Sunday 19 November 2017

Mourinho goes for function over flair to make his point

Jose Mourinho plays the percentages while searching for a long-term plan Photo: Reuters
Jose Mourinho plays the percentages while searching for a long-term plan Photo: Reuters

Paul Hayward

Favouritism in these loveless clashes is what Liverpool wanted. To be expected to beat Manchester United is a whole new level for Jürgen Klopp's emerging team. A new level of pressure, that is, and one which Manchester United were determined their hosts would not enjoy.

Did we see the next Premier League champions on this pitch? Probably not, though Liverpool-United 'derbies' (many fans hate you calling them that) seldom cast these teams in a flattering light. The one safe conclusion is that Paul Scholes is right to say United lack an "identity" while Liverpool are much better off in that respect. They know what they want to do to opponents, even if sometimes fails to come off.

United, on the other hand, are all power and pragmatism. On the touchline, Jose Mourinho plays the percentages while searching for a long-term plan. That quest will be troubling him at nights.

"Is there an identity to the team yet?" Scholes asked amid the hype around this game. "I don't think there is." Liverpool, on the other hand, have thrilled their followers with a daring style that requires a kind of gang activity high up the pitch and speed of thought and action from the front five. Of these, only Daniel Sturridge, who lasted less than an hour before giving way to Adam Lallana, is a doubtful fit for Klopp's template.


"If you were betting, you would be betting on Liverpool." But that new status as market leaders also played on the home team's nerves, especially in the first half.

The first night game at Anfield since the new Main Stand rose so imposingly to the Kop's left opened out the old cauldron, where, when the ground was smaller, a suffocating intensity would prevail, certainly on big European evenings.

Now the stage feels wider, brighter, more mainstream European. The crowd in the Main Stand have been pulled further from the pitch, by upward construction, and Anfield feels more of an 'arena' than before. And a good thing, too, in many ways. The club needed to grow beyond its old architectural confines. It needed this infusion of light and space. Walking across Stanley Park now, at nightfall, you see modernity as well as tradition up ahead.

The tightness and tautness of Liverpool's unreconstructed ground was less apparent when the team were making no great impression on the Premier League, but it was always there, in reserve, ready to come back out when the right players could be found.

For the most part Klopp has found the right players; but more particularly he has found the right idea for the whole club to get behind. This is what Scholes means by "identity" - a way of playing, not just tactically, but mentally, so the players become interdependent, and can feel a 'cause' burning inside their chests. The high work-rate demanded by a fevered pressing game equates to a strong commitment level, which enthuses the fans, and allows the manager to take credit for enhanced team spirit.

A blend of passion and panache is what Klopp is aiming for, without the ideology espoused by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Guardiola is always talking about his religion - the beliefs on which he will never compromise.

Klopp is more laid back about his principles, except when one of his players fails to observe them.

Here, midway through the first half, Klopp broke into a sideways shuffle to show one of his defenders what he had been doing in the face of a United attack. Then the jig stopped abruptly, and Klopp let out a short, sharp, and unmistakable rebuke. Confidence and character are no small virtues in the manager of a team who have not won the English title for 26 years.

Since Klopp was appointed, Liverpool had scored a league-leading 73 goals; they were aiming for a fifth consecutive league win, but found United big, obdurate and good at spoiling. United's one win in four league outings swung the pendulum in favour of the club who dominated the 1970s and 80s but then saw United annex the 1990s and Noughties.

Last season's Europa League conquest of the old enemy was a lively business - but it could not conceal Liverpool's inability to dominate where it really counts: in the domestic competition United have collected 20 times and which Liverpool have not won since 1990.

In truth, United have not displayed a consistent identity or style since Alex Ferguson stepped down, unless you count Louis van Gaal's ice age of slow, circular passing, which, Mourinho claimed recently, is still affecting his players. Van Gaal's successor may have underestimated the imbalances in this United squad - and the shortage of title-winning calibre. So he is stuck in a phase of grabbing what he can from games and identifying those he has no use for while also trying to instill zest into a limp outfit.


It would be easy to recoil at the idea of a United side placing so much emphasis on height and set pieces, but Mourinho is no purist. If he has a weapon, he will use it. Yet among the noises off stage were Scholes saying Mourinho was "confused" about his best starting XI and Borussia Dortmund's general manager suggesting Henrikh Mkhitaryan made a mistake in moving to Old Trafford.

"Any intelligent player should think in advance about what kind of surroundings they are moving to," Hans-Joachim Watzke told Kicker magazine.

Liverpool have made mistakes in the transfer market in the past 26 years, but no player joining now could feel he has taken a wrong turn, unless these signs of promise peter out, as so many have.

The early talk of Liverpool as title contenders was not the usual hot air of late summer, early autumn. It was based on the vibrancy of their play and early league wins at Arsenal and Chelsea. United, though, were not here to give the Liverpool bandwagon a helpful push, unless it was into the Mersey.

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