Manchester United vs. Athletic Bilbao: How Marcelo Bielsa's Team Won It

Yoosof Farah@@YoosofFarahSenior Writer IIIMarch 8, 2012

Manchester United vs. Athletic Bilbao: How Marcelo Bielsa's Team Won It

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    In a game for the football purists, Athletic Bilbao sensationally put Manchester United to the sword in a match where newly celebrated coach Marcelo Bielsa was just too clever for his counterpart, Sir Alex Ferguson.

    Goals from the much-hyped talents Fernando Llorente and Iker Muniain, sandwiched between an Oscar De Marcos effort, saw Bilbao stunningly cancel out Wayne Rooney's opener and render his late penalty goal a mere consolation, as the visitors won 3-2.

    It was a classic match at Old Trafford, where Los Leones proved there is great talent in La Liga beyond just Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.

    Here are five tactics from manager Marcelo Bielsa, the 56-year-old former Argentina and Chile boss, which won Athletic Bilbao this very memorable UEFA Europa League game.

FC Barcelona Style

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    Out of all the teams who model their play on that of Pep Guardiola's FC Barcelona side, Athletic Bilbao do it best.

    Unlike teams like Swansea City in the Premier League who also imitate Barca's style, Marcelo Bielsa gets it right down to the most minute details.

    Wave after wave of attack, with a positionally inter-linking three-pronged attack of Llorente, Muniain and Markel Susaeta, and a constant desire to initiate counter-attacks, meant United just couldn't live with Bilbao at times.

    If it wasn't for David De Gea, the Red Devils would easily have succumbed to a 7-1, Camp Nou, Bayer Leverkusen kind of scoreline.

    And even when United were in possession, they still could barely cope with the visitors, whose constant pressurising led all of the home side's players into making mistakes.

    Bilbao still have some way to go before being Barca-esque, and if they hadn't afforded United such space in the middle, the hosts probably wouldn't have scored.

    Nonetheless, the team from the Basque country dominated United with the style of their Catalan counterparts.

Man-Marking

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    Bielsa set his side up to man-mark the opposition at certain points throughout the match.

    Javi Martinez would stick to Javier Hernandez like glue at times, while on goal-kicks, David De Gea at times found himself kicking to nobody.

    That helped slow the pace of United's attacks just enough to prevent them from fully utilising the open spaces in the middle of the pitch.

    Also, the stringent man-marking in the final third meant Bielsa was also able outwit Sir Alex Ferguson with his attacking tactics.

    The Red Devils sought to attack fast down the wings to exploit the lack of pace and positional awareness from Bilbao's full-backs, Andoni Iraola and Jon Aurtenetxe, as well as the lack of defensive discipline in young wingers Muniain and Susaeta.

    However, when Ashley Young, Patrice Evra, Ji-Sung Park and Rafael da Silva were set free to put a cross into the penalty area, their deliveries were either intercepted, cleared, or there was simply no available option in the box.

High Tempo Attacks

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    Not only did Athletic Bilbao produce wave after wave of attack, they also did so at an incredibly high tempo.

    Full credit has to be given to Marcelo Bielsa and the fitness coach at Bilbao for giving these players one of the highest cardiovascular fitness rates in Europe.

    They sprinted at United's defence all night, and the home team couldn't cope with the speed of their players and their attacks.

    The strain and fatigue on the Red Devils' backline definitely played a part in the scoring of all the away team's goals.

    After going 1-0 down, Bilbao equalised from a Fernando Llorente header, with the 27-year-old—after holding up the ball outside the box and playing it out wide—sprinting in from the edge of the penalty area to beat his marker and head home.

    To take the 2-1 lead, the visitors took the ball to United's third before slowing the pace, and immediately upping it again, with a quick succession of interlinking play before De Marcos sprinted in to score.

    And then they gained a 3-1 advantage following a classic counter-attack, where De Gea parried De Marcos' shot before Muniain sprinted from 40 yards or so to meet the rebound and tuck away the goal.

    Incredible tempo and fitness from Bilbao all night—typical of the way Bielsa wants his teams to play.

Floor Football

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    Athletic Bilbao mainly kept their play on the ground, playing low passes across the floor instead of hitting long balls and hopeful crosses.

    Of course, they did cross into the penalty area—that's what led to Llorente's headed opener—but only when there was a certain chance of getting an effort on goal.

    Bielsa's side mainly kept it on the ground, where they could hit intricate passes and split open United's defence, as proved with the psychologically crushing (in the home side's case) second goal.

Invincible Team

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    A culmination of Marcelo Bielsa's tactics led to a great one tactic—that psychological air of invincibility surrounding Athletic Bilbao's play.

    After making a mistake to go 1-0 down, Bilbao hit back, and not only put constant pressure on United's defence, but gave them no time on the ball when they were getting into dangerous positions.

    Their consistent desire for goals even after equalising then taking the lead, at Old Trafford of all places, showed the side's incredible self-belief, and almost the sense of a reverse in the famous OT line: "We're Athletic Bilbao, we do what we want."

    The Red Devils looked dejected by just how strong the opposition was—a clever ploy by Bielsa, setting his side up to ensure they are the dominant force.

    It means the odds of a Manchester United win in the return leg at the San Mamés seem very slim.

    In fact, the chances of United believing in their own ability to win in Bilbao are probably even smaller.