Marcelo Bielsa, the man known in his native Argentina as ‘El Loco’ – the Madman, went to Old Trafford and left victorious. The former Argentina and Chile manager came up against Sir Alex Ferguson in what was always going to be a great tactical battle.

Starting Lineups

Sir Alex went for his usual 4-4-1-1 formation. David De Gea started in goal, with Chris Smalling and Johnny Evans forming the center back pairing, and Rafael and Patrice Evra either side of them. Central midfield had Phil Jones and Ryan Giggs, with Ashley Young on the right and Park Ji-Sung on the left. Javier Hernandez started upfront, with Wayne Rooney playing off him.

Marcelo Bielsa’s sides are normally fluid, switching formations depending on the game and their own control of the ball. They thus did not have a static formation, but started out in a 4-3-3-‘ish fashion. Gorka Iraizoz started in goal, and without the suspended Fernando Amorebieta, Mikel San Jose came in to partner Javi Martinez in the center of defence. Andoni Iraola and Jon Aurtenetxe started in the full back positions. Ander Iturraspe was the holding midfielder, flanked by Ander Herrera and Oscar De Marcos. The front 3 comprised of Mikel Susaeta and Iker Muniain either side of Fernando Llorente.

Reactive United

Sir Alex seemed to have done his homework and set up United in a counter attacking manner. This was odd, considering that he was the home manager, and the impetuous was on him to attack. But Sir Alex is pragmatic enough to know that his team is not good enough as to attack  sides that keeps the ball well, a lesson he learnt the hard way when Manchester City massacred United 6-1 at Old Trafford earlier on in the season.

He thus went for the center back pairing of Evans and Smalling, leaving out Rio Ferdinand as Ferdinand no longer has the pace to play against ball players. Jones started in midfield as Sir Alex wanted his ability to tackle in the middle, something United lack when they have a pairing which has any two of Giggs, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes (having a non tackler in midfield clearly cost United in the Champions League final against FC Barcelona).

Upfront, it was interesting that ‘Chicharito’ started ahead of Danny Welbeck. Welbeck has clearly established himself as United’s first choice striker, but Hernandez is better with his movement, especially against sides playing a high defensive line, and with Bilbao playing a high defensive line, it may be the reason why he was considered ahead of Welbeck for this tie.

On the flanks, Young played probably his first ever game for United on the right side. He has been seen on the left for most of his United career, but him starting on the right and having the industrious Park on the left showed that Sir Alex knew that Iraola was more of an attacking threat from right back than Aurtenetxe is from left back. He thus put Park on the left as he was better suited to track back Iraola than Young was.

Also note that Luis Nani, who doesn’t have a defensive bone in his body, was left on the bench. Sir Alex clearly wanted to defend, and then look to catch Bilbao on the counter attack.

Positive Bilbao

To say that Athletic Bilbao went to Old Trafford to attack is an understatement. This is after all a Bielsa side, and Bielsa sides always set up to attack  (at the World Cup in 2010, Bielsa’s Chile was the only side to play an attacking game against eventual champions Spain. All other teams that played Spain were defensive).

Bielsa’s attacking philosophy is based on ball retention and possession. For this, all of Bielsa’s players on the pitch (including goalkeeper Iraizoz) are comfortable whenever in possession of the ball, and always look for the best short pass. They look to build from the back and their movement is top notch, making it difficult to defend against them. They also have pace down the flanks (Muniain and Susaeta), supported by the full backs, Iraola and Aurtenetxe.


But rather than being an all out attack side, Bielsa’s system also allows for defending by incorporating the principles of pressing that were made so popular by legendary AC Milan manager, Arrigo Sacchi.  Its quite simple, once you lose the ball, you press the man on it so hard that he is either forced into giving back possession to you, or he is unable to constructively use the ball. This pressing game involves intelligent positioning and hounding down the opposition like a pack of wolves upon sheep. After Bilbao’s game with FC Barcelona earlier on in the season, so impressed was Pep Guardiola that on the final whistle he told Bielsa, “Your players are beasts.”

{ Pep Guardiola’s logic as to how a pressing game helps the team defensively.}

” I like my teams to press high up the pitch, their weakest and least tehcnical players are the defenders so it makes sense to press them into making mistakes. Also, the higher up the pitch you win the ball the closer you are to the opponents goal”

Formation fluidity

Bielsa’s team was so fluid that in essence, they used roughly about 3 formations.

