In The Pulpit: Why we saw the best and worst of Jose Mourinho’s tactics against Liverpool

First of all, let’s just get this out the way:

Get in! Take that! Take it, take it, take it! Shove it in your face Robbie Fowler! Did you like that Kenny? Did you? Shut your noise!

Now that’s over with, we can have a look at the game itself. Of course, any victory over Liverpool should be cherished but on Saturday we saw a particularly delightful one. Regardless of what you may have heard from other sources, United very much deserved their victory.

In the first half alone, United were dominant without ever really keeping the ball and Rashford scored two brilliant goals to put the Reds ahead. It was exactly what United fans would have expected from Mourinho when he was hired. The manager had clearly identified Liverpool’s right-hand side as the weak spot in their side and ruthlessly exploited it. Both goals came from two near identical attacks and Mata could have had a third with a similar move.

Going the other way, Ashley Young did a number on Mo Salah, completely nullifying him for ninety minutes. The combative midfield and robust defence never really looked like conceding and kept Liverpool at arm’s length. It’s the first time in a long while where we have looked that solid in such a big game. United looked in total control.

When this style of play is done well, I find it fascinating and beautiful to watch. The grit, muck and bullets, life on the line style of defending can be as artful as a First World War poem. That coupled with quick counter attacks turns a stodgy defensive performance into a great win. Mourinho’s Champions League-winning Inter Milan side were masters of this, the two legs of their semi-final against Barcelona displaying both sides of this coin.

In the second half is where I start to have reservations about Mourinho’s strategy. Liverpool had begun to gain influence in the game and were steadily pushing United back. They then scored through an own goal, which prompted Mourinho to act, bringing on Fellaini for Rashford.

Boos rang out around the ground. That sort of change doesn’t fill you with confidence. Fellaini never seems to assist in shutting a game down, he just wants to watch the world burn. On the field, he causes chaos. There’s nothing more terrifying than watching him chase a loose ball, we all hold our breath, knowing that the chances of someone breaking a leg has exponentially increased.

With this change also came the return of the back six, which is the most disheartening of formations. Any chance of regaining the initiative and swinging the game back on your opponent is lost. United were effectively stating that they were happy with the goals they had scored. ‘Come over here Liverpool, why not try and get one yourself?’

United then camped on the edge of their box and managed to repel every attack that came. Yes, they arguably should’ve given away three penalties, but other than that they were barely threatened. They deserved the win. Three points against your biggest rival, job done.

So this is my point: I am ecstatic that United won that game, but within that game, we saw both the reasons that Mourinho is a brilliant manager and also the reasons why I’m not a fan of his.

I would much rather that in the situation he found himself in yesterday, Carrick was the player that he turned to. An old head to get the ball down and keep hold of it. Choke the game out by keeping possession, rather than put up a wall and try to hold out.

Mourinho has never and will never do that. He will always attempt to batten down the hatches and hold out for a win. If it works, we get performances like Saturday when we look borderline imperious. When it doesn’t work, we get all those games last year like Arsenal at home, or the disaster at Leicester this season.

Mourinho will always walk this tightrope. Maybe with another £500m spend, we can make sure that we don’t have to turn to Fellaini in times of trouble. Then that period of a big fixture like this one will be a lot cleaner, a lot more professional. I haven’t even got an issue with playing in this way in the truly massive games. But at one point he’ll slip off that tightrope and history tells us that when he does, he pulls the whole club down with him.

Still, I’m very pleased that we beat Liverpool and now we look almost home and hosed in second place. If we can get through against Sevilla and Brighton we’re deep into two major cups. But there will always be that nagging feeling that this isn’t the right way forward and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

About the Author

Bob Priestley
Manchester United fan and writer of 'entertaining articles' or 'a collection of words' depending on who you listen to