I WAS travelling up to Liverpool on Monday afternoon and remembered I had to write a piece for Wednesday. So I made some notes of things I could talk about, broadly surrounding that match.
Unfortunately for me, Jose Mourinho basically created a situation whereby there was pretty much nothing for me to talk about. Nothing really happened. Manchester United stifled Liverpool excellently and we came away with a 0-0 draw.
A 0-0 draw at home to United might be annoying on the face of it, particularly with the way it happened. But we’re in a situation whereby we’ve played Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea, Manchester United and last year’s champions and we sit two points off the top of the table.
You wouldn’t have turned your nose up at that two months ago.
I’ll be honest. I thought United were excellent on Monday night – they came with a gameplan, they quietened the crowd, they stopped us from doing pretty much anything and got the point that they came for. On another day David De Gea doesn’t pull that save from Philippe Coutinho off, but on another day they also take advantage of the Loris Karius error where he passed the ball to Paul Pogba.
There’s a certain snobbery in football whereby only attacking football is acceptable. Well I’m afraid that’s nonsense. At this moment in time this Liverpool side is better than Manchester United – we’re, at worst, the second best attacking side in this country and comfortably in the top ten in Europe. Before the weekend we’d had more shots, and more shots on target, than any side in England. Given our fixture list that’s an impressive achievement, if not rather simplistic as metrics go.
You can say that you aren’t into the type of football that Mourinho played, that’s absolutely fine. It isn’t particularly nice to watch – but why should he care? He isn’t paid to entertain you or me, to provide a situation where Liverpool can create chances aplenty and shower De Gea’s goal with shots. He is there to do the best thing for Manchester United. The best thing for Manchester United was to not lose.
I thought we really missed Gini Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana; Wijnaldum for his ability to move the ball from A to B quickly, and Lallana because he could find space in a phone box. And on Monday night Liverpool were playing a game where the final third was effectively a phone box. You weren’t swinging a cat anywhere near the United 18-yard line without taking someone out.
That was Mourinho’s 12th fixture as manager of United. Twelve. Not one hundred. Not two hundred. Twelve. Less than a quarter of a season and off the back of an international break to boot. United failed to break the top four last season because they weren’t good enough over 38 league games, so why should he suddenly have managed to turn a United side from not being good enough to finish in the top four of what was a poor Premier League, to being able to turn up at Anfield against one of the best attacking sides around and out play them? It’s nonsense to think that he should have done anything different.
If you were Jose Mourinho, what would you have done on Monday night? If your answer is to get on the front foot and leave gaps for Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino to exploit then you’re absolutely crackers. The first thing a football manager should do is look after his own side’s best interests. The second thing is to not play into the hands of the opposition. Mourinho absolutely nailed both of these things.
I’ve seen a few people talk about this being the type of thing Tony Pulis did as manager of Stoke, and will attempt to do as manager of West Bromwich Albion at the weekend. I would disagree with that. That level of side turns up to frustrate but if you do the right things, your superior ability will see you break them down eventually with a good piece of football or the right break. Your class will invariably tell.
Goalkeepers make huge numbers of saves, defenders make lots of last minute interventions. On Monday night De Gea made two saves, an outstanding one from Coutinho and a good, but regulation one, from Emre Can. They were both good saves but if he hadn’t saved them you’d have been asking questions about what exactly he was doing.
Mourinho’s approach could be viewed as wrong if we were picking them open time and time again. As it was we created two chances (one of which didn’t even result in a shot on goal) and Coutinho nearly pulled off a piece of magic. That’s it. West Brom will turn up on Saturday and try and do a similar thing. They won’t have Antonio Valencia’s pace at right-back, they won’t have someone with as much nous as Ander Herrera in the middle of midfield. They’ll have decent Premier League footballers that we are much better than. Players that you wouldn’t dream of having at Liverpool.
West Brom might well walk away with a point on Saturday night but I would be absolutely staggered if it didn’t involve Ben Foster making a string of saves, Gareth McAuley heading everything away, and probably at least one of their players pretty much killing himself to protect their goal.
The difference on Monday night is that these things didn’t have to happen such was United’s level of organisation. Foster may not save the Can shot or the Coutinho effort, and it’s unlikely that Craig Dawson would be able to get back to stop Firmino having a one on one like that.
United came with a gameplan, with the goal of not losing and executed it to perfection. If it’s not for you then fair enough, I don’t blame them for what they did. I’d quite like to have seen us go to Old Trafford and do that at some point. We’ve prevented United from scoring once in a league game at Old Trafford since Rafa Benitez arrived at Anfield – that’s quite a long time. Maybe we should have a crack at that in January?
Bar the 2013/14 game, it has been physically impossible for us to get three points without scoring twice, impossible to get a point away at Manchester United without scoring. The last time we got a draw at Old Trafford in the league, by the way? Patrik Berger scored a thunderbolt in 2000. It sounds defeatist but I’d quite like a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford at some point.
It’s absolutely ridiculous that since 2000 we haven’t come away from Old Trafford with a point. Winning games is great, but not losing away at United is always good. If we turn up at Old Trafford in January and do exactly what they did, I’ll quite enjoy it. Going to Old Trafford and stopping United from having any proper chances? You’d quite like that as well – don’t pretend otherwise.
Onwards to Saturday anyway. Keep ticking over. Get three points on the board and push on. A draw with Manchester United is never a bad result. That’s the first point we’ve taken off them in two and a half years after all.
Mourinho’s tactics might not be your cup of tea, but that’s not what he’s in it for.