Jim White: Mourinho took down Klopp with ruthless tedium - but United will need more than that
Jim White is both impressed and depressed by the manner in which Manchester United defied Liverpool on Monday night.
There was a lot of premature triumphalism splurging out of Anfield ahead of Monday’s much-hyped televised game with Manchester United. Jordan Henderson reckoned United “could not live” with Liverpool’s resurgent pressing game. The Kop purred in anticipation of what they reckoned would be a slaughter, expecting United’s creaking core to be harried into distraction by Jurgen Klopp’s jet-heeled front six. Neutrals could not see a way for United to compete. Everywhere predictions not just of victory, but humiliation were made. United were about to be found out in Liverpool. The bookies, who seldom get these things wrong, were gritting their teeth in anticipation of a pasting, such was the weight of money backing the home team.
There is just one problem with such assumption: Jose Mourinho. There is nothing the Portuguese enjoys more in football than challenging received wisdom. From the moment he first burst into the wider consciousness with his Porto team defeating Manchester United in the Champions League, he has mainlined undermining supposition. Remember the way his Inter Milan upended all expectation in 2010 when they beat Barcelona, then in their Guardiola pomp, in the Champions League semi-final? You get the feeling Mourinho derived more pleasure from being able to stick two fingers up to those who patronized him at Barcelona than he did from actually lifting the trophy when his side beat Bayern in the final. He may not have a philosophy, he may not, as Paul Scholes laments, yet give clear indication of his team’s identity, but there is simply no better manager in the modern game at constructing a one-off game plan to stifle rival ambition.
Not that it was pretty. Nor was it entertaining. Actually it was close to a definition of tedium.
Liverpool's Emre Can in action with Manchester United's Marouane FellainiReuters
Never mind that he was in charge of a club that has long prided itself on its swash and buckle, Mourinho pitched up in Liverpool with one intention and one intention only: to stop Jurgen Klopp’s side playing. And he arranged things admirably to do so, employing Ashley Young and Marcus Rashford as, essentially, additional wide defenders to shut off the Klopp-favoured route of marauding full backs. Nathaniel Clyne, who had enjoyed so much space against Leicester he was in danger of contracting agoraphobia, was nullified by Young. And on the other side James Milner barely got a cross in as Rashford – playing so deep he needed an aqualung – checked his every advance.
Inside them, Ander Herrera – reborn under Mourinho as an all-action defensive midfielder – plugged every hole, tearing around the place fire-fighting like a Spanish Claude Makelele. Even Marouane Fellaini, the six foot four inch training ground cone, found purpose in the spoiling. Playing effectively as an auxiliary centre back, it was his most effective game in a United shirt.
As Klopp watched his gegenpress being suppressed, what was obvious as the game advanced was this: he had no rational Plan B. Mourinho’s smother had worked to perfection. Sure, David De Gea made two fine saves and Antonio Valencia put in a bold claim for tackle of the season, but Liverpool looked several miles short of the claims made on their behalf of a new dawn rising over Anfield. Had Zlatan Ibrahimovic been less profligate with the game’s best chance, United would have come away with the most shameless of smash-and-grab wins. Larceny in L4.
Yet, substantial as the satisfaction at pricking the Liverpool bubble may be, for United fans the worry remains about their side: what is a Jose Mourinho United all about? As Paul Scholes suggested, this is a club which demands more than mere smother. After all, Louis Van Gaal, no slouch himself when it came to organising a shut-out, went one better than Mourinho on both his league visits to Anfield and won there both times. Yet his dull, safety-first football was ultimately deemed anathema to the United tradition. Is the arrival of Mourinho any more than a case of out of the frying pan into the fire? We have yet to see any clear indication that it is not.
It is only fair to point out, however, these are early days. Mourinho argues he is still working on the training ground to eradicate the sideways passing habits inculcated in his squad by his predecessor. And it is absolutely obvious he has not yet arrived at his best starting eleven. For a man who values a settled line-up and abhors any kind of pointless tinker, he has presided over a rotating cast at Old Trafford. His wide men come and go as frequently as leaders of UKIP. Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Ashley Young have all had bit parts without any sense they are about to establish themselves as permanent fixtures. Juan Mata too, despite being showered with praise by his manager (and then promptly dropped) has not been trusted with an extended run out at number ten, a run-out many a United fan craves to see him given.
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney prepares to comes on as Jose Mourinho looks onReuters
Sure, things might become clearer in the creative side of the team when Henrikh Mkhitaryan is restored to full fitness. But at the moment Mourinho seems to be concentrating his efforts on the defensive, spoiling aspects, apparently clearer about who he doesn’t want at the heart of the side (largely Wayne Rooney) than who he does.
The problem he faces, however, is that while all this might take time, time is not on his side. In what is shaping up to be the most competitive Premier League in the competition’s short history, he needs to start accruing momentum soon. However fun it might be to watch the fizz flatten at Anfield, sitting seventh in the table is no source of long-term satisfaction at Old Trafford. This is a place that demands more than an extended dose of pragmatism.