Jose Mourinho was criticised for his defensive tactics against Liverpool, and while it was a different story against Fenerbahce on Thursday night, history suggests he will revert to type against Chelsea on Super Sunday. Would another drab draw be good enough?
A tactical triumph, or a lack of ambition? Opinion was split on Mourinho’s defensive set-up for Manchester United’s goalless draw with Liverpool on Monday Night Football. On the one hand, it was another example of his unrivalled ability to shut down top opposition. On the other, it made for a turgid spectacle.
But while United only mustered one shot on target and recorded their lowest share of possession since Opta started taking records in 2003, there was no doubting which manager was happier. Mourinho’s priority was to avoid defeat, as it usually is in big away games, and he took great satisfaction in silencing Jurgen Klopp’s much-talked-about attack.
“That was the game we planned,” he told Sky Sports. Mourinho insisted United had the encounter “completely under control” despite their lack of possession, adding: “They are not the next wonder of the world that you like to say they are.” The jibe was classic Mourinho. So too were the spoiling tactics.
“You wouldn’t expect that performance from a Manchester United team, especially in the second half with how defensive it was, but you’d expect it from a Jose Mourinho team,” said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher. “I don’t think there’s anyone better in world football as a manager at nullifying the opposition.”
Attention now turns to Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge, the second instalment of a daunting Premier League double-header for United. Mourinho will be hoping his usual approach will bear fruit in the familiar surroundings of west London, but while a draw at Chelsea is undoubtedly a good result in isolation, it might not be so desirable in the current circumstances.
History shows no team has won the title having been seventh after eight games. United are already two points worse off than at the same stage last season, and, even more alarmingly, a failure to beat Chelsea could leave them eight points behind Manchester City and Arsenal, who host Southampton and Middlesbrough respectively this weekend.
So while it would be understandable for Mourinho to exercise a degree of caution against Antonio Conte’s side, United can ill-afford a repeat of their muted attacking display at Anfield. As Gary Neville noted on Monday Night Football, Mourinho’s game plan needs attacking thrust to complement the defensive solidity.
“The game plan is good, but you’ve got to be able to counter-attack off of it,” Neville said. “That’s the next step to really be able to cause problems, but they didn’t have the quality or the pace to be able to counter-attack. United did exactly what Jose Mourinho wanted but he said they fell a little bit short in the attacking third.”
United’s counter-attacking potential against Liverpool was compromised by the positioning of their wingers. Marcus Rashford and Ashley Young rarely strayed far from their respective full-backs when Liverpool had possession. It helped shore things up at the back, but it also limited United’s options on the break.
Paul Pogba took up a more advanced position behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but his influence was minimal in an attacking sense. Mourinho admitted he expected more from the Frenchman, and he even revealed he was considering moving Rashford into the middle before the youngster cramped up in the closing stages.
It’s up to Mourinho to find a solution against Chelsea. United’s best attacking performances this season have come when Juan Mata is deployed at No 10, but that would mean breaking up Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini’s midfield partnership to accommodate Pogba, and Conte’s 3-5-2 formation presents different challenges.
Mourinho is likely to err on the side of caution, but while their travelling fans applauded their resilient display at Anfield, a third consecutive Premier League draw on Sunday might not be viewed quite so positively. Especially with so many teams challenging at the top of the table.
Having worked under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, Ryan Giggs knows a thing or two about how quickly the pressure can build at Old Trafford. “It all comes down to results,” Giggs said on Monday Night Football. “If you have 35 per cent of the ball and you win, then everybody is happy. But if you’re getting draws continuously and not winning, that’s when the supporters won’t be happy.”
Mourinho would undoubtedly love to get one over on his former club, but he’ll need to address his side’s imbalance in order to do so. It may mean curbing his usual instincts, but a victory on his old stomping ground would be the perfect way to settle the debate.