Jose Mourinho is the perfect antidote to a rivalry that risked going stale
Manchester United’s trip to Liverpool may have underwhelmed but Jose Mourinho’s appointment could mark the beginning of a new era of increased hostilities between the two clubs, writes Alex Hess.
If Alex Ferguson made it a prerequisite for a Manchester United manager to take enormous glee from raining on Liverpool’s parade, then there should never have been any doubt about Jose Mourinho’s suitability to the job.
Yesterday’s anodyne stalemate may have been hideously offensive for anyone who sat down expecting to be entertained, and it may have come as a mild surprise to the bookies, but it was the latest in a long line of instances when the Portuguese has gone above and beyond to leave the Anfield crowd in a state of fist-shaking frustration, another chapter in the relationship between Mourinho and Liverpool fans that’s rarely dropped below a frothing boil.
Last night’s hard-nosed shut-out was a reminder of the first time a Mourinho side came to Anfield – New Year’s Day 2005 – when Chelsea’s ludicrously well-drilled defence held strong, some first-act violence from Frank Lampard left Xabi Alonso on crutches, and Joe Cole poached all three points. It was a display of brutalist efficiency that would soon be recognised as the Mourinho blueprint.
Liverpool with William Gallas (C) and Claude Makelele (R) in their English Premier league soccer match at Anfield, Liverpool, January 1, 2005.Reuters
He repeated the trick a few weeks later in the League Cup final, when Steven Gerrard’s own goal served as the cue for Mourinho to instruct his antagonists in the Liverpool end to pipe down, thank you very much, before his side claimed the trophy in extra time. Six months later, Anfield bore silent, seething witness to a Didier Drogba masterclass as Liverpool were trounced 4-1.
And then, of course, there was the occasion in April 2014 when an embittered, dishevelled Mourinho showed up on Merseyside, put together a magnum opus of parked buses, flagrant time-wasting and dead-eyed finishing, and came away having turned the title race on its head.
And while Mourinho's track-record at Anfield is bizarrely strong – he’s won six of his nine games there and drawn another two, almost as though empowered by the hostility – he’s not always had it his own way: twice in three years his Chelsea side were denied a place in the Champions League final by Rafa Benitez and 40,000 baying Liverpudlians.
But with Liverpool’s free-scoring attack stifled and the team’s hurtling momentum stalled, last night should count as another point registered for Team Mourinho, and a reminder that despite the whispers about his cautious tactics being rendered a thing of the past by the counter-pressing revolution, he’s not yesterday’s man just yet – and especially not when it comes to outwitting Liverpool. In case anyone thought otherwise, Mourinho’s Manchester United are here to stay.
Which, on the face of it, is bad news for an Anfield faithful desperate to reclaim their perch after a three-decade absence, and who were just beginning to suspect that - with a genuinely galvanising figurehead in place - the pendulum of power might finally be swinging back to Merseyside.
Liverpool's German manager Jurgen Klopp celebrates victory at the end of the English Premier League football match between Swansea City and Liverpool at The Liberty Stadium in Swansea, south Wales on October 1, 2016AFP
But for the sake of fun – admittedly a notion that seems fairly alien after last night's game, but stick with me here – there's surely a large element of good news in it, too. After all, it’s long been a central priority of Liverpool fans to harbour rancour, resentment and revulsion toward Manchester United – and of course vice versa – and those feelings are always best manifest when there’s a worthy figurehead to act as a lightning rod. Hating Manchester United is all well and good, but it’s a bit abstract. Hating Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, on the other hand – now you’re talking. And as much as Liverpool fans may love to hate Mourinho, you get the feeling no one likes the idea of him as a hate figure more than the man himself.
It’s an unfortunate quirk of the Liverpool-United rivalry that, despite being the country’s dominant powers for over half a century, they’ve almost never been in direct competition. That perch may have changed hands three decades back, but it was a pretty frictionless switch. Toe-to-toe exchanges – the FA Cup in 1996, the title race in 2009 – have been the exception rather than the norm. Power in the north-west has shifted back and forth a few times, but it’s never been truly contested.
There are other players in English football’s power game now, of course, but with Klopp and Mourinho both installed for the long-term and piloting their clubs along an upward trajectory, the prognosis for the Liverpool-United rivalry is looking nice and positive. Brendan Rodgers and Louis van Gaal each had their merits but neither was a natural hate-figure, which meant their merit to the rivalry was minimal. Mourinho (and perhaps Klopp, too) changes that – the perfect pick-me-up for a relationship that was in danger of going stale in the post-Fergie years.
“What’s great,” Ferguson said in one post-retirement speech, “is our young fans growing up don’t even remember when Liverpool were successful.” Hardly music to Liverpool ears, but even the most belligerent Liverpool fan will appreciate that Fergie got it: the fact that mutual loathing, so long as it doesn’t lapse into anything truly unpleasant, is part of what makes football so appealing and it should be nurtured and embraced.
Not that there’s ever a shortage of the truly unpleasant – Liverpool’s woeful handling of the Suarez/Evra affair still leaves a bitter taste all round and there’s plenty of fans who see Hillsborough and Munich as fair game for tedious point-scoring.
Liverpool's Luis Suarez (L) looks at Manchester United's Patrice Evra (R) during their English Premier League soccer match at Anfield in Liverpool, northern England October 15, 2011Reuters
But there’s also plenty of behaviour that gleefully stokes exactly the right type of hate: Gary Neville’s hundred-metre dash in 2006; the insistence of Robbie Fowler and Steven Gerrard on giving the Stretford End a five-fingered salute (one for each European Cup) after every goal; Ferguson’s gloriously petulant refusal to let Gabriel Heinze discuss terms with the old enemy; Jamie Carragher reducing Nani to tears with an early bone-cruncher in front of the Kop. The odds on Mourinho adding another entry or two to that canon are short, to say the least.
Liverpool fans need little excuse to get riled up about United, and Jose Mourinho understands the power of pantomime antagonism better than most. And nothing ignites a rivalry like direct competition. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Just don’t expect any beautiful football.