It is inevitable that when a side competes in an unfamiliar tournament, having come across similar opponents previously in the Champion’s League, then that side will come across new teams with different playing styles and sides that fans are unfamiliar with and so are unsure what to make of them when the time comes to compete against them.
After a weekend in which Manchester United struggled against Tottenham but for the brilliant moments provided by Ashley Young, it was hoped among the Old Trafford faithful that their side would produce a more commanding performance on Thursday night, as they came up against Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League. After a tie with Ajax that was far from smooth sailing, the more cautious observer wondered what sort of side they would come up against in Bilbao, a side that had had their struggled in La Liga this season, currently occupying fifth place. United lined up with David De Gea in the goalmouth. In front of him sat a recovered Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans with Patrice Evra and Rafael Da Silva occupying the flanks. The midfield positions were occupied Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-Sung, Phil Jones and Ashley Young, with Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez leading the line as striker partners. Kick off and there was a lively start to proceedings, with the initial exchanges showing up the pace that Bilbao wanted to play the game and quickly set about trying to test the United defence.
Much of Bilbao’s attack channelled through Llorente and Muniain, driving forward and generally keeping the back four alert, initially dealing with various threats rather well. United themselves came forward as well, but one would admit that the Spanish side appeared to have a great grasp on proceedings, their pace of play an unexpected tactic early on.
However, it was United who were to take the lead, as slick passing play through the middle played in Hernandez in the box, who took a touch and tried to place a low shot into the corner, only for his effort to be parried with Rooney there to meet the ball and fire home from close range. 1-0 to the hosts. The game showed no signs of settling as Bilbao set about looking for an equaliser, maintaining the same pace they had started with, with both sides finding themselves with opportunities to attack, with Bilbao perhaps showing greater threat when advancing, with United at times appearing to try to catch their counterparts on the break. With half time looming, Bilbao’s greater possession paid off, as they levelled through Llorente, meeting a cross into the box with a free header. 1-1 and an entertaining first half of football. The second half, and Bilbao showed no signs of slowing, continuing to dominate possession and finding more success in causing problems for the United back four. Chris Smalling came off injured, suffering a bleed having injured his head on international duty. He was replaced by Michael Carrick.
The Spanish side continued to press, with United occasionally making their own way forward, with little success despite the potential in the attacks. Bilbao on the other hand began finding opportunities to test David De Gea, forcing the young goalkeeper into multiple saves to prevent the opposition taking the lead. However, 72 minutes in and he was finally beaten again, as Herrera played in a neat chipped pass to meet De Marcos and finish with a smart volley. There was some argument as to whether or not the goal was offside, but there could be no argument that their lead was deserved. United responded, bringing on Nani in place of Giggs. United began to look more threatening as a result, but with a minute left of normal time, it was Bilbao who would score again, as De Marcos’ low shot was well parried by De Gea, but without a defensive response to clear it, Muniain was there to meet it and extend his side’s lead and produce a 1-3 advantage. There was time for more drama as United won a penalty soon after 90 minutes for handball, which Rooney promptly dispatched, finishing low and sending the ‘keeper the wrong way. 2-3 and United press for the equaliser to no avail and must go to Spain with a difficult deficit to overturn after a night when they were outplayed by their visitors and continued to have difficulties at home in Europe. With that here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Two questionable goals, no questionable result
It should be stated first and foremost, that regardless of any argument that one might present about their goals, there is absolutely no denying that Bilbao were deserving of their victory. All evening they played with a pace that appeared to catch Untied off guard on many occasions. As well as this, the pace at which they played showed no signs of abating until the closing stages of the match, when United sprung into action after going 2 goals down. Although initially, United’s defence adequately dealt with the danger, Bilbao were able to come forward and cause issues throughout, and the second half in particular began to threaten the United goal regularly, finding their way past the back four. Their second goal on the evening could be argued for offside with an interfering player head of the line and the third goal came from an inexplicable awarding of a free kick to Bilbao, apparently based off Evra lacking his boot at the time. Regardless, the result was representative of the control of proceedings the Spanish side had, with 1-3 appearing perfectly acceptable for what had occurred, with United salvaging a little more with the awarding of a late penalty.
2) David De Gea – United’s Saving Grace
It emphasises the state of proceedings on the evening, when one has to once again highlight David De Gea’s contribution to the game. Following up with a string of strong performances, the young Spaniard once again had a hand in preventing United going further behind, appearing to show a little more command for his area and pulling off a string of saves to deny the opposition as well as smartly setting up the occasional counter attack. He was unfortunate with the third goal, producing a good save low down to parry De Marcos’ shot, but was not backed up by a defender to prevent the rebound going in.
3) Hernandez – lively, touch failing him
Of all the attackers in the line up on Thursday night, one could argue it was Hernandez that showed the most promise of providing a goal. Indeed he had a hand in the opener, as he produced a good save low down only for Rooney to meet the rebound. However, throughout the game time and again when the ball arrived at his feet he struggled to keep a hold of it and soon was seen to be giving it away. A frustrating evening for the young Mexican in which his first touch seemed to go missing when presented with the ball, often working his way into good positions with the potential for a goal scoring opportunity, only to take a heavy touch or allow the defence to recover and clear their lines.
4) The midfield could not cope with the pace
From the outset Bilbao played with a pace that one does not often encounter in European competition. They immediately set out to attack and were quick to make their way forward, a tactic that worked well in their favour and was played in a way that allowed them to maintain it for much of the game. It made for entertaining viewing from the neutral perspective, but one could see the midfield was struggling to contain the style of play and so the Spanish side were able to create opportunities for attack often, something that paid off just before half time and during the second half. The introduction of Michael Carrick perhaps added some stability but it was clear the pace of their play was too much at times. It was pleasing to see Anderson get some match time but his rustiness would likely be shown up further in such situations.
5) European Struggles at Old Trafford
Much has been made of United’s struggles at home in European competition this season, with certain results not what some would have expected with certain matches becoming far more difficult than they should have been, culminating in their early demise from the Champion’s League as well as the problems that Ajax and Now Bilbao have caused. Even domestically there have been some strange results, with Blackburn’s victory a notable example. Perhaps it is the slower sense of play that has been tried, the apparent failure to hit top gear in matches recently, a kind of complacent nature in their play when they take the lead. Perhaps as a team in transition it will take time to make Old Trafford more “fortress-like” when sides visit. Regardless of United’s failings at home however, they have simply been representative of their overall failings in Europe, with below-par performances producing unexpected results and an uphill climb to stay in the Europa League. Whatever the opinion, one cannot deny that Bilbao’s quality of play also contributed to the result. The tie is not over by any means, but a significant step up in performance will be required to see them through. Far be it for United to do things the hard way.