No detailed tactical breakdown this time but here are three things instead that I felt were discussion worthy in the aftermath of Athletic Bilbao's dominant display versus Manchester United.
1. Kudos to Athletic Club - The real story of this tie is the superb performance by Athletic over both legs. They came to Old Trafford and perhaps offered an away side display that was the most impressive since another La LIga side visited in 2003 -- when Ronaldo's hat-trick for Real Madrid earned him a standing ovation. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson even commented earlier this week that no opponent in the past decade was measured to have covered as much of the pitch -- in terms of total running distance -- as Athletic did at Old Trafford. The 5-3 aggregate scoreline over two ties certainly flatters United.
It took a few months for this Athletic side to grasp manager Marcelo Bielsa's detailed and demanding tactics -- and perhaps personality quirks as well -- but as we all saw over the past week, they are now a feared team. They press with incredible intensity and with great unison. Their technical ability is the envy of any club besides maybe FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, and perhaps a few others. Their pace is electric. They completely played the English champions and European runner-ups out of two parks.
Bielsa only plays 13 or 14 players regularly and perhaps the intensity of his system is the cause for inconsistent results. Thus, this -- along with their underwhelming start to their league season -- may help explain their 7th in table standing in La Liga. United have a superior squad but perhaps not a better best XI. Collectively the Basque side are tremendous but they also have some terrific individual players. Fernando Llorente is a physical No.9 that has very good technical ability as well -- he could walk into any squad in the world perhaps. Iker Muniain is a creative spark coming in from out wide while Ander Herrera and Oscar de Marcos provide craft and driving runs from the center of the park. Javi Martinez is a calm influence from deep while Andoni Iraola nearly scored one of the more impressive goals you might see when he danced like Lionel Messi through the United defense -- unfortunately for him, he showed a Bebe-like final product.
To top it off, their supporters were vociferous and plentiful at Old Trafford and this was only magnified at the historic San Mames. They also endeared themselves to the United faithful when they applauded Ryan Giggs when he came off and when they showed appreciation for Wayne Rooney's curling beauty. If they can show respect for us, I can certainly reciprocate by respecting their beautiful Basque country, beautiful Basque culture, and beautiful Bielsa brilliance. I know exactly who I'm hoping wins the Europa League and earns the last Champions League qualification spot in La Liga.
2. Ferguson's changes offered structural stability but the selection choices were questionable - Since the 2009-10 season, United have mostly gone away from the 4-3-3/4-5-1ish system that Fergie often deployed in 'big matches' -- particularly against title-contending rivals in England or in away European ties. The talisman though -- Rooney -- prefers to play in a withdrawn role where he can get himself involved more. In addition, Wazza's industrious ways allows United to decently compete versus an opposition three-man midfield because he does well to track back and act like essentially as an auxiliary midfielder when his side loses possession. The vulnerability to this though is that technical sides that have players buzzing between the lines can use a single incisive pass to bypass an entire line of four in United's 4-4-1-1ish shape.
United were severely overrun at Old Trafford in a 4-4-1-1 so it was nice to see Fergie make the change to 4-3-3/4-5-1. Rooney was back up top -- just as he was often in the 2009-10 season -- in a 'false-nine' role and he was surrounded by players who either are intelligent in movement and/or are able to provide drive from midfield. This is a much better system to combat a side like Athletic's. The system is somewhat unfamiliar now because of it's rarity of use in the past season-and-a-half but this maybe just disguises the possibility that Fergie got his selection choices wrong.
The choices of Rooney up top and Ashley Young out wide to the left are fine enough but perhaps -- as Zonal Marking pointed out -- Fergie should have used more direct pace down the right flank. Tom Cleverley is a promising talent but he's lacking fitness and form at the moment due to his continual injuries as of late and he wasn't the optimal choice as the wide right attacker. This was probably the wrong match for Antonio Valencia to make a return in and Nani was unavailable but surely Danny Welbeck would have offered a threat out wide to the right. Athletic's full-backs were surging up the touchlines and the area of Athletic's vulnerability was in behind those marauding defenders.
As regular readers of TBB may be aware, I have reservations about deploying Park Ji-sung in the center of the park unless he's the most advanced player in a midfield trio. However, Park was in between Giggs and Michael Carrick and despite moments of his trademark running proving useful, he was mostly poor. If Park is to be used, then he should be played to his strengths -- either put him high in the center so that he can harass Athletic's ball-playing deep players or play him out wide so that he can track marauding full-backs and use his intelligent off-the-ball movement on counterattacks.
Park was used where he was though because Fergie likely wanted an energetic player somewhat deep and near Carrick -- due to the obvious threat Athletic presents. It's unfortunate that Darren Fletcher nor Anderson were available for selection -- both would have been a more natural fit for what Fergie likely wanted. This was also perhaps too much to ask of Paul Pogba at this stage of his development.
3. Woeful European form- Due to incompetence on the continent this season, United's European form is no longer a concern -- for now. The clear focus -- as it was already prior to this Athletic tie -- is on winning title #20 and the club is in a strong position for that right now. There isn't a whole lot of concern on whether they can compete domestically as they've shown the ability to grind out results even when they aren't playing well. April 30 at the Etihad versus Manchester City may be the day that defines whether or not this season is a failure for the club.
What about United's European prospects for next season though? Is this season an anomaly -- especially when considering that club has reached the Champions League final three of the past four seasons? What concerns me though is United's continual impotent ways versus Portuguese side Benfica, Swiss side Basel, and 7th in La Liga table Athletic. The latter simply overwhelmed United in all facets of the game.
Even if we are privileged enough to retain the league title, a long look in the mirror will be needed in the summer if the club has continental ambition. This season's performances are alarming as are the performances of the rest of England's clubs competing abroad. Perhaps Fergie should familiarize his side again with and implement the 4-3-3/4-5-1 system into the team's tactic's arsenal. This shape provides better structure in the back -- especially against European competition that tends to use systems that exploit space between the lines -- and the United boss has talented attackers that potentially can be versatile enough to be lethal on the counterattack. The 2007-08 side could perhaps be the template for this. One season is nothing to panic about the the degree of ineptitude by United in Europe requires self-examination.