By Jason Freeman.
1) Athletic Bilbao thoroughly deserved to go through
There is no doubt that Athletic Bilbao were the better side in both legs and overall deserved to go through. They outplayed us when in possession and also when they were without possession. They passed the ball around at a quick tempo and accurately and also worked very hard to force us into making passing mistakes resulting in them regaining possession. For me, there is no shame in going out to Athletic Bilbao, as they outplayed United and made us look a bad team rather than us make them look good like we did against Ajax and Basel and a few of the other teams we’ve played so poorly against. Although they are only 7th in La Liga, they’ve given both Barcelona and Real Madrid tough games this season, drawing with Barcelona after Messi scored a late winner after Athletic Bilbao had a man sent off and although they lost heavily in the end at Real Madrid, they took the lead and ended the game with 10 men. So it is not only Manchester United who have struggled against Bielsa and his talented team and we won’t be the last either. I think we would have done better in the first leg had we fielded the side we did tonight and at full strength we may have won tonight. It’s not guaranteed but we certainly would have had a better chance.
2) Lessons will be learned
As I mentioned last week (5 Things We Learned: Manchester United 2 Athletic Bilbao 3), this season in Europe has been far from brilliant and is disappointing after reaching 3 Champions League finals in 4 seasons but lessons will be learned from this season. Compared to last season we have a much younger squad, for example van der Sar was replaced with someone half his age in the summer. Many of the young players we have in the squad have never played in Europe and even Ashley Young at 26 is inexperienced in Europe. This season they will have learnt a lot about what to expect in Europe and the difference between playing in the Premiership and playing in Europe. The club and Sir Alex have been in this position before and we’ve come through it and become a lot stronger as a result and we will again. There are a group of young talented players at the club, some of which are still doubted by many but if they weren’t talented they wouldn’t be at the club, Sir Alex has stated previously that he is building a team for the future and in my opinion they can become part of a very good team, they’ve not had the best of season’s so far but sometimes you have to take 5 steps back to go 10 forward.
3) Encouraging cameo from Pogba
There has been much speculation over the future of the talented French midfielder but after being left out of the first team squad for a few weeks prior to the game against West Brom last Sunday, it seems he is now likely to stay at the club having been involved in the last 2 games. In the 2 games he has shown that he is not out of his depth playing with the first team and is staking a claim for more appearances, it’s unlikely that he’ll get to start any of the remaining league games this season but I’m sure that he’ll get more chances off the bench to impress. His cameo against Athletic Bilbao was probably one of a few if not the only positive from the game for us, working hard, passing the ball around quite well and trying his best to not only prove his own worth but to also try and help the side get back in the game. Not long after Pogba came on we conceded the 2nd goal of the night and at that point the worst was feared as with Pogba’s lack of experience he could have crumbled but he didn’t. This was an encouraging display from the young midfielder but there’s more to come from him and hopefully we will get to see it more this season and continue to see him play for the club for many years to come.
4) De Gea shines again
Despite conceding another 2 goals tonight, De Gea pulled off a number of great saves again and had it not been for him it could have been a lot more, poor finishing from the Spanish side also meant the result wasn’t as bad as it could have been. De Gea didn’t put a foot wrong all night and was definitely not to blame for either goal with the first a moment of sheer brilliance from Fernando Llorente and the 2nd goal a deflected shot that perhaps he would have saved had it not been deflected. De Gea’s shot stopping ability was never really doubted however despite some dodgy moments early on in the season, other areas of his game still require improvement although he has improved quite a bit, he also looks a lot more confident than he did just a few weeks back and it’s his performances in the Europa League that have helped him gain confidence, in the 4 games he had to pull off a number of top draw saves. He has dealt with crosses in recent weeks very comfortably and looks stronger now while before he looked very nervous and weak. The potential he has is enormous and if fulfilled he could become one of the best keepers in the world.
5) League has our full attention now
The league has perhaps been our main priority all season; we’ve not fielded our strongest side in Europe all season which has resulted in us being knocked out at the group stages of the Champions League and not going very far in the Europa League. Getting knocked out of the Europa League means that for the first time in many years we have not reached a cup final, meaning we have no other competitions but the league to concentrate on, enabling us to play a full strength side for the duration of the run-in and keeping players fresh. However we don’t really have an advantage over our title rivals as they also only have the league to concentrate on. A few players will probably be rested for Wolves on the weekend after the game against Athletic Bilbao but after that a full strength side can be played for the rest of the season as we look to keep winning and possibly extend the gap at the top. Winning a 20th league title will in my opinion more than make up for a disappointing season in other competitions. We can do it so let’s get fully behind the team and drive them on to title number 20.