El Centrocampista

Fed to the Lions – Sir Alex loses the tactical battle as Bielsa’s boys dominate


Pragmatic in defeat, Sir Alex Ferguson had few excuses after his side were outfought and outplayed by Basque flag bearers Athletic Club in Thursday night’s Europa League clash at Old Trafford.

There are few teams who travel to the famous stadium and come away with a result, let alone outplay the reigning English Premier League Champions (although the blue-half of Manchester may remember one such occasion early this year), but Marcelo Bielsa’s side did just that last night in a display that can only be described as emphatic – in performance if not in margin of victory.

Ferguson had little to offer the throng of journalists in the stifling Old Trafford press room last night, other than to hold his hands up in a ‘fair cop guvnor’ moment and admit his side had been beaten by the better side. In reality, Fergie had also been beaten by that wily old fox, Bielsa, who tactically outmaneuvered the man widely regarded as the greatest manager in the history of football.

Not that the Athletic boss was in the mood to bask (no pun intended) in any post-match glory, instead preferring to thank his opposite number for the glowing praise he had given the Argentine minutes before he came in to face his own barrage of questions.

It is difficult not to immediately warm to the 56-year-old and the contrast in the two managers was stark as they gave their views on the fantastic game of football they had both witnessed in the preceding two hours. Sir Alex was his usual, jovial self and held court as only he can – despite being obviously disappointed with his side’s display. He joked about the Football Association directive he had recently received advising him not to discuss the vacant England manager’s job, and he didn’t, well not too much, before going into an intriguing eulogy about Athletic Club’s famous cantera and philosophy.

Bielsa meanwhile, was measured and articulate. He took time to answer each question and gave thoughtful responses, especially to the Basque media. The former Chilean national team coach is an enigmatic figure and has far more substance to his character than his moniker of el loco implies, in fact the manner in which he completely out-thought Ferguson last night suggests he could very well be a serious choice for the Barcelona job he has been linked to – should Pep Guardiola step down during the summer of course.

However that is highly disrespectful to los Leones, and why would he want to leave San Mames? The team finally understand their coach’s philosophy and, following a fairly understated start to his time in Bilbao, Bielsa is now at the helm of arguably the most-exciting team currently playing in la liga.

The coach gave a candid answer when asked about his pre-match team talk and claimed the players all now know their role: “It is a footballing philosophy and a simple one. We press the other team as high up the pitch as we can and try to get the ball back as quickly as we can. When we do get the ball back we go directly to goal. We aim to be comfortable on the ball when we’ve got it and hungry for it when we haven’t.”


Ferguson claimed to know what to expect form last night’s visitors, however on this showing maybe he should have told his players as well. United were under pressure from the start and simply could not cope with the relentless pressing and work-rate Athletic employed. The visitors harassed their hosts throughout the game and their were few United players who looked comfortable in possession, even the normally unflappable Ryan Giggs.

Fernando Llorente kept Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans busy all game (although Smalling was replaced in the 55th minute by Michael Carrick due to a head wound) and United’s full backs were wholly ineffective for the most part as Jon Aurtenetxe and Andoni Iraola pushed them high up the pitch.

Rafeal da Silva was a liability at right back and was given a torrid time by the magnificent Iker Muniain, a player who is still only 19-years-old lets not forget. Wayne Rooney, so often United’s saviour, also struggled to impose himself on the game and was well marshalled by Ander Iturraspe who was ably joined by Javi Martinez and Mikel San Jose on occasion.

Rumoured united-target Martinez was nothing short of immense. Composed on the ball and solid when called upon, he marked Javier Hernandez out of the game and also proved a threat when moving forward into midfield.  In fact it came as a surprise to many of my English colleagues that he was actually ‘pretty’ good. Maybe that is where part of the problem lies.

United didn’t really know much about the Athletic side, bar Llorente, Martinez and Muniain. True, these are probably the Basque club’s most high-profile stars, however Bielsa has moulded his team into a well-oiled machine. They move with fluidity and it can be difficult to actually see what formation they are employing at times – especially as Bielsa’s preference for man-marking means players track out of position, to be covered by the nearest team-mate – on more than one occasion last night, Oscar de Marcos was playing left-back and Ander Herrera found himself wide right.

It would be wrong to highlight individual players however, as it was a fantastic team performance and undoubtedly Athletic’s best since Bielsa arrived in the summer. The only negative for the coach, and the 8,000 fans who took over Old Trafford, was the fact that they found themselves with just a one goal advantage at the final whistle after conceding a late penalty seconds after Muniain had looked to have finished the tie. Bielsea put this down to the fact that United are such a good team and said: “They had few chances yet we won the game by just one goal, that shows how good this side actually are.”

Some would argue that it was more to do with the odd lapse in concentration his side are prone to, but that is just being pedantic and detracts from the fact that Athletic scored three away goals at a ground where United have traditionally been almost-invincable.

Of course this magnificent work will count for nothing if United travel to Bilbao on Thursday and manage to turn the tie around, something that was not lost on Bielsea last night when asked about the chance of progressing to the next round: “We are only half-way through the tie. Yes I was pleased with the team’s performance, but if we don’t finish the job next week, tonight will count for nothing.”

United must learn from this defeat and Ferguson must adapt his tactics as San Mames will be a cauldron of noise next week – if the English side think Athletic cannot get any more fired up than last night, they may have a rude awakening ahead of them.



  1. FCB1899

    9 March, 2012 at 16:25

    I thought Athletic Bilbao were brilliant last night and Man Utd couldn’t live with their work rate and pressing like you say. I thought Susaeta was a threat all game as well but Javier Martinez was a different class.

  2. Patxi

    9 March, 2012 at 16:30

    Now the English teams know that la liga is not just Barcelona and Real Madrid. Manchester were average but Athletic were very good and will be even better at San Mamés.

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