It's important to note that this suggested Manchester United starting XI versus Athletic Bilbao is not by any means an ideal lineup. Instead, it's one that factors in the need to rotate the squad, the need for some squad members to get a needed game, and one that understands the Europa League is second in priority to the Premier League title chase. If this were a midweek Champions League tie instead, I'd certainly be including Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, and Rio Ferdinand. If we further advance to the semi-final and final of this competition -- or happen to draw Manchester City in the next round -- then perhaps we can increase the desire to see a first-choice side deployed. If we lose this current tie to Athletic, I personally won't be gutted. Here is a suggested United starting XI for Thursday night at Old Trafford:
Before I provide an explanation for each United choice, I'm going to briefly get into Athletic's likely starting XI and the tactics that they use. It's after the jump...
Athletic manager Marcelo Bielsa generally selects his starting XI from a pool of 12 players. If Ander Iturraspe is selected in a holding role, then Javi Martinez moves to center-back. If Mikel San Jose is selected at center-back, then Martinez is deployed in his natural holding role. In general, Athletic play with a high-line and use technical players in the back so that the ball can be calmly circulated. When the ball reaches the attack and an overload is achieved, then Los Leones attack with ferocity and intent. When possession is lost, the intensity with which they press is matched by very few sides in this world.
Individually, the full-backs get forward in support of the attack while the center-backs play high enough in the zone where midfielders often roam. Oscar de Marcos typically surges forward from deep while Ander Herrera often drops deep from his No. 10 sort of role. The wide attackers receive wide in order to stretch play and this often creates gaps for surging midfield -- and even marauding defender's -- runs. Fernando Llorente can receive direct passes and hold the ball up to bring others into the attack or he can use his capable technical ability to play quick one-touch passes. Crosses often are whipped in for the natural No. 9 -- who is a towering aerial presence -- from the wide players and active central-midfielders. Getting the ball out wide is certainly their desire in attack.
For greater detail on Athletic Club, check out these links:
Here is the suggested United starting XI:
* David de Gea (goalkeeper): He's in great form, he's already won the Europa League with Athletico Madrid, and he's familiar with La Liga football. Put him out there again.
* Chris Smalling (center-back): The England international has struggled with injuries as of late and perhaps due to that, he hasn't shown the same sharp form from his first season-and-a-half at the club. Give him this needed game and let him duel with Llorente (hopefully he doesn't receive another blow to the head).
* Jonny Evans (center-back): Rio is a greater candidate for the need of rest due to his age and Phil Jones may be over-matched at the moment by Llorente. So, the in-form Evans is my choice to partner Smalling. The benefit of this partnership is that each have good pace on the turn for center-backs. Thus, they can comfortably play a high-line and keep things compact between the lines. This could prove beneficial in the midfield zone where United may be overrun by Athletic. Also, the high-line can keep Llorente further from goal -- his aerial prowess won't be as big of a threat the further he is away from the target.
* Rafael (right-back): The Brazilian has shown good form as of late and his quickness and pace may be a key attribute against Iker Muniain. He is also rested after not playing at the past weekend. He's short but he competes well in the air. Only the center-backs are likely to be up against Llorente on open-play crosses so his lack of height at the far-post shouldn't be a huge issue since Athletic's wide players aren't huge aerial threats. If he does come across Llorente, hopefully Rafa just pretends that his counterpart is Andy Carroll.
* Fabio (left-back): What I wrote about his twin brother -- Rafael -- pretty much applies here. In addition, it is my opinion that he's shown better form than Patrice Evra as of late.
* Anderson (central-midfield): The main reason that I chose him is that he's recently recovered from injury and he is in need of a game. I have no idea where his fitness is at (or isn't at) but his drive and usual energetic ways could be key in combating the physical and pacey Athletic side. Perhaps he struggles with this intensity due to rust but he needs this game. Better to blood his return in the Europa League rather than during the important league run-in.
* Phil Jones (central-midfield): I wonder if the youngster is nursing a few minor knocks after banging around so much versus Spurs on Sunday. If fit though, he's another that can use his industry and drive in order to provide some bite against Athletic in the center of the park. He's shown well in his time in midfield this season for both United and England -- for the latter, he impressed there in the victory over Spain during a recent friendly.
* Nani (right-winger): After his poor match in Amsterdam, the Portuguese winger has shown improved form -- although not the same sort of match-winning form he has displayed in stretches during the past two years. Keep giving him minutes and hope that he rediscovers that sometimes unplayable form.
* Park Ji-sung (left-winger): We need a 'three-lungs Park' sort of effort from the Korean. Park can use his tremendous defensive abilities to contain Iraola's superb crossing while he can also tuck inside to help United compete in midfield -- an effort like that requires a third lung. He also tends to link well with the forwards when they drop deep as his movement in the attacking third is incredibly undervalued -- it provides both direct and indirect benefits.
* Dimitar Berbatov/Chicharito (striker tandem): Use Berba to drop deep in order to link the midfield and attack while he can also pick out a pass to split the defense (e.g. Chicharito's goal vs. Ajax at Old Trafford). The Bulgarian also provides height for defending set-pieces -- Athletic lead La Liga in scoring goals from dead-ball situations. Chicharito can look to get on the end of balls played in behind Athletic's high-line. He excels at working the channels and getting on the end of through balls there but he needs to show improvement on getting into dangerous positions with the ball when it's played over the top.