Manchester United were thoroughly outplayed this evening as they succumbed to an Athletic Bilbao side that showed more energy and ability than their illustrious opponents.
Rarely has a Manchester United side under Sir Alex Ferguson been so thoroughly outperformed as the side that took the field in Northern Spain. Bilbao were better in every department, harassing United relentlessly, stringing together passes effortlessly and creating bundles of chances.
All of this tells you a lot about the quality of the side Athletic Bilbao currently possess, but also about the need for change in the red half of Manchester.
United lacked the ability to keep hold of the ball under pressure, regularly giving the ball away in the centre of the pitch and seeing chances break down as players made mistakes, or were simply out-competed in 50-50s.
When defending, United looked far too vulnerable. Bilbao created chance out of chance and were, frankly, wasteful in front of goal; it's safe to say that the scoreline could have been far worse.
Bilbao seemed to be able to open up United without much difficulty, playing in balls from the wings and bursting through the centre frequently.
Johnny Evans, playing at centre-back, must take at least some of the blame for United's troubles. He was regularly found wanting, failing to snuff out Andoni Iraola's mesmerising run through the centre of United's defence and simply not having enough quality to deal with Fernando Llorente's movement in the first half.
Rio Ferdinand was similarly out-competed, and whilst it is far too early to say his Manchester United career is over, he is clearly not the same player he was a couple of seasons ago. He was at fault of Llorente's opener, giving his man far too much room and failing to do enough to unsettle the striker who scored, a la RVP.
So, change is needed at the back. Nemanja Vidic will be back next season, and Phil Jones can slot in at centre-back in Ferdinand's place, but more defensive cover is needed. Johnny Evans simply is not good enough for Manchester United. How they must be regretting surrender Gerard Pique now.
Meanwhile, at wing-back, Rafael's performance will have raised serious doubts about his suitability for the United first team. He regularly showed up on the right wing and seems to have an attitude problem; he was petulant when decisions went against him and his attempt at a skill move in his own six-yard box showed a lack of common sense.
Chris Smalling could be the man to take over at right-back, but some better quality cover is still needed at right-back and Smalling needs to be available to fit in at centre-back should an injury or two occur.
United were also outplayed in midfield, although there were positive signs. Cleverley showed flashes of why he is so highly rated, but needs more game time, and Ryan Giggs showed that he is still more than worth his place in the side; there were times when he was United's most threatening player and he received a standing ovation from the Basque fans.
Michael Carrick, who has been having a good season in the Premier League, simply couldn't get the game moving in his creative role and Park Ji-Sung was soundly beaten at his own game as Athletic's players worked harder than any side United have encountered in years.
Ashley Young seemed to lack variety, cutting in off his wing far too often, and did not seem to be able to beat his opposite man. Perhaps he was just having an off day, but he needs to rediscover his start of season form if he is to retain his place in United's starting lineup next season.
Paul Pogba, meanwhile, came on and was lucky not to get anything more than a yellow card. His development looks far from complete, and he certainly needs to gain a little more self control. However, there were touches of class that suggested he could be a force in the future.
All of this means that United, and Sir Alex Ferguson, have a lot of work to do. Their young players, with the exception of Smalling and Jones, do not seem to be ready to take over full time starting rolls and some of the old hands are beginning to wane.
Something clearly needs to be done. United may well have enough about them to claim another Premier League crown, but they have been soundly beaten, in two matches, by a side that currently lies seventh in La Liga. If they want to fare better in Europe next season, new faces are going to be needed.
A new central midfielder must be the No. 1 priority, someone who can break up play and control the game in order to prevent Manchester United being run over as they were against Bilbao.
Secondly, a new right-back is needed, either as cover for Chris Smalling, or someone who can do the job full time.
There is also an argument to be made for a marquee signing, someone like Wesley Sneijder. They could use a world-class player who could create and score goals and also provide them with an extra spark of magic, the type of thing that only Wayne Rooney, who had a good outing against Bilbao, currently does.
They need greater technical ability if they are to remain competitive in Europe, especially if Sir Alex plans on winning another Champions League—which you can be sure he does—and a man like Wesley Sneijder (as well as a couple of new additions) would see them in with a chance.
Manchester United could learn a lot from Athletic's performance. If they can confront the likes of Barcelona with the same work rate they faced tonight, they would be in a far better position to shut down the production line of chances that Barcelona manufacture.
So, there are positives to be taken from United's ordeal in Europe this season. There are players with real potential, as well as fully developed stars with the necessary qualities to make Manchester United world beaters, but they must learn their lessons.
Furthermore, what they have experienced this season in Europe will leave them better prepared mentally for next season. Clearly, United were not at full strength, Vidic and Antonio Valencia were both sorely missed, but that is no excuse for being so comprehensively outplayed.
English clubs are not faring well in England this season, but you can be sure that will only motivate them to hit back next season. A bad season can often by the wake-up call that brings in new players and helps current players pick up their game. Manchester United do not believe in giving up, so you can be sure that United will only come back stronger.
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