First was the 4-3-3. This allowed Bilbao to cover almost every zone on the pitch whenever United had the ball. Llorente would press the center backs, Ander Herrera and De Marcos would cover the midfield zone, Susaeta and Muniain the full back areas, Iraola and Aurtenetxe the wingers, and most importantly, Iturraspe picked up Rooney (this negated Rooney’s influence over the game as a whole). This would also leave Bilbao with a 2 v 1 situation at the back (Javi Martinez and San Jose vs Javier Hernandez). Therefore, one of them would pick up Hernandez leaving the other defender free.

No space for the Man Utd players

On retrieving the ball, Bilbao’s full backs would push up to support the midfield. On doing this, the two center backs would generally spread out wide (but not too wide) then Iturraspe would move backwards to cover the zone in the middle of the defence. Iturraspe would however not venture too far back, for he always had to remember that his main priority was picking up Rooney. With the full backs moving into midfield, De Marcos would assume a playmaking role just behind the front 3. This set up would mirror Bielsa’s famed un enganche y tres puntas formation, or 3-3-1-3, that has largely contributed to his tactical success in his previous managerial jobs.

Bilbao’s loose 3-3-1-3 shape

Of note is the fact that once Iraola and Aurtenetxe moved into midield, they played not as wing-backs would usually play. They did not run wide of the wingers, but rather ran inside of them. This was clever as it allowed for more bodies in midfield. A good example of this is the equalizing goal where, Iraola picked up the ball on the edge of the box from a pass from Llorente. Iraola was so narrow that he even had a chance to shoot at goal himself. But he sent the ball out wide for Susaeta who brought in the cross for Llorente to head in. In usual circumstances, it would be the winger (Susaeta) receiving the ball narrow, then sending it out wide to the wing-back (Iraola) who would be making a run from deep past him along the touchline.

The third formation that Athletic Bilbao would morph into came into play once they lost the ball. Rather than radically look to revert to the defensive 4-3-3, from the attacking 3-3-1-3, Bilbao would have De Marcos move back into midfield, thus allowing the full backs to act as wing backs in a 3-4-3 shape.

The 3-4-3 allows Bilbao to crowd the midfield, denying their opponents space in the midfield

This 3-4-3 shape again covered the zones that Manchester United would look to exploit. Without quick passes, and due to the fast transition between formations of the Bilbao players, United were denied several counter attacks.


This match showed just how far Athletic Bilbao have progressed under Marcelo Bielsa. From being a side that relied on physicality and long balls last season when under the stewardship of Joaquin Caparros, they are now passers and pressers. Bielsa has clearly made his mark on the team, and with only 2 of the starting XI being over the age of 26, then this promises to be a great team in the future.

Once again, the tactical astuteness of the Barclays Premier League came into question. With Manchester United being leaders of the English sides in so far as tactics are concerned (a trait that has made them reach 3 Champions League Finals in the space of 4 years), the fact that they were clearly outdone this time raises questions. And with Manchester City also losing out on the night to Sporting Club de Portugal, Arsenal being bundled out a day before by AC Milan, and Chelsea on the brink of elimination at the hands of Napoli, it may be a sign that the English clubs seriously need to review their tactical systems.

From a tactical point of view, the game also raises questions as to what exactly is the best way to defend a team that keeps the ball well, yet presses so well without it. Managers have persisted with the use of tacklers to counter this, case in point being how Jones was employed here, and how Jose Mourinho employs Lassana Diarra (and at times, Pepe) in the El Clasico matches. This ploy has thus far proved unsuccessful, with the tacklers generally either committing fouls that earn them yellow cards (and at times, red), or, proving more of a burden when the team regains possession (they are not comfortable on the ball and thus succumb to the opposition’s high pressing game). Tacklers are slowly been fazed out of the game, with FC Barcelona not really having a genuine tackler in their midfield (their genuine tackler, Javier Mascherano, has been pushed back into defence). It thus seems that emphasis should tend towards more technical players, who would be required to read the game more, and position themselves to intercept more than to tackle. If this is the case, then going back to the argument on the paragraph above about the English and their tactics, then until they realize the importance of players such as Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, then English clubs are bound to lose more tactical battles against other European sides.