Athletic Bilbao 2-1 Manchester United: same as the first leg

March 15, 2012

The starting line-ups

Athletic produced another excellent display, and again should have won the game by more than one goal.

Marcelo Bielsa was able to bring back Fernando Amorebieta after suspension, in place of Mikel San Jose. The rest of the side was unchanged from the first leg.

Sir Alex Ferguson surprisingly left out both Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez. Michael Carrick came into the centre of midfield, and Tom Cleverley started on the right.

This game went remarkably similar to the first leg – Athletic dominated, wasted chances, then United got a late goal to make the scoreline close.

Ferguson tactics

Athletic were obviously going to play the same way as the first game, and the focus here was on what United would do. After all, they needed to win the game and also needed to score two goals – neither of which they accomplished.

The decision to leave out both Welbeck and Hernandez was an odd one, and not merely because they needed to score. Granted, neither has been in good form recently, but Athletic play a very high defensive line, and therefore are vulnerable to pace in behind. With United uncomfortable with the pressing in midfield, they might have liked the option to play longer balls in behind the defence – Rooney had a half-chance through this route within the first minute, but that was a rare sight of goal.

The selection of Ryan Giggs was also surprising – he’s simply not mobile enough for a game of this intensity, and didn’t do enough without the ball. Arguably United’s major mistake in the first leg was letting Ander Iturraspe have so much time on the ball (he was Rooney’s man in the first leg), and Giggs was passive defensively. He did make some good runs in behind the defence, but passes rarely found him.

The selection of Cleverley on the flank was odd, even considering the lack of options on the wing. Park and he were in each other’s roles, although it did make sense to have Park in the centre for mobility alongside Carrick.

Man-marking in midfield

Both central midfield duos looked to mark each other – often Park Ji-Sung up against Ander Herrera, and Michael Carrick with Oscar De Marcos. This created a frantic midfield zone based around movement, tracking and rotation of positions – Athletic were more comfortable with this, and fared better.

To give United some credit, they realised the challenge they were facing and did attempt to be more proactive than the first leg by closing down. When Giggs did get goalside of Iturraspe, all the players in the midfield zone were marked, which meant it was up to the centre-backs to bring the ball out of defence. Javi Martinez did this excellently, and created the chance for Iker Muniain’s shot off the post. Jonny Evans tried to do the same, but Athletic shut him down well.

Elsewhere, Athletic did the same as in the first leg. Quick passing, one-twos – and a bit of cultured route one with Fernando Llorente’s goal. They also got the full-backs forward more than in the first leg, with both Jon Aurtenetxe and Andoni Iraolo doing that run typical of a Bielsa side – the full-backs taking advantage of the wingers stretching play and creating gaps in the middle, by charging straight towards goal from wide. Iraola nearly scored a goal of the season contender in the second half.

Athletic’s intensity was terrific and they showed an ability to calm their passing and see out the game late in the second half. It’s difficult to say too much more – if you missed the game, try to watch it somehow.


Athletic dominated over two legs, but they probably won the tie in the first match. It put United in a position where they had to attack here, and Athletic barely let them get into the final third.

This should act as something of a wake-up call to United (and perhaps English football in general) – Athletic looked light years ahead of United in terms of their attitude when they didn’t have possession, and moved the ball so much quicker.

This will win Athletic a lot of fans, many of whom will be wondering why they are down in 7th in La Liga. There are two main answers to that question: first, they took a while to adjust to Bielsa’s methods and didn’t win any of their first six league games. Second, they have been wildly inconsistent, putting together consecutive wins only once all season. It’s difficult to play at this intensity every match, and they are more suited to cup competitions where they can put maximum effort into a few games. That’s why they’re doing well in the Europa League and in the final of the Copa del Rey, but those successes will probably come at the expense of league form.

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