Defeat to Athletic Bilbao forces United to take stock of their place as Europe’s elite
It’s already thought that, while not yet terminal, the 3-2 defeat by Athletic Bilbao could be another harrowing moment in Sir Alex Ferguson’s European career. Like the three seasons in which they were essentially knocked out on away goals before and after winning the Champions League in 1999, it’s the concession of home goals which was their bane here. (As Jonathan Wilson notes, those three years came in 1997 where they succumbed to a goal at home by Lars Ricken; in 1998 where they lost out on away goals 1-0 to Monaco; and in 2000 where Real Madrid defeated United by the same result Athletic did at Old Trafford: 3-2). Sir Alex Ferguson seemed to hint similar in his post-match conference. “I think there’s been that slackness all season [with defending],” he told MUTV. “And, but for David De Gea, we could have lost by four or five goals [to Athletic]. He was absolutely superb.”
“We’ve had a bad season in Europe, it has to be said. We’ve lost three goals against Basel, two against Benfica, two to Ajax and three tonight. That tells the story. Maybe it’s just one of these years when we need to take stock in terms of assessing how we should approach games at home.”
Of course, Ferguson doesn’t have to look too far for the need to reinvent in Europe. After losing to Barcelona in the Champions League final last season, 3-1, he talked about the “challenge catching Barcelona.” And when they beat them in pre-season, Sir Alex thought he had stumbled on the solution with players like Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck displaying great energy to overcome Barcelona’s pretty patterns. “We’ve introduced some young players to the club this season who have tremendous ability and a great energy and spirit about them,” said the manager in October. “So I think we’re making great strides towards that level Barcelona have reached these past two or three years.
Certainly, Manchester United’s team last night contained a lot of those young players and while it was very much a rotated squad, it was selected on the bounds to stop Athletic; it didn’t work. Park Ji-Sung was forced up and down the pitch by right-back and captain, Andoni Iraola, while Wayne Rooney was unable to stop the majestic Ander Iturraspe from dictating play from deep. By that same token though, the Basque playmaker was unable to stop Rooney influencing as he scored two goals and played some delightful passes (and some bad ones too). Phil Jones was drafted in to add some energy to the midfield but after making a bright start, he faded and Athletic overran him in the centre. You can’t expect Ryan Giggs to dominate the midfield and in that respect, Sir Alex was wrong to play him in a two-man midfield with Jones (although Rooney was expected to provide cover) but the Welshman did make some good passes and generally initiated a lot of United’s attacks.
However, it was not the continental ruthlessness that United were punished by and have in defining European games in the past but the direct nature of Athletic’s attacks is what caused United the most problems. Despite playing a target man, Marcelo Bielsa’s side resisted lumping it to Fernando Llorente and instead, looked to use him as an inverted pivot to base their attacks around. The midfielders were quick to support him and played some fantastic exchanges around the box. Indeed, Athletic’s second to take the score to 2-1, was most Manchester United-like as they exchanged quick give-and-goes before Ander Herrera lifted a pass over the defence for Óscar de Marcos to finish.
It’s not that Manchester United’s defenders were out of their depth - although they showed their naivety when they conceded the third – it’s that they were countlessly exposed. By playing the ball forward quickly — and United contributed to their own downfall by not being able to get tight and press, something which Bielsa’s side did fantastically — they easily bypassed the midfield and forced the backline back into their own box. Iturraspe danced in the puddles Manchester United left in midfield while Iker Munian, Markel Susaeta and Herrara buzzed around the box like bees in the summer.
The most worrying thing for Sir Alex Ferguson, though, is that they have not been able to dominate against all manner of styles and not just against typical European opponents, and Bielsa’s team mixes English speed with Spanish technique. Indeed, United have, on the whole, played so badly in the two European competitions this season that it poses concerning questions; one being, do they even deserve to be in the Europa League(?) and secondly, do they remain a part of Europe’s elite? Both appear harsh, for sure, but the initial question isn’t as much as the second; some still have reservations about allowing — or relegating, more precisely — under-performing Champions League clubs that finish third into the other competition. As one of those clubs, you’re expected to strengthen the competition because you’re perceived to be far superior. So far, United have played three — and haven’t convinced in any. Either way, they’d still be back in the Champions League next season but while a style may work in the Premier League, it requires a greater sense of methodology and security in the European Cup.
Neither Paul Scholes nor Michael Carrick started last night and that indicates the style United tried to impose against Athletic; Sir Alex will have to look at that as a tactical mistake. David de Gea put in another superb performance as he should as a shot-stopper but the other reason he was brought in for – his distribution – was not evident as Athletic dominated. Ashley Young again failed to get in the game while there is a massive over-reliance on Wayne Rooney still. Sir Alex shunted him to the left as he did in the defeat to Basel to try to keep the ball and so that Manchester United would resist the urge to play everything through him. It didn’t work but he still made the two key contributions to the scoreline by scoring two goals. However, and this is credit to Sir Alex Ferguson’s team-building, Athletic Bilbao put on a performance that has seldom been equalled by an away team at Old Trafford for a long time, blowing the hosts apart. It’s up to Sir Alex Ferguson to do the same at San Mamés and in doing so, secure United’s future as a European elite.