Jose Mourinho's pragmatism results in a missed opportunity for Manchester United at Anfield
On Saturday, for the second consecutive season, Jose Mourinho arrived at Anfield and firmly parked the Manchester United team bus across the face of David de Gea’s goal.
For those watching the contest on television and, even more so, those that journeyed to Liverpool for the early kick off, this was a game that had to be endured rather than enjoyed. It was a poor spectacle with little attacking ambition shown by either team with only two definitive clear-cut chances throughout the entire ninety minutes.
For both sets of supporters this game will not live long in the memory.
Mourinho admitted that, from his perspective, coming away from Anfield with a point was “ok” and explained his side’s pragmatic approach by highlighting injuries to key personnel, especially in central midfield, which limited his tactical flexibility.
Whilst there is undoubtedly truth in his statements, there were only two first team central midfielders available for selection with Paul Pogba still absent through injury, United’s approach to the game has still left many scratching their heads.
This was undoubtedly a missed opportunity for United.
Mourinho and his team arrived at Anfield as joint leaders at the summit of the Premier League table, full of confidence and in fine form having won nine out of their last ten fixtures in all competitions. They had made a dominant start to the season, having scored three or more goals in seven of those contests, and certainly went into the game against Liverpool as favourites.
In contrast, Jurgen Klopp’s side had won just one of their previous seven fixtures across all competitions since the start of September and had failed to keep a clean sheet during that period. At their free-flowing best Liverpool are undoubtedly a joy to watch, yet recent weeks have demonstrated that they have a soft defensive underbelly.
So, while a point at Anfield may look good on paper for Mourinho, in reality Saturday’s fixture was the perfect opportunity to play on the front foot and expose Liverpool’s defensive frailties. A more positive approach would surely have resulted in a greater chance of victory.
It would have been highly unlikely that Liverpool’s back-four would have been able to contain the attacking threat and creativity provided by Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, had Mourinho opted to unshackle them.
United supporters will undoubtedly suggest that if Lukaku had converted his one, and only, goal scoring opportunity late in the second half, as he probably should have done, that Mourinho’s approach would have been justified.
However, the imposing Belgian forward failed to convert his strike and had it not been for de Gea’s outstretched leg which turned away Joel Matip’s header in the opening period then United would have come away from Anfield empty handed and the pragmatic approach would have come back to haunt them.
Whilst Mourinho will certainly receive much of the criticism from the media for the contest turning into a dour affair it is also worth noting that Liverpool should accept a portion of the blame.
Klopp deployed a trio of solid, defensive-minded central midfielders throughout the contest, refusing to introduce any attacking flair into that area, and the lack of creativity in that middle third of the pitch certainly limited the amount of ammunition provided to the forwards. As the home team the onus should have been on Liverpool to take a more positive approach themselves.
Both managers will have come away from Anfield relatively content with a point, and yet, for Mourinho and United this was a missed opportunity. Victory against Liverpool would have been a definitive statement of intent aimed towards their title rivals – you doubt that Manchester City will utilise the same pragmatic approach when roll into town later in the season – but instead this contest turned into a damp squib.
Mourinho is correct, a point at Anfield is ok, but for United this was a missed opportunity to play on the front foot and claim all three.