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1. This is Mourinho
Manchester United’s manager summed up his attitude towards this game in his post-match comments. “A point, in this long marathon? A point at Anfield is ok”.
Ahead of the game, fans, pundits, and the Twitter brigade had worked themselves into a familiar frenzy in the build up to the match, which was heightened coming off the back of another long and unwelcome international break. This game is always one both sets of fans mark in their calendar upon the release of the fixtures, and the turgid banality of Gareth Southgate’s England side made the prospect of this renewed North-West rivalry all the more appealing.
This led to numerous debates over how this game would play out. Would Mourinho’s free-scoring side throw caution to the wind and exploit the vulnerable defence of Liverpool? Will the sides seek to outscore each other in a match of flair and carefree abandon?
Anyone who has watched the career of Mourinho should have known that, despite their increased attacking endeavour this season against some of the lesser lights in the Premier League, Jose has only ever played one way at Anfield, and he did absolutely nothing different on this occasion, making no apologies for it. In statistics similar to the snoozefest of ‘Red Monday’ in the corresponding fixture almost exactly one year ago, United managed 38% possession, one shot on target, and three corners in the entire game. Attacking intent was surrendered completely to Liverpool, whilst United defended in numbers, in what could generously be labelled a 4-4-1-1 formation, but more accurately generally featured 9 men behind the ball.
It was a disciplined, dogged, determined performance and there is no doubt United defended well, limiting Liverpool to very few genuine chances. Valencia and Darmian were obviously briefed to venture forward at their peril, and at no stage did either seek to overlap on any attacks. Similarly, Ashley Young and Martial stuck rigidly to their respective flanks and maintained defensive discipline. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Lukaku were often cast adrift and failed to have any impact on the game.
Mourinho obviously identified that a point at this stage of the campaign keeps them within touching distance of City, and there is no doubt by the end of the game he was content to simply see the game out. Whilst Guardiola went on to enjoy a rampant dominance up the road in a swashbuckling 7-2 victory over Stoke, United ruthlessly withstood the late Liverpool pressure without mounting any attacks of note in the second half.
2. This was not ‘The United Way’
There has been a level of frustration from fans, and criticism in the media, for United’s approach to the game. I watched a documentary on Sir Bobby Charlton last week in lieu of his 80th birthday, and he talked about the Manchester United way, an ethos etched into the character of the club which makes this club different to the rest. He recalled some early words given to him by Sir Matt Busby when first signing for the club as a youngster. “All those lads you see going to the factory in Trafford Park…. They have boring jobs, so you have to give them something they enjoy”.
On Saturday, there was only one side interested in playing football. Aside from the slick one-twos leading to the only good chance United created for Romelu Lukaku, it is genuinely difficult to recall any quality attacking play from United. Their quality in possession was remarkably poor, and pass completion rates for a number of players were remarkably poor.
It was a performance that we would not have associated with United teams of the past. Of course, you have to maintain defensive solidity coming to Anfield, but the fact is this squad has cost so much money it would make your eyes water. Contrastingly, this is not a classic Liverpool side. They have proven time and again that they have severe issues within their defence. There appeared to be no will to test these issues. A barometer of this is the fact Lukaku managed just 22 touches of the ball in the 90 minutes. Jermain Defoe typically saw more of the ball last season leading the line for the worst Sunderland side in memory. This is a Liverpool side who Manchester City beat by five goals, albeit having had Sadio Mane sent off.
The fact, of course, is that achieving this point has equalled United’s best start after 8 games of any season in the Premier League era, which is why Mourinho was more than content. My opinion, though, is that the manner it was achieved was verging on pathetic. It represented a small club mentality, whenever United have an abundance of players to be able to more than match Liverpool. There was no attacking fluidity, and no trust in players like Juan Mata who enjoy creative freedom and flexibility. You can’t really argue with the result, but you can argue with the style.
The fact is, this is Mourinho. He is a pragmatist, and he is only interested in results and trophies. If he achieves them, and at the end of the season this turns out to be a crucial point gained as opposed to two dropped, then he will be justified. His agenda is not, though, to live up to the attacking and entertaining traditions of the club.
3. Lukaku was Lonely
The biggest victim of the style of play was Romelu Lukaku. Games like this one make him look like a very average player, and he cut a very frustrated figure as he tried to make an impact completely isolated up front, with virtually no service.
He had the one excellent chance in the first half, which he fired straight at the on-coming Simon Mignolet, and unfortunately did nothing to silence the doubters who claim he is a flat track bully who generally does not perform against opposition of stature.
It is difficult to blame Lukaku for his frustration, and he made a couple of rash challenges in the first half that probably should have earned him a booking. He has been absolutely exceptional thus far for his new team, and hopefully in the Champions League this midweek, he will be supported by more options in attack to enable him to flourish as he has done. The criticism from this game will be that the very best strikers are so clinical, they only need one chance in a game like this one, and Lukaku didn’t take his.
4. Mkhitaryan was a ghost
The winner of the award for the most ineffectual player on the pitch at Anfield would have to go to Henrikh Mkhitaryan, until he was withdrawn for the livelier Jesse Lingard after the hour mark. I would be inclined towards the opinion that he was another victim of the United tactics, as he saw little of the ball in his central area. However, there is no denying that it was a poor outing from the Armenian captain, who may have still been reeling from a 6-0 defeat with his national side during the international break.
Mkhitaryan was selected presumably to enable some threat on the counter attack, as he can dribble with the ball at pace, and seek to hurt Liverpool in the transitions. His output in terms of assists when playing in the 10 role this season has been good, but in this game, he constantly surrendered possession, demonstrated a poor first touch, and offered virtually no threat on the limited counter attacks that his side mustered.
I believe Mkhitaryan is the best option for Mourinho’s team in this role, but after this performance his position must surely be under threat. Jesse Lingard, although he may be accused of lacking the moments of genuine class we’ve seen sporadically from Mkhitaryan, worked much harder when he came on and was always looking to receive the ball and find pockets of space. He showed that he is a good option in a central role, which is his best position.
5. De Gea rescued the point
There is no question that the outstretched left foot of United’s Spanish stopper is what earned this away point when he turned away the first half effort of Matip. De Gea was assured throughout and made that unorthodox save that it is doubtful any other goalkeeper in the division would have managed.
It is a tired cliché, but true nevertheless, that David De Gea is worth an extra ten points a season to his side. He gives the defence in front of him confidence as he did everything he needed to at Anfield in terms of his routine saves and claimed crosses. He also saw a lot of the ball from back passes, and demonstrated his excellent distribution and footballing ability. He only needed to make that one outstanding save, but his general performance exuded a confidence and calmness that then spreads to the rest of the team. He is an exceptional goalkeeper, and the biggest compliment you can pay him is that his status as the best ‘keeper in the division is almost universally accepted.
In summary, a point at Anfield is never a bad result. The issue is that, if City continue at anything like the rate they are, every two points dropped are valuable, and the frustration is that this squad of exceptional quality barely evidenced any attacking intent against a team that, in all honesty, probably won’t achieve a top four finish this season. But this is Mourinho. We knew that when he took the reins of this proud football club, and if he continues to challenge then the fans will accept it.