Anfield negativity has left Mourinho on cliff edge ahead of definitive few weeks
Jose Mourinho’s pragmatism has won league titles in Portugal, England, Spain and Italy. A couple of Champions Leagues along the way have made him one of the most successful managers in a generation. The pragmatism transformed Porto into European champions, brought a trophy-laden decade to Chelsea, and collected a battling treble with Inter.
Pragmatism has been Mourinho’s USP. Where other managers pontificate about ideals, Mourinho’s footballing ideals stretch little further than winning. Build a squad, hone them into an unbeatable machine, and lift trophies. It’s been a formula that has frustrated – and often bored – but the results are unchallengeable.
The debate of results versus philosophy is for another time. Mourinho, though, has seen his pragmatism eke into pessimism of late. Avoiding defeat has taken precedence over winning.
No chance of victory
Perhaps the clearest example of all was at Anfield. Manchester United were facing Liverpool after they had failed to beat Newcastle, conceded two to Leicester and been thrashed by Manchester City. Their defence – as seems to be a permanent state – was in disrepair. The visitors, meanwhile, had dropped two points all season, and conceded only two goals.
Instead of seeing this as an opportunity, Mourinho reverted to his norm. Away to a fellow top six side means defence, and, as is more common, almost no attacking intent whatsoever. Manchester United were okay at the back, but did nothing to trouble Liverpool.
Mourinho’s side had been swiping teams aside in the league and Champions League. The decision to as good as give up on the idea of three points in a heated derby against a struggling Liverpool stopped that roll.
A fortuitous goal against Benfica allowed Manchester United to take three points in midweek. Marcus Rashford required a bit of assistance from the opposition goalkeeper, as chance creation was again limited. The result – as often is the case with Mourinho – was a good one, but the performance was a warning sign. The shackles that were tightened for the Liverpool match were still present.
It had been coming
Then came a historic defeat to Huddersfield. The defence was at fault for the two goals conceded, but the team lacked invention again. Their eventual goal came from a Romelu Lukaku cross for Marcus Rashford. Henrikh Mkhitaryan struggled, and could well be dropped by the ruthless Mourinho despite his strong start to the season.
Against Huddersfield, Manchester United registered a mere 0.8 expected goals. This is no freak, either. Against Benfica it was 0.6, and against Liverpool it was 0.3. Mourinho’s side are not going to create with the freedom of a Pep Guardiola team, but winning matches is almost impossible with such minimal chance creation.
Clinical finishing and late goals have led to flattering scorelines in the early weeks of this season, but this downturn in attacking productivity is a direct result of Mourinho’s pessimism at Anfield. Where he could have unleashed his previously red hot forwards at a mistake-ridden Liverpool defence, Mourinho opted to avoid defeat. It could be argued that one goal for United means it looks like another masterclass, though it was his decisions that made the chances of that ‘one goal’ so low.
Manchester United sat deep, just like Tottenham did against Liverpool this weekend. That, however, is where the similarities end. Spurs committed more bodies forward, moved the ball quicker and were more proactive in trying to snatch the ball off Liverpool in midfield. The Lilywhites played with freedom.
The season might look very different for Mourinho and Manchester United had they set up differently at Anfield. An attack that was punishing mistakes has been reigned in. The movement that was leaving defenders in a muddle is nowhere to be seen, and the passing from midfield has lurched towards safety rather than attack.
Manchester United now embark on their toughest run of the season. Rotation is expected for the Swansea Carabao Cup tie on Tuesday, but then comes the visit of Tottenham. Between now and mid-December, the 20-time champions of England face six of the current top seven.
Already five points behind the flawless Manchester City, and level with Spurs, Mourinho must find the perfect medium that made him a serial-winner. Accepting draws will not be enough, and the current defence cannot be relied on to shut teams out.
In a year when competing for the title is the bare minimum, Mourinho has manoeuvred his team onto the crest of a slippery slope ahead of the most important few weeks of the season. Maybe, the ruthlessness of the opening weeks was unsustainable. It was firmly stopped in its tracks by Mourinho reverting to his own caricature, though.
Several players have underperformed, too, but Mourinho publicly criticising their attitude is a typical, do or die tactic. It might see his team beat Spurs comfortably, but it could, just as easily, elongate this slump.
Mourinho has not just handed the initiative to Manchester City. He has now given them a chance to build a near-unassailable lead even before Christmas. As he has aged, the former Real Madrid manager has lost none of his bite. He has, though, erred towards caution rather than a means to win, and it could have cost his team their shot at the title this season.