the 195cm tall striker, Fernando Llorente with 19-year old Iker Muniain on the left wing and playing on the right wing is Markel Susaeta.

First Half

The game didn’t start well for United as Athletic Bilbao came right out at the whistle playing a very aggressive defense, in which they were pressing the United center-backs when they got on the ball. This made controlling possession extremely difficult for United, and they often lost control of the ball before barely getting it onto Bilbao’s side of the pitch. The lions definitely lived up to their name as they were furious on defense, and fearless on the attack. They came out very sharp, putting well placed passes all over the pitch, and harassing United with superb movement off the ball.

Athletic Bilbao’s high tempo made it hard for United to defend, as Athletic Bilbao wasn’t afraid to bring players forward in the attack. Even their ‘defensive’ holding midfielders would come forward on the attack, with Javi Martinez coming into the midfield from his position in the back four. This left United having to defend against a quick team, who brought up to 6 players into the box on the attack. Athletic Bilbao’s front 6 is also extremely fluid, making frequent runs and moving without the ball to make it hard for United to mark them. To assist in the attacks, both of the Bilbao fullbacks were aggressive in supporting the attack, often playing up into the midfield area when the midfielders were charging forward.

United had several problems during the game, one problem that United’s back four would have all game was dealing with the size and strength of Fernando Llorente. This was shown early on, when in the 4th minute, Llorente was able to receive the ball in the box with Chris Smalling marking him tightly, and he was still able to turn and take a shot that went less than a meter wide of the net.

As for United, Phil Jones played as the deep holding midfielder while Ryan Giggs tried to play more forward. It wasn’t unusual to see Ashley Young cut in from the left side while Giggs would drift out to the edge. Wayne Rooney didn’t have the best first-half, as his passing wasn’t as sharp as we’ve come to expect from him this year. An early example of this was in the 28th minute, when Rooney misplayed an easy pass to a charging Rafael who was moving to splitting between Aurtenetxe and San Jose with a clear run at the keeper. Unfortunately, Rooney’s misplaced pass found Jon Aurtenetxe instead and they were able to make a quick counter-attack. With Rafael caught out of position, and slow to get back, Aurtenetxe was able to take the ball down United’s right side and played a cross into the box. David De Gea saw the cross, and stepped forward to intercept it before Llorente was able to head home an easy goal.

United were lucky to score first in this game. The goal started when Athletic gave away a silly free kick. A pass to Ryan Giggs off the free kick, he passed it up to Chicharito who had his back turned about 25 meters from the goal. Hernandez flicked the ball into Giggs’ path as he ran into the area. Once in the penalty area, Ryan Giggs played a pass right onto Hernandez’s feet and he took a shot that Iraizoz managed to get a palm on, but the deflection fell right to Wayne Rooney who was able to slot home an easy goal. While this goal was definitely against the run of play, United were happy to get it and hoped that they would be able to defend better and get more chances on the counter-attack.

Even after the goal, Athletic continued to control possession and cause problems for United’s defense with the strength and pace of their attack. Athletic players had several chances in the first half when they would play a ball over the United defenders to Susaeta or Muniain. On the 33rd minute, Herrera played a beautiful pass overtop of Evans to Susaeta, who was able to gather the ball up and tried to chip it over David De Gea. Luckily for De Gea, who was off his line, the ball went just left of the goal.

In the 44th minute, Athletic were finally able to tie the game. Muniain started the play on the left side, running the ball towards the penalty area without any United player providing a challenge until Phil Jones confronts him on the edge of the area. Muniain passes the ball to the top of the area, for Fernando Llorente. Llorente is well marked by Chris Smalling, and Smalling is able to force Llorente away from the net. He plays a pass out wide to Athletic right-back Iraola, who is so far forward that he receives the ball within 20 meters of the net. He moves the ball down the right side towards the byline for Markel Susaeta. Evra was caught slightly out of position, and Susaeta was able to cross the ball before Evra could get over to challenge him. Fernando Llorente was able to easily lose the man marking him, Phil Jones, and headed home the ball.

