One of the problems when trying to analyse the Bilbao – United tie is that most people will see it as an upset, and mostly a failure on the part of Manchester United, failing to acknowledge what the other team contributed. It is not really a surprise, as many are not that much aware of european football beyond the big teams in the big leagues. Those who followed the World Cup will have noted how Chile’s high-risk, high intensity approach lit up the tournament. Bielsa left Chile and became Bilbao coach. The major problem with coaching national teams is that proactive tactics – like those used by Spain – are not easy to implement due to a lack of time. It was very easy to see the potential in having him work with a specific set of players on a daily basis.
Something we have begun to see more and more around Europe is an emphasis on high tempo, both in defence and attack, and rapid transitions between both. It is something English teams will do well to adopt. Villas-Boas tried to do this at Chelsea, but the ‘players-that-be’ were having none of it. Sir Alex mentioned after the first leg, that no team had run that much at Old Trafford in 10 years. It is also a little known fact that Bilbao have used just 22 players in La Liga. That points to two things: excellent fitness and training methods, and the fact that the players would have achieved a high level of understanding necessary to execute such moves.
The start of Bilbao’s season was rocky -pun intended- which is to be expected when adopting such novel tactics, but as the months have progressed, they have gotten better and better. They may be 7th in La Liga, but are just 7 points behind 3rd place Valencia and 3 points behind Malaga in 4th. A strong finish to the season should see them in the Champions’ League places. Add to that the fact they are in the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona, and it was always going to be a banana skin for United.
Essentially, Bilbao and Bielsa have something good thing going. I hope he doesn’t leave the club without completing his project. I also hope that no players leave, especially Javi Martinez. They fully deserved their victory and the praise that comes with it. ‘El Loco’ has come a long way from his failure to progress with Argentina beyond the group stage of the 2002 World Cup.
Of course, the other side of this coin was Manchester United’s performance. The season started with a lot of promise: Anderson and Cleverley made for exciting viewing in midfield, Young and Jones were also doing well, but an inability to keep players fit, poor selection, and wrong tactics on occasion have conspired to leave only the EPL title to fight for by mid-March. One of the greatest disappointments from a United perspective has been the fact that the midfield issues were never really sorted. An ideal midfield would have had Carrick behind Anderson and Cleverley, and a final abandonment of 4-4-2, but this never happened. The result is that against teams that play with and without the ball at a high tempo, they were exposed over and over. Scholes and Giggs may still be able to excel against most EPL teams, but they are not much use against teams like Bilbao. Neither is a player like Park Ji Sung.
So, less than a year after being destroyed by Barcelona, United are destroyed by Bilbao. Incidentally, both teams played out an absolutely thrilling 2-2 draw at the San Mames in November, a game which Marca called a ‘monument’ to football. That is the kind of level to which United must aspire. They are not there yet. The midfield problem must be solved and the default formation must change, or else they will continue to be exposed.