Mourinho wins the tactical battle at Old Trafford

Date: 10.03.2018

Venue: Old Trafford

Pic Courtesy: Getty Images

For Jurgen Klopp there was that familiar creep of dread as he stood on the touchline with his team dominating the possession but running down the same blind alleys, and the cold realisation setting in that inevitably, inexorably Jose Mourinho was doing his thing.

It should not be a surprise after all these years, when we have witnessed Mourinho’s gameplan of minimal attacking and maximum retreating so many times, the possession an afterthought and everything predicated on a formidable organisation. He got a man of the match performance from Ashley Young at left-back marking Mohamed Salah into anonymity, and he hit Liverpool where they were at their most vulnerable, a figurative elbow strike to the throat they never saw coming.

Marcus Rashford scored twice in the space of ten minutes in the first half when Mourinho went for the soft-heart of Liverpool’s defence – or rather he put Romelu Lukaku on Dejan Lovren and the consequences for the away team were severe. Twice the Belgian won critical headers, treating the Liverpool centre-half like an inconvenient backpack – a minor burden to be shouldered and carried around while he went about the true business of the day.

Later when Mourinho was asked about how he spotted the weakness in Liverpool he protested that he was not “a mechanic” who demanded “A pass to B who passes to C” but he could not help but admit, that, yes, Lukaku felt he could dominate Lovren and they went from there. Rashford, starting his first Premier League game of 2018, punished Liverpool, and the young full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold found himself twisted inside out for the first goal.

Mourinho was on a roll after that, calling out the home fans who groaned when Scott McTominay turned and passed the ball backwards in the second half, his manager enthusiastically applauding the decision from the touchline. Then he took a bite at Gary Neville’s punditry. All in all, the Manchester United manager was thoroughly enjoying his afternoon.

He does not care that at home against their most bitter rivals, United had just 32 per cent of the possession and defended on the edge of their area for most of the second half. Klopp was too upset to comment on the contrast of styles because he knows that all that counts in the aftermath is the result. The Liverpool manager wanted a penalty for what he saw as a foul by the second half substitute Marouane Fellaini on Sadio Mane. “Nobody has asked me about it for one second,” Klopp lamented, “I had 16 interviews”.

He acknowledged that Liverpool’s key failure had been when they lost those crucial second challenges once Lukaku had shrugged off Lovren, and later in the game when the Serb launched himself into a risky challenge Klopp charged down the touchline to admonish him. Liverpool’s usual swift attacking strategies just got bound up in United’s strict organisation. While Liverpool had plenty of the ball only once did they get one of Salah or Mane away, and that was when the latter was isolated with McTominay in the 66th minute.

His cross from the left was one of the few times Liverpool got behind United and Eric Bailly who was mostly excellent alongside Chris Smalling managed to make the most extraordinary mess of it. Somehow Bailly contrived to back-heel the ball inside David De Gea’s near post while looking in the other direction and injuring himself at the same time. Asked about Bailly, Mourinho said: “Fantastic performance, amazing goal”. He can joke about these things from time to time.

Until then, Liverpool’s recognition that they were falling into the jaws of another Mourinho’s tactical project was growing in the minds of the away team and when finally they found they got a goal, the game became ever more tense. A single mistake would change the whole day as the clouds darkened the Old Trafford afternoon in the closing stages. Liverpool had 12 corners over the afternoon and time and again United got something on them.

This is Mourinho’s way, the performance that fits the opposition and the occasion and it feels unlikely he will ever deviate from the plan, no matter how long he is in charge at Old Trafford. This home crowd loves attacking football but more than anything else, they love to go home having beaten Liverpool and Mourinho has given them this for the first time in his reign. By the end it was hardly an issue that Paul Pogba had been injured in training on Friday and was not even on the bench.

Before the first goal, Nemanja Matic had given a clue to the masterplan, looking up early to strike the ball into the channels for Lukaku to pursue. On 14 minutes De Gea launched the ball down the centre and Lukaku planted himself in front of Lovren to leap and flick the ball on to Rashford.

There was plenty left for Rashford to do, a jab of the head to nod the ball down into his path and originally he went from a promising position goal-side of Alexander-Arnold before having to come back around the young defender onto his right foot. He dispatched a shot past Loris Karius before the Liverpool defence had been given a chance to reorganise.

From there on the idea of their own weakness was lodged in Liverpool’s heads and the rampaging Lukaku could see that it was his for the taking. Again on 24 minutes it was another ball launched by De Gea and another header won by Lukaku, this time it fell to his feet and he pushed Emre Can away like the archetypal competitive father with a serious weight advantage. At first it fell to Juan Mata but Virgil Van Dijk got a block to the ball that broke left for Rashford to finish again.

Mourinho said he substituted his young striker, booked for a bad tackle on James Milner, because he feared losing him to a red card. Mourinho added he was worried that the referee Craig Pawson had heard Neville’s half-time verdict that Rashford should have been dismissed.

Jose Mourinho doesn’t care what the people say
“The first half United half, the second Liverpool. Our first half was with goals and danger and I don’t know what could happen if Mata scored that fantastic goal for 3-0. In my opinion Liverpool controlling with the ball, United controlling without. I don’t remember David having a save, or any dangerous situations. We pushed them for more but our team was always in control and even in set pieces, dangerous situations in last parts of the game so I think we deserve.

“You can be in control by not having the ball. Against Liverpool if you play bad when you have the ball you can be in trouble. I can’t tell you this was a plan, no, they pushed us so credit to them but our full-backs defend very well the inside, our wingers sacrifice to control. They swap their full-backs to go forward and so I think it was a complete performance.

“Even if people don’t think we deserve, I don’t care! Let’s go home, three points.

“If it goes wrong people will say wrong decisions. My intention was to give a direct opponent to feel the pressure of a player who is faster and create problems going behind the defence. If he didn’t score people would probably say it didn’t work.

“I don’t care what people say. I’m sure. I’m tired, we have a match on Tuesday, I don’t care.”

Results:

Premier League standings:

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