Manchester United 2-3 Athletic Bilbao: United unable to deal with pressing and high tempo

March 8, 2012

The starting line-ups

Athletic produced an extremely impressive performance, and take a decent lead back to Bilbao.

Sir Alex Ferguson left out the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Danny Welbeck, and went with Javier Hernandez upfront, and a combination of Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans at the back.

Marcelo Bielsa was able to play his first-choice XI, with the exception of one position – Fernando Amorebieta was suspended, so Mikel San Jose started instead.

Athletic started brightly and were the better side throughout the game, dominating possession and creating more chances.


Bielsa, as we know, likes to maintain a spare man at the back. If United were playing a straight 4-4-2, Bielsa probably would have played three centre-backs instead of the extra central midfielder that featured here, but because United are actually more like 4-4-1-1, Bielsa could tell Ander Iturraspe to pick up Rooney, with the spare man retained at the back with 2 v 1 against Javier Hernandez.

United’s shape was as expected, though they used Ashley Young on the right and Park Ji-Sung on the left – both probably prefer the left, but since Young’s game is more based around the ball and therefore more highly influenced by which side of the pitch he plays on, it would probably have been better off the other way around. That said, Park is better defensively and Andoni Iraola is the better Athletic full-back, so the decision made sense in that respect.


Athletic were highly flexible and versatile, and without the ball they pressed heavily from the front. Fernando Llorente was told to close down the two centre-backs, with the wide players rarely looking to close down the other centre-back to make it 2 v 2 high up, and instead focussing more on tracking United’s full-backs, who seldom managed to break forward unattended.

As seen in the game against Barcelona, Athletic want to practically man-mark the opposition all over the pitch, and this meant that Ander Herrera and Oscar De Marcos moved forward to shut down Phil Jones and Ryan Giggs, playing significantly in advance of Iturraspe. There was often a huge gap in front of Iturraspe, and although United didn’t have anyone to naturally exploit this space, they could have had more lateral movement off the flanks from Young and Park – they would have been tracked, but would have drawn their marker out of position.

Athletic's pressing system

The diagram to the right shows the simple (on paper) way Athletic pressed. Llorente had to cover two men in order to maintain the spare man at the other end of the pitch, but otherwise the wingers pressed full-backs, central midfielders were on central midfielders, and wing-backs on wide midfielders.

At the back the centre-backs took it in turns (though Javi Martinez did it more) to track Javier Hernandez out of the back very tightly, and the Mexican struggled with the physical attention. The other centre-back, usually San Jose, then became the sweeper.

Athletic attacks

But what Athletic did excellently here was with the ball, moving it quickly from player to player, but reasonably patiently when United had men behind the ball. The brilliance in their play comes from the change of tempo when they have the ball 30-40 yards from goal – it usually hinges upon a quick, direct run in behind an opponent from one of the wing-backs or central midfielders, often to create a one-two opportunity and get past an opponent.

The wing-backs were particularly important in Athletic’s play, because they stretched the play and provided attacking overlaps. They often moved so high up the pitch that they became part of the forward line, and neither Park nor Young wanted to move that deep. For Athletic’s first goal, both Iraola and Aurtenexte found got into the box – the away side simple overwhelmed United with numbers.


The passing wasn’t always particularly precise, but it was generally ambitious and forward-thinking, with the knowledge that if Athletic misplaced a pass and conceded possession, they would win the ball back quickly anyway.

There was  an interesting approach to long balls. Bielsa had to wean Athletic off playing long, high balls towards Llorente at the start of the season, but they do still play direct balls for the wingers moving in behind the defence for (straightish) diagonal balls. In the first half, both Iker Muniain and Markel Susaeta had good chances in this fashion.

Llorente did a good job when he did get the ball, though, by holding it up and waiting for midfield runners. Smalling and Evans have the makings of a good partnership but are not yet comfortable against a big, strong number nine.

United were guilty of standing off high up the pitch. Athletic were telling the strikers to press, but Rooney was doing almost nothing without the ball, letting Iturraspe dictate the tempo and spread the play to the flanks. He was told to do more work in the second half, when United were chopping and changing in the midfield zone and trying to find more energy and mobility.

Phil Jones and Ryan Giggs struggled – Jones wasn’t good enough on the ball under pressure, and Giggs lacked the mobility and struggled with close attention in deep positions. Michael Carrick and Anderson ended up in that zone, and though Carrick did OK and stablised United, even he isn’t at his best under pressure.

There were so many chances in the game that the goals barely stood out amongst all the opportunites, but it was notable that United’s two goals came following a free-kick and a penalty – Athletic continue to lack discipline at the back. The away side’s major chances came when the wing-backs overloaded play, stretched the United defence and created gaps for onrushing midfielders to burst though. There could and should have been more goals, but Athletic fully merited the victory.


United knew what to expect from Athletic, but simply seemed unprepared for such heavy pressing. The midfield wasn’t mobile nor good enough on the ball, there was little rotation of positions or even particularly good movement, and when United did break through the centre, Hernandez was extremely wasteful in the box. He’s fallen out of favour dramatically recently, and Welbeck is the clear first choice upfront.

Athletic played (probably) their best game of the season, perfectly in keeping with Bielsa’s strategy and ideology. If they could play this way every week they’d be in La Liga’s top three, but it’s difficult to press with such energy every match.

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