Athletic Bilbao humbled Man United home and away in the Europa League last month. But Fergie and the club shouldn't be embarrassed, they should just go out and sign their three best players...
Everyone knows Sir Alex Ferguson likes to get his transfer business done early when it comes to the annual summer recruitment drive.
From snapping up Anderson and Nani from Portugal shortly after the season had ended a couple of years ago to his rapid purchases of Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David De Gea the summer just gone, Fergie likes to have his hand on the trigger with time to spare.
He will be looking to strengthen most areas of his hard-working, over-achieving squad as quickly as possible this year, and the Manchester United boss would be best served signing three stars of everyone’s favourite Europa League team.
Athletic Bilbao are certainly in vogue at the moment. From their intriguing and slightly crazy Argentinian tactical mastermind Marcelo Bielsa to their supremely talented Basque-only squad, Athletic are a fascinating outfit.
In an age of super-agents, £200,000-a-week contracts and unprecedented globalisation in football, [Athletic's] is a policy that swims against the modern tide.
The club’s cantera youth policy, sees them bring through youth solely native to the Basque region. They also resist signing players from other teams unless they have Basque origin. The transfer of Ander Herrera from Real Zaragoza in 2011 highlights the approach. In an age of super-agents, £200,000-a-week contracts and unprecedented globalisation in football, it is a policy that swims against the modern tide.
To put the feat into context it is like Leeds United only signing and playing players from Yorkshire. But it seems to be working for Athletic, who lie just off the Champions League spots in La Liga and will face Atletico Madrid in the Europa League final on May 9.
And it was Athletic who knocked United out of that tournament last month, as they outclassed the English Champions 5-3 over the two legs. Fergie should be booking his end-of-season flights to Bilbao to sign up their three best players, who would drastically improve this United squad in need of reinforcements.
David Gill needs to write his manager a blank cheque in which to secure Athletic’s trio of Fernando Llorente, Iker Muniain and Javi Martinez. And here’s why…
Fernando Llorente: Striker, 27
Llorente is the lone front man of this impressive Bilbao side. Big, strong, quick-footed and with an eye for a goal, he is what Peter Crouch dreams of being. At 6ft 5in and with bulging biceps, this powerhouse of a striker has the presence needed to lead the line against any defence. Able to knock up balls for him to win in their air, he is equally comfortable on the deck and he knows where the goal is.
Against Sporting Lisbon he was at the centre of everything. Chesting down a cross for his side’s opener, he got himself in great positions thanks to his clever movement and rewarded his team with the winner minutes from time. A wonderful pull back sold the defender for his assist on the second goal, and Llorente cracked a header back off the post before stabbing home Bilbao’s third on the night to send the homes crowd into raptures.
Designed with the Premier League in mind, this striker would offer the perfect foil for Wayne Rooney to express himself in that deeper role he seems to crave. Yes, Danny Welbeck has had a good season and Javier Hernandez is still a great finisher, but with Berbatov seemingly on his way out of Old Trafford, this 27-year-old attacker is at the peak of his powers and would fit seamlessly into United’s line-up.
Spain’s golden generation has limited him to just 20 international caps, but he is set to start up front for the World Cup holders at Euro 2012. And with odds of nearly 20/1 at some book-makers, he’s not a bad shout to back for the tournament’s golden boot.
Llorente could be seen crying at the final whistle after booking his team’s spot in the Europa League final, and as a proud Basque who has been at the club since the age of 11, it must have been an emotional moment. But as he approaches 30, who could deny the striker a move to one of Europe’s elite?
Big, strong, quick-footed and with an eye for a goal, he is what Peter Crouch dreams of being.
Iker Muniain: Attacking midfielder, 19
The Spanish press may have been guilty of hyperbole when they labelled Muniain ‘the new Messi’ as he shot onto the scene in 2009, but the diminutive playmaker is certainly one of the hottest talents in La Liga. At just 5ft 6in, Muniain is the definition of diminutive, but what he lacks in height he makes up for in technical ability, speed and enthusiasm.
Buzzing in and around behind Llorente, Muniain dictates the play through the middle but often drifts out wide to help add dynamism to his team’s attacks. Against Sporting he delivered a pinpoint cross from the right to find his tall striker for Athletic’s first, and his energetic performance in the heart of midfield sums up the frenetic manner in which Bielsa’s side hunt down their opposition.
When United passed up the opportunity to add Wesley Sneijder to their ranks last summer, it was widely commented that the club lacked the man to provide creativity in the final third. This has been part offset by Scholes’ return from retirement but also Rooney dropping deeper to affect the play.
However such short-term pragmatism cannot last and Muniain represents the future as an attacking midfielder who is only going to get better. If United don’t go for the Spanish teenager this summer, he is sure to end up at one of La Liga’s big hitters such has he impressed throughout the current campaign.
Javi Martinez: Defensive midfielder, 23
Predominantly a midfielder, Bielsa has moulded Martinez into a centre-back this season. Martinez’s aggression is one of the main factors behind this move, which he highlighted against Lisbon last week by spending the majority of the first thirty minutes crashing into committed tackles. The fact he didn’t receive a yellow card was thanks to the immaculate timing of his challenges as much as Martin Atkinson’s leniency, but Martinez has showed his versatility by being adept in both positions.
Central defence and defensive midfield are positions that United have been found wanting in this season. With Vidic out injured, Ferdinand often off-colour and Phil Jones playing all over the pitch it has been left to Jonny Evans to stand out as their best central defender. How such an idea would have caused ridicule only a matter of months ago.
Carrick still occupies the position that is most alike to the holding role for United, but he is not renowned for his tenacity. Past him and Scholes, and the options aren’t looking great, with Anderson perennially on the treatment table there is a void to be filled.
Martinez was involved in the Spain squad that won the World Cup in 2010 and led the national side to glory at the Euro 2012 Under-21 tournament, so it’s fair to say he holds an impressive pedigree.
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