Monday 21 May 2018

Mourinho makes his point

Liverpool 0 Manchester United 0

Liverpool’s Alberto Moreno goes over the top of Manchester United’s Ashley Young during yesterday’s Premier League match at Anfield. Photo: PA Wire
Liverpool’s Alberto Moreno goes over the top of Manchester United’s Ashley Young during yesterday’s Premier League match at Anfield. Photo: PA Wire

Daniel Taylor

If nothing else, Liverpool should probably take it as a compliment that Manchester United would choose to approach the game this way. It was the second successive season this fixture has ended goalless and it did not need a suspicious mind to deduce that Jose Mourinho had decided that would be enough to make it a satisfying day - and to hell with anyone who might question his lack of adventure.

His team had averaged three goals a game from their previous seven Premier League fixtures but this was the first time they had faced a side in the top 12 places. Mourinho altered his tactics accordingly and the second half, in particular, was an exercise in defensive parsimony directly beneath the Kop. Liverpool were unable to break them down and Mourinho has already made it clear what he thinks about the people who might blame him for ruining the game as a spectacle. For the story of this game, refer to what he said after last season's Europa League final against Ajax: "There are lots of poets in football, but poets don't win many titles."

Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United reacts. Photo: Getty Images
Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United reacts. Photo: Getty Images

He tends to know what he is doing but it was a risky strategy and it would have been intriguing to see Mourinho's back-up plan if one of those Liverpool attacks had found a way behind the visitors' defence.

Instead, the home side did not have the wit or creativity in decisive areas and, unfortunately for Jurgen Klopp, three points have never been awarded for moral victories. Liverpool have won only one of their last eight games in the various competitions and it all felt rather flat at the end. "What did Mourinho say?" Klopp wanted to know. "That we were the more defensive side? That would have been funny."

Mourinho has heard it all before and will reflect on a job well done, no matter how much it grates with him when he is accused of putting together teams that do not play the classic United way. They did not manage a single noteworthy attack in the second half but the most extraordinary statistic of the afternoon was that it was not until the 17th minute that Romelu Lukaku even managed a touch of the ball.

Lukaku is often accused of lacking his best work in the more challenging assignments but his failure to score here owed more to the circumstances. The Belgium striker had one chance in the first half when he aimed his shot too close to the Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, but he was isolated for most of the game and perhaps there was a measure of frustration in the challenge that sent Joe Gomez flying close to the touchline.

Antonio Valencia of Manchester United clears the ball. Photo: Getty Images
Antonio Valencia of Manchester United clears the ball. Photo: Getty Images

Instead, this was an afternoon where Phil Jones and Chris Smalling demonstrated their improvement under Mourinho, Lukaku could be seen helping out in defence, Anthony Martial spent most of the game inside his own half and in the one moment of old-fashioned excitement there was another reminder about David de Gea's extraordinary ability to prevent the ball from going into his net.

Anfield was already rising to its feet when Roberto Firmino deceived Nemanja Matic inside the penalty area and Joel Matip reached the cross first. The Liverpool defender made a solid connection, eight yards out, but in that split second De Gea was already adjusting his body, jutting out his left foot to block the shot on the goal-line. It was an exceptional piece of improvisational goalkeeping and when De Gea rose to his feet he still did not have a hair out of place. What an incredible keeper he has become.

That apart, there was not a great amount of penalty-area activity during a first half that was far too hectic to expect either side to pass the ball with their normal accuracy. Mohamed Salah showed, in flashes, some lovely, deft touches but there was so little time on the ball, with a challenge never too far away, it was difficult to build possession. Both sides were guilty of not taking enough care of the ball and perhaps that was inevitable when everything was so fast and furious.

The second half was a more controlled affair, with Liverpool pressing forward, forcing a succession of corners but without ever giving the impression they were wearing down their opponents. Klopp's men played many passes, but never the killer one. Gomez came the closest with a clipped pass into Emre Can's path but the German's shot went into the Kop and, after that, there were only sporadic moments when De Gea was threatened again.

Mourinho brought on another centre-half, Victor Lindelof, in the final exchanges for Ashley Young, a converted defender playing here as a right winger, and the game huffed and puffed to its end under the glare of the autumnal sun. It was the first time there have been back-to-back 0-0 draws in this fixture and Klopp was asked afterwards if he would ever set up a team in the way that Mourinho had.

"You could not play this way at Liverpool," he replied, "but it's OK for Manchester United."

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