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United’s last 16 pairing in the Europa League has thrown up an opposition we’ve not faced in 55 years – Athletic Bilbao. Unless you’re a regular La Liga watcher then they may be somewhat unfamiliar so David Cartlidge has kindly agreed to provide information about the club in various different areas. David’s a freelance writer and written for a long list of reputable websites about Spanish football, he also happens to be a United fan!
Their season so far
Athletic Club de Bilbao’s season thus far has been one of excitement, and that’s exactly what was expected upon the appointment of Marcelo Bielsa as coach. It was a significant moment in the history of club as it meant that Athletic would sideline a lot of their traditional methods with a view to taking on board a new style of play and mentality. The primary reason for Bielsa’s appointment however, was to take the club to another level. Instead of maintaining their status in the mid-table of La Liga, they would look to breach the Champions League qualification zone. They have done that, and currently sit in 4th place, and part of that has been due to their impressive home record – a six game winning run breaks a record dating back to 2010.
How do they play?
Athletic will come with their 4-3-3 system. The centre backs are expected to move out of defence into midfield with two things in mind, that of playing the ball into midfield with a pass, or removing it into the channels for the advanced players to harness. Javi Martínez is strong at doing both, and it will be interesting to see how much press him. Fernando Amorebieta is suspended for the game, so Mikel San José will step in – he’s not as competent as Amorebieta by some distance, and could prove a weak link. The full backs are significant in the system, with Andoni Iraola, for many the best Spanish right back, captaining the side and pressing hard in attack looking to support whenever possible – he’s also extremely efficient in his defensive duties. Jon Aurtenetxe is less so defensively strong, but has superb crossing ability, and is a threat aerially.
Ander Iturraspe is the holding player, and although used to more advanced positions he has performed adeptly there this season. The combination of Ander Herrera and Óscar De Marcos is responsible for making most of Athletic’s magic happens, and they complement each other wonderfully with their abilities. Ander is cool, composed and technically supreme. He was the big signing in the summer and has excelled as many expected him to. De Marcos meanwhile, has been the revelation of the season, and if he was in the Premiership he would gather great admiration. He works incredibly hard for the team, and has featured in no less than FIVE positions this season. As well as his versatility, strong running and general work ethic he can provide the spectacular too, and is capable of neat close control and skill. “De Marcos = God” is written on the walls of Athletic’s Lezama training complex – that should tell you how high his star has ascended this season.
The sensational Iker Muniain will drift from his left sided wide role into central areas, and look to carry the ball past opponents but also attempt to cause chaos when out of possession. He moves wonderfully between the lines and sometimes behind the defence. Intimidated by no opponent, irrespective of size or status, he will be a constant threat. Markel Susaeta, like De Marcos, has been a sensation, and he tends to hug the right hand touchline though is capable of drifting in with skill and speed – an unsung hero in the team.
Fernando Llorente leads the attack and is the idol in the city, and to take him as a physical presence only would be naive. He can do so much more than throw his stature around, as Bielsa has schooled him to use his brain and not just what’s in his boots. 13 goals this season, equating to 32% of Athletic’s end product, he’s essential to their system. An aerial threat, yes, but also works adeptly with his footwork. His dropping off and play back to goal will need to be negated.
How will they approach playing at Old Trafford?
With the ideals that Bielsa has instilled within the club its unlikely Athletic’s approach will be considerably different in terms of being at the San Mamés or Old Trafford. Obviously Bielsa will look to ascertain the ascendancy at home, but don’t expect Athletic to sit deep when in Manchester. It simply isn’t in the makeup of the Bielsa-era, and besides, the decision to remove old coach Joaquín Caparrós was taken with this mindset in view – he felt Athletic had a level, and they couldn’t punch above it. Bielsa’s mandate is one of nothing is impossible. When at Old Trafford, there will be a message to the team to show much greater intelligence when on the field – often, Athletic have let games slip from their grasp because their frenetic model became fractured, when composure was needed. A high tempo can prove to be a double edged sword for Athletic, with the system excelling in attack but at the same time becoming exposed on the back foot. Athletic will leave space for United players to move into on the break, and often positionally they can become fractured. This is due to the high pressing, which has its positives but a precise opponent can pick away at its holes. Here, I think Michael Carrick’s role will be essential.
The work that Bielsa has already done can’t be underestimated. The evidence is there on the pitch, and just watching an Athletic side from last season compared to this one, you can see the difference in mentality. The aggression remains, but is complimented with sublime movement and attacking transitions. The players speak glowingly of the Argentinean, saying he gives them belief in their own ability but also the ideology which he remains so true to, and as throughout his career. Bielsa’s an innovator who doesn’t allow stagnation, and Athletic’s players are reaping the rewards of his tutelage. It’s a young squad, and perhaps contains three or more players that will form the core of Spain’s International future. Their cantera (youth academy) is part of their heart and soul, and a source of great pride. Although it doesn’t get the press of La Masia, the work being done there is equally important.
The club’s policy
The politics of the club is the thing that many people first mention when the subject of Athletic is brought up. They of course, operate on a Basque-only policy. This means they allow players from, historically speaking, seven Basque provinces. The lines have become blurred in recent years though, and although people deride the club for it, they are remaining true to the original policy. Fernando Amorebieta for instance, is now a Venezuela International, and although born in that country, both his parents are Basque (from Vizcaya). Some still call them racist, but it’s simply an identity. This season was significant, in that they handed a debut to a black player, Jonas Ramalho. The policy is the single most important thing about the club, as after all, it’s at their roots. The fans would take relegation over abandoning it.
United linked to Javi Martinez
In terms of the United link, Javi Martínez would be right now, an incredible purchase for any team. He’s learned more at Athletic this season, and it’s only rounding his abilities as a player, and making him a more versatile character. Considering his age, he’s at an outstanding level, and with his physical and mental capacity he would slot in to a Premier League side with ease. Muniain is another one the whole world has watched, and will continue to do so. Although great strides have been made there is much to improve in his game, but again, his eventual level is incredibly high, and would be an irresistible acquisition for any top side.
Why the high ticket prices?
As far as the ticket situation, it’s a case of Athletic’s plain and simple fleecing of United’s fans. Lokomotiv Moscow were charged €100 for a seat at the San Mamés and the club are simply applying the same rule here. Ironic, because Athletic themselves complained about being ripped off on the Copa Del Rey earlier this season, when visiting a Segunda B side.
The state of La Liga
La Liga itself is a in a terrible state, something that there is no getting away from. Unfortunately, only a small minority speak up about the issue. The majority of clubs, even those worst off, have showed no spine in denouncing the disgusting manipulation Barcelona and Real Madrid have implemented. I’ve watched La Liga for ten years now and when I say the league is a joke, believe me. The competition outside the top two is incredible, and it makes for some fascinating contests, but two clubs are looking to destroy that further as each year goes by. Athletic’s ability to stay in the top flight is an outstanding achievement, given that the only others to have done so are Barcelona and Real Madrid – this, all while operating that Basque only policy. Athletic can’t go and buy a “Galáctico” to save, or propel them.
What atmosphere can United fans expect at the away leg?
When United fans do travel to Bilbao, and enter San Mamés they are truly entering one of the greatest pieces of Spanish football history. It’s an old, creaking, intimidating structure, which traps the noise that is made inside it. Athletic’s supporters are passionate, dedicated, and serious about their love of the club. They are a unique entity in Spanish football; being in the stadium, and the city, makes you realise why they wouldn’t want to change a single thing, and why their identity is everything.