Tuesday 11 December 2018

Jose Mourinho's post-Liverpool comments revealed more about him and Manchester United than he wanted

Conor Murray of Munster is shown a yellow card by referee Matthew Carley during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 4 Round 1 match between Castres Olympique and Munster at Stade Pierre Antoine in Castres, France. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Conor Murray of Munster is shown a yellow card by referee Matthew Carley during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 4 Round 1 match between Castres Olympique and Munster at Stade Pierre Antoine in Castres, France. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho

Miguel Delaney

Jose Mourinho, rather predictably, wasn’t going to accept much responsibility for the nature of the match at Anfield. He wasn’t even going to accept that Manchester United’s 0-0 draw with Liverpool was not an entertaining game.

“Depends what for you is an entertaining game,” Mourinho snapped back. “One thing is an entertaining game for fans, another thing is entertaining game for the people who read football in a different way. That’s different. For me, the second half was a game of chess but my opponent didn’t open the door for me to win the game.”

As much as the Portuguese was inevitably trying to influence what was going to be said about his team, he actually said a lot himself, that could well foretell even more about United’s season - and why they may not be champions.

For a start, as should by no come as a surprise to nobody, Mourinho has no issue whatsoever with the kind of match that was seen at Anfield. You get the sense that there was actually no extra edge to what he was saying in terms of entertainment. Mourinho does find that kind of game thoroughly entertaining, particularly if it ultimately involves his side frustrating a rival in a big game. He could watch that all day, and we’ve seen that through all of his career.

What was more interesting was the next line, though… “my opponent didn’t open the door for me to win the game”.

He later elaborated a bit more, when trying to make out that it was Liverpool who were more defensive - or more responsible for the game not opening up.

“I was waiting for Jurgen to change, I was waiting for him to go more attacking but he kept the three strong midfielders all the time where he was having control because I only had [Ander] Herrera and [Nemanja] Matic.

“Well, you [Liverpool] were at home and you didn’t move anything? I don’t know. I was waiting for that. He didn’t. I think he did well, honestly. He didn’t let the game break. [Jesse] Lingard and [Marcus] Rashford were waiting for the game to be broken but the game wasn’t broken.”

In looking to sum up the game like that, Mourinho actually summed up his entire football philosophy, his fundamental view on how to score and attack. The United manager essentially revealed just how reactive he really is. The use of the word “break” here was particularly noteworthy.

It indicated how his teams don’t look to play matches on their own terms, they don’t look to impose their own game in order to score. They instead primarily look for opposition errors, for the “breaks” in play, for the transitions that you can then counter against.

This might sound quite elementary but it has been elevated to a principle of Mourinho teams. His entire attacking game is based on it. It is also why so many of his acolytes and those close to his circle have been so willing to press home the idea that Chelsea, say, were an entirely counter-attacking side last season; to reinforce the idea that this remains cutting edge, as relevantly successful as ever.

Whether it is is a bigger debate that we’ll get to but, for the moment, many might fairly dispute the idea that he really is that reactive.

This was a match away to a top-six side, after all, and it was also their first blank of the season. From the previous seven matches, against bottom-14 clubs, they have an average of three goals a game. Some reaction, so. Some of these have also involved ruthlessly rampaging attacking displays, it must be said.

Even with that, though, there was a reveal from Mourinho’s post-Liverpool comments.

“If you score a goal in the first half then the second half is different because then he risks, he changes structure. When I brought on Lingard and Rashford I was waiting for him to give me more space to counter but he didn't give me that.”

This is essentially what happened in United’s four 4-0 wins against West Ham United, Swansea City, Everton and Crystal Palace that so boosted those goal stats. They essentially just scored first against somewhat supine opponents, and then fully capitalised on their subsequent collapses. Or, if you like, they reacted to the break in the game that came from those teams breaking. It was all so much more open because those sides had to open out.

It was not like Manchester City - who already look like champions elect - just taking their game to teams and taking them apart.

It is also why, impressive as they’ve been, it has been a little difficult to get carried away with United so far. The question remains over what will happen if opponents don’t crumble, or if they don’t get that key early first goal that causes a manager to “change structure” and the entire game to change.

That question has still not been answered, and it is a very pertinent one.

Mourinho of course naturally persists with this style of play because it has led to staggering success throughout the majority of his career, but this is where that issue of relevance comes in.

As has been so widely discussed over the past few years, the game has greatly evolved since Mourinho’s peak as a manager in 2010. Possession football took control of the ball and the sport again with the rise of Spain and Barcelona around 2008, and was greatly powered by pressing, with Guardiola and Klopp as actually high priests of both. Both of those are also fundamentally proactive qualities, with their effects for top sides further enhanced by the economic disparities that have grown in the game. Bigger and better squads have been assembled by big clubs to better navigate the physical needs of a season, and ensure such qualities remain so effective, that pressing can remain as frenetic.

The key is not just that this has changed the sport, but changed how you win titles - especially in the Premier League.

Given that such economics have led to the growth of the big six and thereby that 10 of your 38 games are now titanic, it is no longer enough to just pick off the weaker sides and be content with mere points against the rest, given how the top six are getting more points than ever against the rest. It feels like any champions now have to get a certain number of wins against their main rivals to really make the difference, to really tilt a title race.

This is why it may no longer be sufficient to just sit back and try and react in such away games. You have to do what Chelsea did to City last season, and City did to Chelsea this season. You have to go and try and win them.

It said just as much that Mourinho seemed to take it as a given that Liverpool should be the ones to attack because they “are at home”, that it should be accepted United would wait for the break - even though this match represented an opportunity for the Portuguese against a fragile home side.

Liverpool were there for the taking, but United did not take that opportunity because it never occurred to them to take the game to them.

It is why, even though they remain in a very promising position just two points off the top, it is fair to wonder whether they can take that next step.

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