Susaeta’s cross for Llorente’s goal:

This goal was a prime example of what plagued United for the first 60 minutes of the game. With United allowing the Athletic midfielders plenty of time on the ball, they were able to bring people forward. In Llorente’s goal, by the time Susaeta kicked the cross in, there were 7 United outfield players in the box and Athletic had 6. With Athletic able to bring this many people forward, United was going to have problems defending. With Athletic playing the balls to Muniain and Susaeta overtop the back four of United, they ended up having to defend deeper. United ran into the problem that when they defended deeper, Athletic’s midfield had more time on the ball and this allowed them to bring more men forward. One of the most potent players going forward for Athletic had to be Oscar De Marcos. He would surge forward from the midfield and caused problems in the area for United’s defenders.

At the end of the first half, United should have considered themselves lucky to go into the locker room tied at 1-1. United managed 4 shots during the first half, with 3 of them on target, while Athletic Bilbao took 7 shots, but they only got 3 of them on targets. Athletic controlled possession during the first half, and were extremely sharp in their touches, passes and movements, but their finishing let them down.

Second Half

Coming out from halftime, Athletic Bilbao continued the play they had established in the first half. They continued to overrun United’s midfield with Phil Jones having problems all game.

In the 55th minute, Chris Smalling opened up his head wound again and was bleeding heavily. He was subbed off for Michael Carrick, who the manager had intended to give the game off. With Smalling going off, Phil Jones was moved back to center-back with Jonny Evans while Michael Carrick played as the holding midfielder. Once Michael Carrick came in, he provided some steel into United’s midfield that they’d been missing all game. Giggs and Carrick did better in the midfield when United had the ball, and Carrick did better defensively then Jones had done.

Coming up to the hour mark, Athletic’s pressing and pace started to slow down as they started to look tired. This gave United’s midfield more time on the ball, and this improved United’s offensive play. While Phil Jones wasn’t really effective with the ball in the midfield, Michael Carrick was steady. He helped United control more possession, and move the ball forward.

In the 61st minute, Sir Alex Ferguson subbed Anderson on for Park Ji-Sung. There were some unusual player movements after this substitution, as Wayne Rooney was played on the left-wing. Ashley Young was moved to right-winger, Anderson moved into the midfield with Michael Carrick, and Ryan Giggs played up front with Chicharito.

Park Ji-Sung was fairly ineffective during the game. He was completely missing from United’s attack, but he was equally missing defensively. He is mostly played for his defense, and he played narrow on the right-wing today. But he had no effect on stopping the play of Muniain and De Marcos in the Athletic midfield. They had plenty of time on the ball, with Park playing deep. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to provide much help to Rafael either as he struggled all game.

With Jones at center-back, United continued to struggle. In the 68th minute, Muniain plays a one-two with Herrera and continues his run towards the net. Muniain takes the ball into the area where Jones makes a weak tackle attempt on him, which Muniain is easily able to shrug off. Only a superb save by De Gea prevents the goal.

By this point in the game, the frustration for David De Gea could be seen. He made numerous quality saves in the second half, and he could be seen after each yelling at his defenders. While the media has called him shaky this season, I’d have to say that he was United’s rock today and I would apply the shaky title more to the back four.

In the 72nd minute, Athletic got their second goal. Iker Muniain played an easy forward pass to Herrera, who had no pressure on him was able to chip the ball over Jones to De Marcos. De Marcos took a volley, and was able to slot it De Gea. On the replay, it appeared that De Marcos was offsides on the play but the German referee, Florian Meyer, didn’t call it.

Now down 2-1 at home, on the 75th minute Sir Alex Ferguson brought on Nani for Ryan Giggs. With Ryan Giggs coming out, Ashley Young was moved to left-wing and Nani was put at right-wing. Wayne Rooney was able to return to his usual position, just behind the front striker.

