Date: 9th March 2012 at 1:40am
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Deserved Winners

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.


25 responses to “Five Things We Learned – Manchester United vs. Athletic Bilbao”

  1. Bob says:

    If the assessment doesn’t start with Fergie clearly being more concerned with the game on Sunday than it simply is flawed.

    By choice Fergie rested Rio, Carrick,Welbeck, Nani and Scholes. He replaced them with players that have not played often and rarely together as a group. Insert a talentedand highly motivated Bilbao team and the result should not be a surprise..

    When Fergie opted to leave Rio on the bench when Smalling was injured it reinforced the above, ie, he is not that interested in this competition..

  2. Jack says:

    i think anyone that knows about la liga will know how good Bilbao can be.

    they had 3 players who would of got into our side before the game and a couple of others made there argument for being as good.

    our midfield is still getting shown up and has needed sorting for a few years.

    Rafael needs to wake up if he wants to keep playing for us.

  3. John Tring says:

    Losing this one is good, actually should have lost the tie against Ajax. Whether by choice or by sheer lack of quality, that’s a debate. Utd can at least continue their feeble but possibly futile title defence. Utd will soon descend into oblivion with Park, Evans, Rafael, Fabio, Evra, Ferdinand and even Hernandez et el still being around beyond May. If Bilbao can do this to you, thank heavens Utd didn’t meet Barca or Real. I don’t mean to be mean but I humbly say SAF should put his hands up and hand over the reins to someone who can have some fresh ideas. Look what has happened to Liverpool for 2 decades and Arsenal for best part of last decade! Clinging onto past glory means nothing.

    • Yunata yuna says:

      Thats very true sir alex shld just go he has proven twice n again he lacks genuine judgement jones is too much of blunders.the kid has no timing same wth raphael

    • Philipk says:

      Past glories.. As in last year?? If you have the capabilities I would urge you not to be such an idiot..

      • John Tring says:

        Yes, you little clueless genius., Arsenal supporters said the same thing the year after they won their last title. How many years ago was that? ‘Pool fellows said the same thing 20+ years ago and still saying that…The point is you have to arrest a slide before it becomes totally almost irreversible. Utd’s lack of quality is so evident over the last few seasons it’s painful now. And why is SAF so sacred? And until when>? Give all the accolades and credit he desreves and he does deserve more than words can describe. But nothing is perpetual. Can you guarantee that he can turn it around next season and so on? At least a top replacement will have a new approach.

        • Philipk says:

          well 48 trophies in his career making him the most succesfull british manager of all time makes him pretty sacred in my opinion and im sure most true reds would agree. And given that the latest of these was less than 12 months ago i think its a little hasty to say the man is devoid of all idea’s.

          But look, i saw the match last night and by no means did i like what i saw. the central pairing was incredibly poor and prevented any sort of progression up the pitch, passing back at every opportuinity. I think everyone who watches united play this season knows that a fresh injection of players into central midfield is overdue and to insinuate that sir alex doesnt see this is a bit idiotic. Our disasterous form in europe this season is a reminder to all of what changes need to be made. with scholes retiring at the start of the season it was clear that it was going to be a tough season. the injury to Vidic and then the news(blessing in disguise) that fletcher would be unable to return. substancial injuries to nani valencia young cleverly anderson jones smalling ferdinand etc. have meant that not many players have had a consistant run in the team. the injuries have especially been evident in team selection for european games. The team is in need of a few new faces and a bit more luck in the injry aspect of things but we are current premier league champions two points off the top of the premier league.

          i obviously cannot guarentee that he can turn it around next season or beyond but i can take your mind back to previous calls for sir alex to hand over the reigns.. 2003-2004 i believe.. since then four league titles and a champions league title, and two further finals..

          premature is a word im sure your familiar with

        • Trydent says:

          Your view is not worth the breath it takes to say it!You are nothing but a bitter blue troll so crawl back under the rock you call home.The very comments you make prove you are here for a wind up.Our title defence is “feeble” with half the squad injured for most of the season?2 points behind the shite across town is feeble?When you have actually achieved something in your life then you have a right to criticize our manager.Untill that day comes Fuck Off!

  4. Yunata yuna says:

    Raphael is nt good engh for the team.jones is overrated always over touch the ball no ball control.evras defensive skills is crap.chicharito is a disgrace

    • Dylan says:

      Chicarito a disgrace??? Don’t think u were watching the match! He looked lively and threatening and had a hand in BOTH goals! Ok, his touches did let him down but apart from that, doesn’t look a disgrace to me! I don’t understand y ppl are on his back! Just because u guys are expecting much more from the lad after 20+ goals in his first season. Its about time u start supporting the whole team because they ARE capable of success. We don’t have the divine right to win every trophy every year!

