Jose Mourinho must show more ambition to get Manchester United back to the top
THE pundits hailed it as a tactical masterclass for the Reds, holding the opposition scoreless, indeed doing so for the first time in this Premier League campaign.
For their opponents, it was disappointing in terms of attacking, unable to score against a team that had conceded in every previous league game this season.
Most might think the first paragraph applies to Manchester United and the second to Liverpool after Monday night’s meeting - but they actually are accurate the other way round.
Yep, analysis can often be influenced by preconceptions. Sure, Liverpool are generally good going forward, but they remain fragile at the back, with a new goalkeeper and centre-half settling in, a makeshift left-back and a player adapting to the defensive midfield role. They’re particularly vulnerable at set-pieces.
Arguably then, the visitors to Anfield missed an opportunity to go at them. In fact, Manchester United did miss only one opportunity, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s misdirected header from a peach of a Paul Pogba cross.
That, apparently, was one of just six touches from the team in blue in Liverpool’s penalty area(s) over the entire match. That stark statistic makes it all the more bewildering that so many rushed to hail Jose Mourinho for his team’s performance. More mind-boggling still when you recall what a good record Manchester United have at Anfield.
It does explain why Liverpool got little or no credit for stopping United scoring - the latter largely did that themselves. Yet, considering the attacking talent available and on the pitch for the Red Devils, the hosts could also have claimed they played well, although they’d have fooled no one.
There were those who posed a seemingly irrefutable rhetorical question along these lines: ‘If United had gone for it and lost, would they have been praised for playing the right way?’
Well, they might have been. More importantly, had they gone for it, they might have won. For most of his Manchester United career, that was Alex Ferguson’s approach: trying to win, not trying to avoid defeat.
I may have misconstrued Mourinho in a previous column when I suggested he generally plays ‘not to lose’ - even in big games, he usually plays to win, even if that’s just by nicking a 1-0 victory.
He’s the footballing equivalent of a cricketing ‘flat track bully’, happy to thrash weaker opposition all over the park, but defensive and cautious against superior or similarly strong opponents. In his own phrase, when a Mourinho team goes ahead in a big match, he doesn’t go for a second goal, but tries to ‘kill the game’.
On Monday night, that was the attitude from the outset. Time-wasting from the first minute. Full-backs not getting forward, with two pacy wide attackers effectively deployed as part of a back six. Two midfielders shielding that defence. Long balls struck towards a big man up front. That’s all very well for a team set up by Tony Pulis or Sam Allardyce - but Manchester United?
No matter what the club is called, one would be entitled to expect more from them, given that a recent study calculated the current Manchester United squad as the most expensive ever assembled at €718m.
Even taking into account inflation and especially the inflation of the football transfer market, that’s a phenomenal figure. Liverpool are no paupers either, but their squad cost half as much (€356m), the fifth most expensive English set-up.
It’s not a ‘defensive master-class’ when most of the team plays defensively. Good defending is a vital part of the game, but it must be accompanied by some attacking approach.
And as has been the case for several seasons, without the brilliance of goalkeeper David de Gea, Manchester United would be little better than average.
United fans may understandably be happy with denying Liverpool a win, but otherwise? Meetings between Liverpool and Manchester United are rarely exciting, but this was worse than usual. Both sides were lucky they were given a point apiece.
The two teams on Monday night must have reflected their fans’ true feelings: Liverpool frustrated, Manchester United defensive, twisting to excuse a negative display. It’s somewhat embarrassing to celebrate winning ugly - but drawing ugly?
Mourinho often plays mind games and, afterward, he set up the false premise that Liverpool fans had expected ‘an easy game’ - the truth is that most, certainly the sensible ones, feared an ambush.
However, if you set the bar low, you’re much more likely to clear that particular hurdle, so the Portuguese could portray this dire draw as some sort of triumph.
However, for him to call this performance “really positive” was stretching even his admirers’ credulity beyond its breaking point. While he was spinning positivity about this performance, Mourinho’s innate negativity led to him labelling Liverpool as "not the last wonder of the world".
He’s quite right about that, they remain a work in progress, but at least there’s optimism about their approach. Besides, his job is to make Manchester United great again, not worry about how good, bad, or indifferent Liverpool are.
There’s little doubt he will improve United, but any half-decent boss could do well with the quality of players available to him. Although he’ll always find a reason to moan - such as about their current run of fixtures - Mourinho has few excuses not to bring success to the Old Trafford club.
He should also be able to bring style, if he has any desire to do so. He got the exact four players he wanted in the summer, not just in the four positions he had identified for strengthening.
Central defence - Eric Bailly. Central midfield - Paul Pogba. Creative attacking midfielder - Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Centre-forward - Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
At this early stage of the season, Manchester City, Spurs and Arsenal all look better teams than the two who met at Anfield on Monday night. However, given the lack of Champions League football for Man United and of any European football at all for Liverpool, they both should be competing for a top-four place this season.
Both clubs may well expect more - but until Mourinho shows more ambition, he won’t take Manchester United back to the top.