It was a ‘Jose Mourinho team comes to Anfield, sit deep and takes a point’ episode.
We had all seen this one before. Personally, I don’t bother with the most storied rivalry in English football anymore. It’s all repeats.
All jokes aside, there were times when this 0-0 stalemate between the country’s two most successful football clubs felt like a re-run of last season’s corresponding fixture, played on the same October weekend, with the points shared and no goal scored. Déjà vu.
United’s team sheet alone suggested they had set out for the same result, with Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford replaced by Matteo Darmian and Anthony Martial, who fulfilled a more reserved role than normal.
Yet if Mourinho’s set-up was predictable, it was also out of sync with how his side has played at the start of this Premier League campaign. Some suggested that 21 goals in seven games with only two shipped in return against the divisions lesser lights would see United carry this swash-buckling style forward into meetings with the rest of the ‘top six’.
Mourinho has, after all, made a habit of wryly criticising “defensive football” in recent months.
The likes of Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have come under his glare for playing a fashionable three-man defence, which he claims it is actually a five-man backline and therefore conservative. Mourinho has also claimed that the Premier League is becoming increasingly defensive, despite an upward trend in goals-per-game during recent years. His words have generally suggested that he is edging towards a more expansive style.
Mourinho, however, is a politician with his words - applying spin and nuance in order to obtain a slither of psychological advantage. In his deeds, he is a pragmatist - doing whatever necessary to win or, failing that, not lose. The signs that a functional performance like this would come have been there all season.
“We have to be humble and we have to be pragmatic and we have to face the reality,” he said back in September before the 2-2 draw at Stoke City, the only previous game that United have dropped points in this season. “If our opponent is better than us and dominant, we are humble enough to transform our way of playing to play for a result.”
It’s a novel idea, Manchester United turning up to Anfield and being ‘humble’, but that is exactly what they have done for their two visits under Mourinho.
This is not a criticism. In fact, the recent struggles of Jurgen Klopp’s side suggest it is the way to play against Liverpool. Keep narrow, restrict their space, trust them to waste their chances, take your own opportunities when they come your way and the result will follow.
Here, United set out to do exactly that. At least nine of Mourinho’s players took to the field with their duties being predominantly defensive. Henrikh Mkhitaryan soon shuffled into Mourinho’s ten behind the ball as well, with Romelu Lukaku left sometimes isolated up top.
It was ultimately enough to frustrate the hosts once again and take a point from a difficult fixture, but the real question is whether that will be enough come May.
Mourinho’s United scored just once while away from home against their fellow members of the ‘top six’ last season, failing to beat any one of Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal or Tottenham on the road. Those games, as much as the draws at Old Trafford to the likes of Swansea City, Bournemouth and West Bromwich Albion, meant they were not once considered genuine title contenders.
Liverpool, by contrast, finished top of the ‘top six’ mini-league, with the open nature of contests suiting them. For all their struggles against restrictive, organised opponents, it was Klopp’s side that took the final top-four berth.
Mourinho’s ‘big-game approach’ works to a degree but these games are not only opportunities to take three points but to hurt a direct rival. When the spoils are shared, a chance to gain important ground is lost. United could draw each of their other four away games against the leading pack, each would be regarded as a ‘good point’, but two dropped may be more significant when the final totals are totted up.
This was our first glimpse of how this new, more fluent, more exciting United would play against a team with the capacity to beat them. We should not have expected anything different.
As expected Liverpool lined-up in a 4-3-3 formation, with the only slight surprise Joe Gomez's place at right-back. Sadio Mane's injury meant Philippe Coutinho was bumped forward into the Reds' three-man attack. Roberto Firmino's movement gave United's defence a headache, while Klopp's side pressed high even when the play was not going anywhere. The visitors, by contrast, seemed content to allow Liverpool's defenders to have the ball. What looked set to be a 3-4-3 formation was instead a 4-2-3-1 for United, with Ashley Young deployed as right winger. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were given the green light to pressure up the field when threats were building, but sat deep as Liverpool's pressure ratcheted up.
Both managers started their afternoon in the freshly-painted technical areas, separated by 10 yards. Mourinho's mannerisms belied his smart attire, while casually-dressed Klopp was as expressive as always. The Liverpool boss and his bench were quick to harangue the officials when Romelu Lukaku challenged Dejan Lovren, while Mourinho did not hold back when decisions went against him. Klopp emerged early for the second half and will have been frustrated not to have found a way to break the visitors down.
What the match lacked in thrill it made up for in intrigue as both managers kept faith with their sides after a predictably tense first half. David De Gea had to be at his best when United's defence faltered, while isolated Lukaku mustered just one serious attempt as Liverpool's often shaky defence held firm during. Liverpool upped the ante after the break and Mourinho brought on Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford to add renewed impetus to his attack. It did not work, nor did Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Daniel Sturridge changing the Reds' attacking dynamic.
While not as much of a damp squib as last year's goalless Anfield encounter, this was not a thrill-a-minute clash. Mourinho effectively stunted Liverpool - albeit they rode their luck at times - but was unable to attack in a way that put the hosts' shaky backline in any real danger. Klopp's side had more shots and possession, yet Mourinho once again frustrated the Reds on home turf.