As football fans we’re all losers at one time or another. But far from just being another awful thing in a world of never-ending misery, if you look closely you can find the positives in defeat. Perhaps it can spell the end for an unpopular manager, or finally break the spell of a life of misery as a football supporter and convince you to do something more productive with your Saturday afternoons like, oh I don’t know, turn on the television and watch four ex-footballers watching football?
This week’s guest managed to find a positive when Losing his Favourite Game, with the tactical stylings of one Marcelo Bielsa having such an impact it encouraged him to spend his spare time writing about the art of football tactics. Ryan Quinn is a lifelong Manchester United supporter, and the creator of The Conventional Playmaker, a website that provides tactical insight and analysis across English and European football.
Ryan’s interest in tactics was piqued by a shock defeat for his beloved United, as Bielsa and his relentless Bilbao side arrived at Old Trafford in 2012 and upset the odds to record a famous victory.
Manchester United 2-3 Athletic Bilbao
UEFA Europa League Round of 16 First Leg
8th March 2012
The 2011/12 UEFA Europa League Round of 16 pitted Manchester United up against Athletic Bilbao. Whilst faring well in the Premier League, riding clear of the rest with ‘Noisy Neighbors’ Manchester City, United had crashed out of the Champions League group stages in a disappointing fashion, with their fate cemented by a 1-2 defeat to Basel. To put things into perspective, this was the first time United had exited the group stages since the 2005-06 season.
Dropping into the round of 32 of the Europa League, five time European Cup winners Ajax were quickly dispatched, before mid-table La Liga side Bilbao headed to Old Trafford. I’d only watched Bilbao a few times before this match, and in the process got a bit more insight into not just the club, but it’s coach - the methodical Argentine Marcelo Bielsa, formerly coach of both Argentina and Chile - and the players.
I watched the game at home with my dad. We were sceptical going into the game, considering our ignorance of the side United were up against, as well as how things had been in Europe, not just for United, but most English sides during the season. Nevertheless, we were still expecting the necessary win to have the upper hand in the second-leg.
To our surprise, Bilbao played United off of the park. What made things interesting was how the Basque side approached the game. Bilbao set up so they had a spare man in between defence and midfield in both attacking and defensive situations. They pressed excellently, with United having little time to control the pace of the game. Having the spare man made the press in between midfield and defence that much more effective as Bilbao were rarely outnumbered in these areas. Ander Herrera, who would later sign for United, was one of the midfield three who was key to the marking. An early audition, perhaps?
Iker Muniain on Bilbao’s left flank was tricky and always a threat when receiving passes from deeper positions. He reminded me of Lionel Messi for his small stature, and by cutting inside and connecting with the midfielders. Bilbao scored three excellent goals, with the best being a volley from centre-forward Fernando Llorente.
I had mixed feelings after the game, hence why it always sticks with me. I was annoyed United were in such a predicament going into the second-leg a goal down. But at the same time, I was intrigued and blown away by how the other side played and how they set up. I have always been interested in different players and their approach to their position; for example, this winger likes to take on the full-back but this winger’s better at crossing. But this match was arguably the first time I took any interest in how sides specifically set up to outwit the opposition in any game. It was incredibly interesting and got me thinking about tactics that much more, especially in hindsight.
United would play the second-leg and things played out similarly. Losing 2-1 away from home, it spelled the end of the European adventure for Ferguson. Though United still had the league title to fight for, that too would end in disappointment, losing out on the final day to Manchester City. United would retain the league the following season, and again go out in European competition in interesting circumstances.
This match to really got me interested in team’s tactics at a younger age. I always liked watching European football, but my interest in tactics grew majorly after this game.