Press, Press and More Pressing

A great game of football with Athletic running out 3-2 winners, a scoreline that arguably flatters Man Utd given the overall balance of play. After the initial stutter under Bielsa early on in the season, Athletic have gradually adapted to his methods demonstrated by the current run of just 3 defeats in the last 21 games in all competitions.

The performance against Man Utd was arguably their best under Bielsa, drawing the various strands of his game together and executing them brilliantly.

Line Ups

Athletic lined up in their variation of the 4-1-2-3 formation against Manchester Utd. With Amorebieta suspended, there was no real decision to be made for Bielsa and he went with his strongest line up.

The Starting Line Ups

 

Ferguson had stated prior to the game how Man Utd needed to improve in the Europa League and how an experienced team would be fielded against Athletic.

Man Utd lined up in a 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2 formation.

Ferguson does not like to pair two similar players in midfield i.e. Carrick and Giggs or Anderson and Fletcher due to it making Man Utd lack mobility in the former or creativity in the latter.

The pairing of Giggs and Jones was designed to pair a passer with a runner. Man Utd had gone with a central midfield pairing of Carrick and Giggs against Newcastle and fell victim to a high press with neither Giggs or Carrick offering enough mobility in midfield.

First Half

Athletic started with their usual aggressive high pressing. Llorente aimed to press the centre backs whilst Evra and Rafael were closed down by Muniain and Susaeta when they moved forward.

Man Utd made a number of misplaced passes, some of which were due to sloppy play whilst others were forced from Athletic’s intensive pressing.

With Rooney behind Hernandez and Iturraspe the deepest of the Athletic midfielders, Rooney should have pressed him more during the game but failed to do so, in a similar fashion to how Rooney failed to press Busquets in the Champions League Final last season. This allowed Iturraspe to collect the ball and begin constructing moves, linking with Herrara in the centre of the pitch.

Athletic were content to play slow patient passing in their own half of the pitch before accelerating the speed of the play as they approached the Man Utd penalty area with Llorente used as a focal point, laying off the ball to De Marcos, Muniain and Susaeta as they moved forward at pace. They looked for quick 1-2’s and runners breaking in behind the defence which they repeatedly did on the right flank.

Jones often tried to break forward for Man Utd in the midfield but arguably the lack of discipline shown here contributed to Muniain having space to move infield from the left and attack the centre of the pitch. Giggs is no defensive midfielder and lacks mobility now. Jones should have stayed deep and offered protection to the defence.

Evra Attacked?

Athletic frequently overloaded the right wing in the first half. Was this a conscious decision to attack Evra? With Park naturally tucking in, it left Evra exposed to attacks from Iraola, Susaeta and De Marcos.

Indeed, on two occasions, Muniain also drifted to the right wing, swamping Man Utd in this area.

A number of long passed were hit between Evra and Evans in the first half with Susaeta or Iraola overlapping as the intended recipients potentially looking to expose positional flaws in Evra’s game.

Susaeta exposed the space between Evans and Evra for his lobbed chance in the latter part of the first half.

Athletic’s equalizer came from a ball to the right with Evra and Park tucking in, allowing Susaeta time to deliver the cross for Llorente to head in. Jones who was challenging Llorente on the edge of the penalty area failed to track his run.

Second Half

Man Utd attempted to press quicker and higher up early in the second half and Rooney appeared to be positioned further upfield but it was not a coherent press.

Giggs is too old in central midfield to press which led to an undisciplined, slightly half hearted press which Athletic were able to pass around. The general picture of the first half was replicated early in the second half.

Muniain forced a good save from De Gea in 49th minute but he was allowed far too much time to take his shot. Again, Jones was positioned in a line with the centre backs here but surely he should have been challenging Muniain and positioned in front of the centre backs?

The lack of pressure was apparent for De Marcos scoring. Herrara had time and space to lift the ball over the defence for De Marcos (in an offside position) to run onto and score.

The final Athletic goal was a compilation of defensive errors.

Firstly, Evans and Jones failed to communicate and challenged for the same ball, secondly, De Marcos managed to beat a fresh Anderson to the loose ball and get his shot at goal and finally, Rafael stood and watched as Muniain made up a gap of 15 yards to beat De Gea to the rebound.

Man Utd though had several chances in the second half mostly all on the counter attack.

For all their attacking intent, Bielsa teams are still prone to being exploited on the counter and were fortunate that the referee was quite lenient in the game with a few cynical fouls by Athletic to break up Man Utd counters.

It should come as no surprise that, although Athletic dominated possession, they also committed more fouls, 16 to Man Utd’s 11.

Substitutions

Man Utd made three second half substitutions, none of which had any impact upon the general direction of the game but each forced a reshuffle on the pitch.

Smalling was replaced by Carrick following his head knock early in the second half. Jones replaced Smalling in central defence and Carrick added a bit more composure to the Man Utd midfield. However, with two passers side by side, Carrick and Giggs, Man Utd were going to continue to struggle even against an Athletic side which was beginning to tire slightly.

In the 60th minute, Park was taken off and replaced by Anderson. Surprisingly, Rooney appeared to go wide left for a spell with Giggs behind Hernandez.

Was Rooney pushed wide left to assist Evra deal with Iraola etc attacking? Rooney was the deepest Man Utd player in the 65th minute as he cleared the ball from the corner flag.

In the 74th minute Giggs was replaced by Nani. Ashley Young moved to the left wing and Nani went onto the right wing with Rooney moved back into a central area.

Two subs for Athletic late on for straight replacements. Torquero for Llorente and Inigo Perez for Herrara. Torquero continued the aggressive pressing whilst Perez had no opportunity for any real impact.

Conclusions

A nearly flawless game from Athletic although they do still leave large gaps at the back for teams to exploit on the counter. They dominated possession and had more shots on and off target than Man Utd.

Questions remain though. Can such a small squad maintain such a high energy approach for the remainder of the season? With Osasuna at the weekend before facing Man Utd again, will their league form falter? How can they improve defensively without sacrificing any of their attacking intent?

From Man Utd’s perspective, they knew what Athletic would do and how they would approach the game yet they failed to respond.

The implementation of the 4-4-2ish system was wrong. Rooney did not press, Hernandez looked short on confidence when he had the ball and the team in general appeared laboured and slow.

The inclusion of Hernandez, who has fallen behind Wellbeck in recent times, was probably due to his pace with the aim being to exploit the high line which Athletic use. It was a tactic which failed as Hernandez was unable to exploit the space behind Athletic as Man Utd passed too slowly and were not direct enough.

The space against Athletic is behind the full backs. Iraola and Aurtenexte push high upfield and Martinez and Amorebieta or San Jose are not comfortable being pulled wide. Space can also be found in the midfield, with a noticeable gap between Iturraspe and the pairing of De Marcos and Herrera.

The constant reshuffling by Man Utd that took place between the 60th minute and 74th minute looked desperate as Man Utd searched for a solution.

Guardiola commented previously on the relentless pressing by Athletic. Perhaps Man Utd were caught out by the sheer intensity of their pressing and the high tempo which occurred for the duration of the game.

In my view, they should have known how Athletic would play in advance. The line up and tactics were in no way surprising.

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