  5. uchihaitachi says:

    i think united underestimated Bilbao he could have played paul scholes to have more possession of the ball even nani could have been brought on to creat more we have seen united defence continue to have lots of difficulty..even im a die hard united fans but now i really think its over for us in the european league..

  6. Ez says:

    Raphel is class, the goal was his fault yes, but how many players have you seen dribble past him?
    All I can say is, till the day we have Ando and Clevely midfield, we will just be playing slow relaxed mid field over run football.

    • Joel Eaton says:

      Raf was shocking last night,he runs forward loses possession then does this arms up spin hissing fit toddler thing, every time. He was wandering so much second half I thought he was going to be CB. He never once overlapped for Young,hence why he kept going inside. Phil Jones is better at right back than him because he works his nuts off to get back when he loses the ball in advanced positions and creates, Da Silva just looks like a brat, ship him out to Besiktas with Bebe.

    • xmas says:

      Raphael has two things going against him.

      1) He gets injured. A lot. So he’s out for long periods of time, loses form, and takes a while to get back into form. This year, the RB position should have been all his to grow into what with Neville/Brown/O’Shea gone but injuries have hampered him.

      2) Squad rotation. Even when not injured, he rarely goes on a long run of matches while plenty of our other young players do. He needs time in the squad and to stop getting injured and he’ll be fine.

      @ Joel Eaton:::::

      What do you say when Rooney throws his arms up? Is he a hissing toddler? Or when Giggs does it? Or when Rio does it? Or when Berba does it?

      Players don’t display frustration unless they’re passionate about the game. I take it as a good sign

      • Joel Eaton says:

        Simple answer to that really, Giggs, Rooney produce end product consistently,so I think there frustration is founded. Rafa last night was terrible barely contributed anything positive. This goes for a few but I don’t feel he is of a standard that warrants a place at United.

  7. Martyn says:

    We were taught a lesson ! The point of lessons are to learn from them .We can not change players now but our response that Bilbao did not like was for us to get stuck into them . Players to stay in their positions and do what is required of them . All credit to Bilbao i thought it was our team in green shirts .

  8. Joel Eaton says:

    Bielsa had a plan A and B for this game and Bilboa executed it really well. Athletic play with no fear, aggression, speed and a pack mentality combined with the tactical genius of a coach that spent 90 minutes in the technical area dictating everything to his players. Athletic set themselves up to have a midfield that could harass Rooney when dropping deep,giggs and Jones early on with useable outlets in Iker Muniain and Susaeta. Early on athletic played 4-5-1 which was always able to become a 4-3-3 when inevitable opportunities to attack surfaced, especially when Rafael Da Silva got forward,on the night he was appualling.

    Utd were tactically out gunned,Llorente had Smalling and Evans were he needed them all night his height and physicality wound them up constantly,even off the ball his little nicks and digs were getting to Evans. But for me Utd had no reall outlets in wide positions all night,this made them look slow centrally with no outlets for Giggs, Park and Ashley Young constantly going inside didn’t work at all and Overlaping runs into the corners were none existant. Carrick definitely improved the central passages of play with some cute passes wide but none where capitalized on predominately due to players in wide positions not going to the by line and only playing crosses on the deck. Anderson showed nothing coming on, I would rather of seen Berbatov come on playing right in there back four with Rooney playing slightly behind him and Hernandez trying to penetrate,although Hernandez not willing to pull the trigger early is starting to make the “second season” tag seem inevitable.

    SAF needs to make a number of changes in many areas for Sunday,I’d like to see Berba given a go with Welbeck just to mix things up cause currently things are a tad predictable. Biggest thing though Muniain will be as good as Mata and David Silva and Fergie should sign him up!

  9. Gorse Hill Red says:

    I was at the game yesterday and ended up kicking the seat in front of me on numerous occasions at frustration of seeing Chicharito getting in good positions only to fluff every one.

    Don’t get me started on the midfield the same problem now for five years or so. We were humiliated last night and I can’t see us getting past he fifth best team in Spain. Another failed European season.

  10. S1MANC says:

    Total credit to Bilbao; came to OT for the win and got it even at 2:1 they was still pushing for another. We have a hard game in spain but we are capable of pulling it back. Bilbao don’t have the mentality to park the bus so they will be goals. Hopefully Smalling will be fully fit by then so he can play RB and get Evans & Rio paired up at. That late penalty kept us in the tie, Its an hard ask but when have we ever done it the easy way?