With these substitutions, United started to provide more pressure on Athletic’s midfield. With Athletic also getting tired, Carrick got more time on the ball but Anderson didn’t make much impact in the game. With Ryan Giggs out of the game, United found it harder to get the ball forward as Rooney had to come deeper into the midfield to gather the ball from Carrick.

While Athletic had a 1 goal lead, they kept pressing the attack. In the 81st minute, Athletic made a straight swap of Fernando Llorente out for Gaizka Toquero. They kept pressing the attack, and had a good chance in the 83rd minute. The attack again started on the left side, with Iker Muniain who pressed the ball straight at United’s center-backs, before passing wide to Toquero whose shot was easily deflected by De Gea.

Coming to the end of the game, Athletic made their final swap on the 84th minute with Inigo Perez coming on for Herrera. But even in the 89th minute, Athletic kept pressing the attack. An Athletic free kick went up their right wing, and both Jones and Evans were covering Toquero. Evans headed the ball back into the middle of the pitch, but De Marco got to it before Anderson. He tried a shot into the far corner, but De Gea stretched to make a great deflection. The ball bounced back in front of the net, but Rafael stood by and watched as Iker Muniain ran in and slotted home the rebound.

Before the game could end, 2 minutes into stoppage time, the referee gave a penalty to Manchester United for De Marcos’ hand ball inside Athletic’s penalty area. Wayne Rooney stepped up and pulled United back within 1 when the full-time whistle blew.

Key Matchup:

Iker Muniain (Left Winger/Athletic Bilbao) vs. Rafael (Right-Back/Manchester United)

Rafael struggled all game with defending Iker Muniain. During the entire game, Rafael was getting caught out by long balls played over his head. In addition, Rafael was reckless in some of his forward runs which left space which Muniain used repeatedly to setup Athletic’s attacks. Rafael had even more problems in the second half, as he was completely ineffective defending Muniain. This was especially evident for the third goal, when he watched De Gea make a great save but he hardly moved towards the ball and Muniain ran past him to slot home the third goal.

Muniain was definitely the most effective player on the pitch. He seemed to be everywhere, as he moved around the penalty area and had several good chances. He was composed with the ball, and made smart passes that caused United’s defense a lot of problems. His pace and movements made it hard for Rafael to mark him, and when he’d get in the penalty area he’d cause problems for the center-backs. He was the key to Athletic’s attacks in the second half.


Manchester United didn’t have a good game. They struggled all game to deal with the speed of Athletic’s attack. Their midfield was given time on the ball, without United pressuring them. This gave Athletic a majority of possession, and they were also able to bring players forward. It wasn’t uncommon to see Javi Martinez move forward into the midfield, while both of Athletic’s fullbacks would come forward. In addition, Oscar De Marcos made damaging runs into the box.
Now, Athletic’s aggression going forward should have given United some counter-attacking opportunities. United were able to take advantage of a few of these, but the weakness of United’s midfield and Athletic’s defensive pressure made it hard for United to move the ball forward. The pressure eased up after the hour mark, when Athletic was starting to tire but when Giggs was subbed off, that left United with nobody to link their back four with the attack. Anderson just wasn’t up to the job.

United’s back four had a dreadful day, especially the full-backs. Phil Jones had an awful day in the midfield, unable to contribute on either end of play. There were none of his usual swashbuckling forward runs in this game, but more importantly his defensive play was poor. His marking was poor, as shown by how easily Fernando Llorente was able to lose him for Athletic’s first goal. This was a game in which United’s back four desperately needed cover from the midfield, but Jones just didn’t provide it in this game.

This game left United with a real problem for next week. Going away down 3-2 leaves United with a mountain to climb. The ease with which Athletic was able to control possession and disrupt United’s midfield is alarming, especially considering the strength of the team that Sir Alex Ferguson decided to play today. United’s defense and midfield will need to play much better next week if the Red Devils are to have any hope of fighting back.

By Joe_Hammer (@RangeRooney)