Wednesday 13 December 2017

Miguel Delaney: After a hesitant start to the campaign, United have a chance to make a big statement today

Miguel Delaney

All of a sudden on Friday, it was Jose Mourinho doing the joking again, and not Jurgen Klopp. The Portuguese is back to his old self, and on the front foot. Everyone at Manchester United says it, and you can see it in his behaviour, and everything he says. Mourinho is cracking jokes at training, doing "little stand-up routines" for the players. That air of playfully arrogant mischief has returned to his personality.

Even in Friday's press conference, he took joy in answering a journalist's phone on his desk. That may seem a little thing, but it's the sort of thing that just wouldn't have happened in the surly days of September and October, so says a lot about his mood. The spark has returned. Many around the club say it's by far the "closest-knit" squad - between players, and players and manager - since Alex Ferguson retired.

The big question ahead of today's match against Liverpool, and the decisive issue that could yet go a long way to conditioning this season, is whether Mourinho will take that assertiveness onto the Old Trafford pitch this afternoon. Will he go on the front foot in this game?

It is an all the more relevant question for a few reasons. First and foremost, Mourinho's mood has returned because his team are winning games with the regularity he would demand, and they are primarily winning games because they are attacking so well.

There has been a change in the manager in that sense, that serves as an admirable response to the justifiable doubts over whether he could still adapt to the modern game. This has not quite been the "controlled" football founded on strong defence that has characterised pretty much all of Mourinho's career so far. It has instead been a front-loaded team, playing with more attacking freedom.

The wonder is whether he has changed enough to really allow that in a big game, though, whether he is confident enough in the team to let them play to their own strengths rather than the opposition's. This match could be symbolically significant in that way, but its pattern may be set by more than how United are playing. There is also how Liverpool are playing.

Klopp summed it up himself on Friday.

"Maybe a lot of people who think about the game will think United are in a good run, Liverpool not that good," the German said.

The bald facts are hard to dispute. While United have won nine in a row in all competitions, Liverpool have not won in three.

It is not just the results for Klopp, though, since two of them were in the cups and one of those a draw from a young team against Plymouth Argyle. It is that it feels like a fizz has gone from the side. They haven't been as sharp or energetic in the last few games, and the first signs of tiredness have crept into their game.

That is all compounded by the current issues with an attack that was previously so chaotically brilliant. Sadio Mane is at the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal, removing the extra level of pace that has offered this frontline a different dimension through sheer directness and penetration. That should mean Philippe Coutinho returns to the starting line-up, but that in itself could be a risk given his lack of match fitness.

All in all, it just doesn't seem like Liverpool will be capable of raising the same firepower as in October, when they had Mourinho so concerned ahead of that dreary 0-0 draw that he mentioned their attack every few minutes. It was conspicuous in the build-up to this match that he made nowhere near the same references.

By contrast, it was Klopp that came across a touch less ebullient. His demeanour seemed a bit more forced.

That different atmosphere captures another trend of this season. It is remarkable how quickly and dramatically the air has changed for the top six sides. It is as if the campaign has gone according to set acts, with the storylines drastically changing from one to the next. Manchester City started in supreme fashion only to go into crisis, for example, Tottenham Hotspur are now performing to a much higher level than the impotent side of October.

Could it be Liverpool who now start to slide, while United properly lift it?

That is why this match represents such an opportunity for Mourinho, as well as a challenge. Because, while United's streak has been impressive, it has still come thanks to a relatively forgiving run of fixtures. Tottenham are the only top side they've beaten, but that was when Mauricio Pochettino's side were a long way from the top form they are in now.

A win today over Liverpool, then, would show that Mourinho's United are more than competitive again. It would show they are contenders again, capable of kicking on.

Even a draw, in that context, would be a little disappointing for United; a little too meek; and that is why the approach Mourinho goes for is all the more important. It is why the onus is on what he does in this game, rather than Klopp.

We know what we're going to get with Liverpool, after all. They're going to at least try and press and intensely attack, in the way that has taken them into a title race, and has given them the best record of all of the top six sides in meetings against each other. Liverpool are unbeaten in those games so far, winning three and drawing two, claiming more points in them than Chelsea despite playing one game less.

United have the joint worst record in those matches along with Arsenal, on just five points, but most of them obviously came when Mourinho was still finding a team and when they were far below this form. More relevant is that United have scored far fewer than anyone else in those games, with just three goals in five.

It reflects the attitude that decided the dismal 0-0 draw in October, and how Mourinho's fundamental nature in these big games is to first just lock it down. That is the dilemma for him here.

Will he fall back on what he always does, and primarily try and keep out Liverpool's attack, or will he more proactively go to win? Will he more proactively try and inflict Klopp's first defeat in a top-six game this season, and thereby show United are still capable of more than just the top four.

The riddle to figure out is that both approaches involve big risks. Mourinho's defence has greatly developed over the last few weeks, but still doesn't look strong enough to completely keep out that Liverpool attack for two whole games, especially if they sit back and invite. At the same time, United stepping out could merely give Klopp's attack the space they require to really revel in, to get back firing again.

It's just that, right now, there is a very fair argument that Mourinho's attackers are capable of more than Liverpool's.

It feels like the United manager should let them go toe to toe. How couldn't you, when Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have together come to such form, and created more chances for each other - at 25 - than any other two players in the league? Pogba's capacity for divine long-range passes might well offer the most spectacular sight in the Premier League right now. Around all of that, you also have the electricity of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the pace of Marcus Rashford, the deftness of Juan Mata. It would be quite a statement to win this game, while playing to those strengths.

Klopp, however, had a few calculated statements of his own. As if almost looking to play a bit of poker, he said it would not be unexpected if United played as defensively as at Anfield. "I think we can imagine a little bit, but in the end it is always an open question. You cannot say 100 per cent what they will do. I am not part of their meeting so you cannot say, perhaps they will have a different plan. Jose is very competitive so if he thinks very deep against Liverpool then I would not be too surprised . . . Whatever we do, never doubt the attitude or character of these boys because that's outstanding. If we don't perform it is because of other reasons. We still can cause problems with a good, organised formation."

And this is the other side of it. For all this talk of shift in emphasis and mood before the game, Klopp remains a master - perhaps even greater than Mourinho in this regard - at revving up his players to be aggressive in a big game. That explains their record in them.

What explains the title challenge, meanwhile, is that "good, organised formation". Liverpool actually haven't played with their full first-choice front four since November, but still kept going, still looked very good in that time. That is because Klopp has an attacking idea in place, whereas Mourinho's attack is still more dependent on the quality of the individuals and the form they're in.

For all the joking, this is when it gets serious.

Manchester United v Liverpool

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