When Manchester United run out at the Estádio da Luz on Wednesday travelling supporters may well witness a very different approach from the one that dominated the weekend’s game with Liverpool. On Saturday, with the world watching one of England’s great fixtures, José Mourinho’s side sunk into its shell, hamstrung by a manager who has made a career-long reputation as the “enemy of football.” It was to United’s loss: two points dropped, momentum halted, an opposition there for the taking, given a pass.
This is, of course, an age old debate when it comes to Mourinho. Pragmatism over style; caution above ambition; safety first, not carefree abandon. The rejoinder is now equally hackneyed. That, somehow, supporters should accept a point gained at Anfield as full justification for the approach. After all, Mourinho sees each game as a means to an ends, and it is to his dubious credit that he has convinced some that points or style is a binary choice.
The United manager has never accepted the stinging criticism that comes with each negative outing. Yet, the abrasive approach Mourinho adopts on these occasions cannot hide United’s lack of ambition. It was unbecoming of a manager that has designs on the Premier League title – and a club that considers itself second-to-none.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Mourinho has never accepted the stinging criticism that comes with each negative outing. Yet, his abrasive approach cannot hide United’s lack of ambition.[/blockquote]
This is a United side that had won six of its opening seven Premier League fixtures, some with plenty of style. On the opposite side, a team that had won just once in all competitions since August, and lies in mid-table despite Jurgen Klopp’s promised revolution, which is now a full two years old.
Do supporters not deserve more entertainment, one journalist posited in the aftermath? As ever, the tetchy response.
“It depends what for you is an entertaining game,” said Mourinho. “One thing is an entertaining game for fans, another thing is entertaining game for the people who read football in a different way. That’s different. My opponent didn’t open the door for me to win the game.”
“As a coach you try to anticipate things and I had no midfielder to do what I could do many, many times which is to be with three strong midfield players and then give more freedom to my three attacking players. I couldn’t do that, I had no Fellaini, no Pogba, no Carrick, nothing at all.”
True, with Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba missing, Mourinho had little option but to select Nemanja Matic, his £40 million summer signing from champions Chelsea, and Ander Herrera, last season’s Player of the Year. It was the central midfield pair that had dominated in United’s ambitious victory at CSKA Moscow prior to the international break.
Beyond injuries it was, said Mourinho, Liverpool’s approach and not United’s caution that had the greater impact on a dour game.
“When I brought on Lingard and Rashford,” he added. “I was waiting for him [Klopp] to give me more space but he didn’t give me it. I know you think we were defensive and they were offensive. Well, you were at home and you don’t move anything? I don’t know. I was waiting for that. He didn’t.”
Mourinho’s swagger hides a greater truth, of course. That not only did he set up his side to stifle an opponent, but that it is his modus operandi against United’s direct rivals. The visitors’ sole shot on target at Anfield came from six attempts, which is more than 50 per cent lower than United’s average against the big six and below the 17 shots per game when playing the rest of the league.
On Saturday, it was Liverpool, not United that created more and better chances, despite Klopp’s apparent reticence to give Mourinho “more space.” Had David de Gea not saved expertly from Joel Matip, nor Mo Sallah lashed a good opportunity over the bar, then United would have lost. Mourinho would have little cause to complain.
“If you’re going to win the title you need a great goalkeeper – and United have got one,” Gary Neville noted. United will need the Spaniard frequently if Mourinho adopts the same approach in the toughest matches this season..
Another telling data point was United’s low possession count on Saturday – and it is far lower in the big matches at 43.53 per cent than the 60.28 per cent achieved when Mourinho’s team faces lesser lights. Mourinho is happy to concede possession and territory, for greater control over defensive shape. Perhaps even more damning, the Reds have scored just six times in six games against other top sides under the Portuguese manager.
Klopp, by contrast, held the air of exasperation post-match. “I’m sure if we would play like this, we could not do this at Liverpool,” he said. “That’s how it is, obviously when you’re in Manchester it’s OK.”
If the German was making a claim on some kind of moral victory it was hollow, but the difference in approach was clear. Klopp demanded that “first of all you need to work, you need to continue working hard, really hard, and then, at one point, it will happen,” while Mourinho complained that “my opponent didn’t open the door for me to win the game.”
Klopp’s self actualisation versus Mourinho’s focus on his opponent.
Mourinho’s approach often gets results, of course, including two trophies in his short time at Old Trafford. Klopp cannot say the same. The silverware will be remembered long-after the the dreary matches have been forgotten and the Portuguese will not change now. Realisation of instruction and the team ethic are held far above any notion that the “horses can run freely.”
Nor is Mourinho is the only manager to have taken a safety-first approach against supposedly tough opponents. Sir Alex Ferguson’s latter years were peppered with pragmatic performances not becoming of the Scot at his pomp. Fans recall the trophies won most, although they also crave entertainment.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Mourinho’s approach sits well with United’s hierarchy after the disastrous period under David Moyes and then Louis van Gaal. It’ll be accepted by Old Trafford too while trophies are on the horizon.[/blockquote]
Mourinho’s approach sits well with United’s hierarchy, not least after the disastrous period under David Moyes and then Louis van Gaal. It’ll be accepted by Old Trafford too while trophies are on the horizon and United remains within shouting distance of the Premier League trophy.
Yet, the weekend’s result also left something on the table – a draw sought when victory was there for the taking. And the inkling that as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City put seven past a hapless Stoke City, United might just have to take a few more risks if the Premier League trophy is to return home after five long years away.