What can we learn from Athletic Bilbao?

Lots and lots of people are getting excited about the fact Manchester United lost to Athletic Bilbao. When you get excited, you can often say some pretty silly things. Hysteria is the word that springs to mind. I don’t really feel caught up in it, perhaps I should give events more time to sink in, but right now, just moments after Bilbao beat United 2-1 to knock them out of the Europa League these are my thoughts.

Guillem Balague

Athletic showing tonight 2 things: the strength of La Liga (can’t argue with that anymore) and that MUFC need again a 2nd (European) version.
Guillem Balague is a Spanish football journalist who works in England for Sky TV, he also writes for The Times.
That was the perfect performance whichever way you look at it

Sid Lowe is an English football journalist based in Spain, he writes for The Guardian.

Now I’m not one of those bile fuelled blogging pedants that likes to take a single point made by someone out of context and attack them for it. However I do have a problem with both these statements. Firstly, does Athletic Bilbao’s victory show the strength of La Liga? No. Was that the perfect performance? No.

The Europa League knock-out stage is a cup competition played over two legs. Funny things happen in cups. Over two games recently Stevenage were only just beaten by Spurs. Is a two legged tie really a good measure of who is the better side? Liverpool won the Champions League when they finished 5th in the Premier League. So which is the better measure of the team? For me, it’s always the league.

The Carling Cup of European Football.

Manchester United consistently produce a very high level of performance. This doesn’t stop them losing 6-1 at home to Manchester City. It doesn’t stop them losing 3-0 away to Newcastle, but over the season so far they’ve been the best team, as they sit at the top of the league. Manchester City have often battered teams and so far have a perfect home record in the league, but they sit second after slipping to defeat at Swansea.

What’s the point of all this? On their day, teams can raise their performance and produce an “unexpected result” that’s why we all watch football. It’s the magic of the F.A cup that everyone talks about. Bilbao lost to Osasuna 2-1 at the weekend. They were probably guilty of looking ahead to the United game, perhaps saving themselves. I’d expect Bilbao to finish above Osasuna, I’d expect them to finish above Levante, but if they continue to progress in the Europa League it will undoubtedly have a knock on effect on their league form. Tonight they produced a good performance, but it had been set up by the 3 goals they scored in the first leg, perfect it certainly was not, not least for the goal they conceded but also the chances they missed, which thankfully for them didn’t prove costly.

Bilbao's stadium is well known for it's excellent atmosphere.

Bilbao are fantastic to watch and are capable of raising their game to a very high level, with an exceptionally high work-rate. Barcelona and Real Madrid don’t like facing them, especially at the San Mamés. But were Manchester United to play in La Liga, where would you expect them to finish? 8th? Behind Bilbao who 5’s commentator frequently enjoyed referring too as “only the 7th best” team in Spain? Sorry, but I don’t buy that for a minute. Bilbao simply can’t play like that every week. They gave the games against United everything, the scoreline flattered United, Bilbao could, perhaps should have scored more goals. However week in, week out, I’d fully expect the United side to get more points if the teams were in the same league, because it’s what United do best.

Earlier this season Chelsea played Valencia who currently sit 3rd in La Liga. This is Chelsea who were having all sorts of problems domestically. Chelsea, who certainly aren’t title contenders. They beat Valencia 3-0 at home and were unlucky to concede a late penalty in a 1-1 draw away. Chelsea are still in the Champions League, does that make them a better team than Manchester United or Manchester City? Of course not. Consider this some much needed context.

What a "golden generation" really looks like.

Spain is currently enjoying a fantastic period of football domination, but the Premier League is still very strong. Barcelona have produced perhaps the best club side ever, but Inter Milan were able to knock them out of the Champions League and Real Madrid under the guidance of one of the greatest managers ever look like beating Barca to the league title. In contrast all the top English clubs are currently going through a transition. Manchester City are building their team, United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea are all rebuilding. Tottenham who gave Real Madrid a run for their money last season didn’t even qualify for the Champions League this season, such is the strength of our domestic game.

It’s easy on the back of a game like tonight’s to draw all sorts of conclusions that simply aren’t true. I still remain unconvinced that either Manchester club really cares about the Europa League, but obviously that’s hard to prove conclusively. What you can say, is that Athletic Bilbao are fantastic to watch. Their coach Marcelo Bielsa has created a team that really do play beautiful attacking football and over two legs they are a match for anyone. If the English teams are to learn anything from watching the way in which Bilbao beat Manchester United, it’s that you don’t have to play a rigid 4-5-1 formation, sitting deep with men behind the ball and hope to get lucky from a set-piece or two in order to beat them. The lesson is that often style is as important as success.

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