By Jason Freeman.
1) Athletic Bilbao taught us a lesson
A few people may have written off Athletic Bilbao before the game but the Spanish club proved that those people were wrong to do so. Athletic Bilbao passed the ball superbly at a high tempo and pressed high up the pitch forcing United into giving the ball away. Their pressing game was a key feature in getting them a draw against Barcelona earlier in the season and was again the key in beating us here at Old Trafford. We did improve slightly as the game wore on by bringing on two natural central midfielders notably Carrick who has been our best central midfielder this season but we still struggled albeit less so with him coping better under the pressure of Athletic Bilbao’s pressing game.
Athletic Bilbao taught us a lesson here and for a young and inexperienced side who are still learning it could prove to be a big lesson towards future success in Europe as we saw in 2005 when we last went out at the group stages in the Champions League, a few years later we won the competition. It also happened in the 90’s prior to winning the Champions League.
Whether this side will learn from this season in Europe remains to be seen but history suggests they will.
2) A bad season on the continent
Last season saw us finish runners up in the Champions League, fast forward a year or so, we find ourselves struggling in the Europa League having put in some awful performances both home and away in both European competitions against teams many would expect us to beat and perhaps some of the problem has been that the players and the coaching staff have expected to win the games too. Despite struggling in Europe it doesn’t necessarily mean we have a bad side however as mentioned previously it is inexperienced and is currently learning how to play in Europe against teams who play a different style to English teams like Athletic Bilbao tonight. In the Premier League we are on course to reach 90 points and have just come through a difficult run of games only dropping 2 points.
However, Sir Alex shouldn’t escape criticism having perhaps underestimated opposition teams with his team selection and tactics by making too many changes, bringing in players who are not match sharp or have just come back from injury in many games. We’ve also hardly played our tried and tested 4-5-1 in Europe this season.
There are many reasons we’ve not been up to scratch in Europe this season, the important thing as I’ve mentioned is that we learn from this season and history suggests we will.
3) No need for knee jerk reactions
Following the defeat to Athletic Bilbao there have been many over the top knee jerk reactions, these reactions are simply not needed though and are pretty embarrassing, suggestions of selling certain players after losing a game is pathetic and the people reacting like this probably didn’t even care we were in the competition until last night. Despite being outplayed at home to a side most would expect to beat, people must remember that Athletic Bilbao are a very good, young and talented side with a very good manager and have given the top sides in Spain a run for their money and it is no surprise that they contribute the most players to the Spanish national team. We are currently in a period of transition like many of our Premier League counterparts and we currently building a team for the future, a very talented side at that despite what people may say. Sir Alex has been here many times before; the players would not be at the club if he did not believe they were good enough. So stop making a fool of yourself and back the players and the manager.
4) De Gea’s continued rise
David De Gea yet again put in a man of the match performance in the Europa League, pulling off some fantastic saves, however he was let down by his team mates, with United conceding 19 shots at goal, 11 of which were on target, this resulted in 3 goals being scored, none of these goals were De Gea’s fault though, he was simply just let down by his team mates as Phil Jones let Fernando Llorente run past him for the first goal, the second was a moment of brilliance from the Spanish team, the third was very poor from Rafael who simply stared at the ball while Iker Muniain ran past him and slotted home after De Gea had saved and pushed the ball wide. It’s not just Rafael who should take blame for the goal, someone from midfield should have been shouting to say there was an Athletic Bilbao player behind him. I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record but the whole team will learn from this goal, I often say that young players need to make mistakes to improve, it makes them realise what they need to improve on and helps them to become better players which brings me back to De Gea, this season has been a massive learning curve for him and he’s learnt from his early mistakes and he knows what he needs to improve on to become a very good goalkeeper and I think we are starting to see that now. He is also looking a lot more confident now which is rising with every game with him pulling off fantastic saves and picking up man of the match awards. He’s still got a lot to learn but his potential is there to be seen, the people who wrote him off are beginning to look like fools.
5) Defence exposed by midfield
Many will put defeat against Athletic Bilbao down to our defence but it was not only the defence who let us down. The midfield was too open, neither midfielder was protecting the back 4, Giggs and Jones are not natural central midfielders and they both prefer to get forward, this left our back 4 unprotected and allowed Athletic Bilbao to walk through. When Michael Carrick came on, a holding midfielder, we improved slightly as he provided protection to the back 4, he is also a better passer of the ball than Giggs and Jones, and was better under the pressure of Athletic Bilbao’s pressing game.
In hindsight, we should have started a natural central midfielder and perhaps shouldn’t have played with a 4-4-2 system and perhaps this has been part of the problem for us in Europe this season, we’ve been too open, conceding many goals both home and away and conceding a lot of shots and I’m sure Sir Alex is aware of this and is himself learning from his mistakes this season and it will be interesting to see in the away leg who he starts with and how he sets the team out to play. It’s going to be tough but we have a team capable of winning.