Bilbao Expose All Of United’s Recurring European Faults…

There are many sights which football fans rarely see in the game they love. We rarely see managers fall over, like the hilarious Roberto Di Matteo slip in Chelsea’s win over Napoli. Even rarer is the sight of Alan Shearer on MOTD (you know, the mannequin that thinks it’s a human) giving an insightful, fresh or salient point while reclining on the couch with the hush-toned Gary Lineker. Rarer still, and you know where I’m going with this, is Manchester United being as comprehensively and easily outplayed as they were on Thursday night. Barcelona did it, City achieved it. Add Bilbao to that list. In the first leg at Old Trafford, Athletic Bilbao stormed Manchester and retreated to the second leg with 3 well-deserved, brilliantly executed away goals, to United’s home tally of two. They earned that result. Just like yesterday.

They were brilliant; they were tough; they were assertive. In truth, Bilbao were everything United were not. At times the Spanish side even resembled the Barcelona team which so harmfully swatted away United in the Champions League final of 2011. Tenacious off the ball, enthralling on it. United were stormed and swarmed by waves of relentlessly fit and hard-working men in striped colours; every pass that was made was cut out and every moment in possession was either broken apart by the opposition or a mistake was forced.  A Giggs header that was deflected for a corner, an early opening for Rooney who crossed instead of shooting and his eventual strike in the top corner of the Athletic Bilbao net were the only real chances United could muster.

And this is all compounded by the fact that Bilbao are lounging around in seventh in the Spanish league. One wonders; what on earth would Barcelona do to this current United crop in Europe, a year on from the final of 2011? What would Napoli do, or Real Madrid, or even Bayern Munich? In truth, while the transition Chelsea are undergoing has been largely reported all season long, Ferguson’s men are going through a smaller one of their own. Players like Welbeck and the previously injured Cleverley, along with the improved Jonny Evans and Phil Jones are young and learning, as is the mountainous Paul Pogba who celebrated his 19th Birthday and one suspects will soon become more acquainted with the side.

But the deficiencies were still there to see. It’s all well and good being top of the domestic league but in Europe this season, United have failed and been taught many a harsh lesson due to underrating the opposition and making costly mistakes. In 10 European matches United have won 3 and been made to look like delirious chumps on more occasions than United fans will want to remember. That’s 3 triumphs from 10 in what was considered an ‘easy’ Champions League group, along with the much-derided baby sister competition – the Europa League. United fans and Fergie do not need telling that it’s not good enough, mainly because it has been a recurring fault in United’s season.

Where to as far as Europe is concerned after this latest embarrassing defeat at the hands of Spaniards? So meek in possession; so susceptible to fluid, flowing passing. The same old weaknesses exploited again and the same old faults used against them with ease by a Spanish side that before the Old Trafford first leg were naively underrated by a few members of the red-faced English press (just like Italian teams).

Optimists – or realists – will wave off the Europa League defeat. Sorry, but we all know it’s more than that. It’s another lesson, like the second leg of the Ajax game, that a fresh layer of paint is needed – along with some serious lessons learnt – if Ferguson is going to rise to the top of the European tree once again. In his time at Old Trafford the purple nosed Magician has won two Champions League trophies, and lost two finals. Quite honestly, the Scotsman has always claimed one of his biggest disappointments was not winning more. And if Athletic Bilbao make United look like a portly schoolchild grasping for a handful of honey while a raging swarm of bees bite chunks out of his cheeks, then Ferguson may just continue to be disappointed. Obviously with United, the ‘never give up’ mantra will never die. But that mantra is in stark opposition to the more forceful lack of quality and European savvy that has undone their squad in continental competition this season.

Youthful, vibrant sides are learning. United are staying still. I recall making this point before, but Ferguson is 70. He will be 71 before another bite at the cherry presents itself. Time is on the wane.

As for Bilbao and their gorgeous combination of work ethic and technical ability, well they go through as the darlings of the Europa League and the team that gently tug on all the heartstrings of the football loving neutral. For United, it’s another harsh lesson in European football served up by a strikingly superior side. A re-think is needed if the red side of Manchester are to compound domestic success with the more desired ‘Old Big Ears’ – the dreamy Champions League trophy – once more in the future.

One thought on “Bilbao Expose All Of United’s Recurring European Faults…

  1. Some interesting observations and United have certainly been down this road before. I think above all, the 2 matches with Bilbao have shown the fallacy of the stereotypes of the Premier League being the best league in the world and of La Liga being all about 2 teams. Madrid and Barcelona are the best 2 teams in Europe at the moment and their purchasing power puts them in a different stratosphere to the rest of the teams in Spain, it is true, but there are several technically gifted Spanish teams that would be more than a match for their English counterparts in the same positions in the league table. 3 of the last 8 in the Europa League are Spanish teams, Bilbao, Atletico Madrid and Valencia, all of whom are talented teams.

    I think there are 2 areas where United have deteriorated significantly since they won the Champions League in 2008. Firstly, their lack of a shielding midfielder has become ever more of an issue with each passing season. Carrick, Scholes, Fletcher, Park, Anderson have all been used in midfield in that time but none of them are really cut out to fill the role of protecting the back 4 on a regular basis. Scholes and Carrick tend to play more in the mould of Pirlo back when he was at AC Milan where he would orchestrate the tempo of the game from a deep position in the front of the defence. The problem at times though is that United have adopted a slower tempo in European football which suits their opponents better than it does them, and when their opponents get possession in European matches, the lack of a conventional shielding midfielder that can protect the back four and make telling interceptions make them far more vulnerable. This is borne out by their defensive record in European football this season.

    Expanding from my earlier point, I also think that United have lost some of their pace, movement and fluidity that they had back in 2008 when Cristiano Ronaldo was at the club. There needs to be more fluidity of movement in their front four than has been demonstrated in their European performances this season where United have often been laboured and predictable. People have said that English teams need to be playing more like their Spanish counterparts. I do not entirely agree with this. I think that what United need to do is be playing to their strengths more and although it can be argued that Spanish teams win matches without orthodox wing play and pass the opposition to death, English teams’ best chance of success is through making the most of pace and movement. With players like Rooney, Hernandez, Nani, Young, Welbeck and Valencia at their disposal, they have players able to offer a fusion of these 2 attributes, but I think it is an attitude of mind as much as anything. United play best when they are quick and incisive and I think perhaps the news of Berbatov being offloaded in the summer is the start of Ferguson realising that the team needs to quicken up and become more fluid again if it is to be any kind of threat in European competition.

    United can get away with going through the motions in the Premier League because teams are still in awe of their resilience, often accepting they could lose even if United have an off day. Top European teams do not have that fear factor and Bilbao ruthlessly demonstrated that in their matches against United. And the reason they were not overawed was because they knew they were good enough to dictate the possession and that if they did so, United would not be able to get a foothold in the tie.

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