Supreme tactician Mourinho has plan to beat Liverpool
Klopp’s Liverpool will wonder what to expect from arch-chameleon at Anfield tomorrow
Manchester United travel to Anfield tomorrow, almost exactly a year since their last visit, when they left with a point and Jose Mourinho railing against the criticism heaped on his shoulders after a goalless draw.
Liverpool mustered three shots on target to United’s one that night, despite having 65 per cent of the ball, and Mourinho was bemused that critics were quick to condemn a game-plan that had not only stifled Liverpool’s Plan A but exposed his counterpart Jurgen Klopp’s lack of an answer to their opponents’ obduracy.
Those bleating about a defensive mindset had conveniently overlooked the many occasions when Sir Alex Ferguson would rock up at Anfield and eschew “the United way” in favour of pragmatism, such as September 2005, when the Scot also left with a point after a stalemate.
John Terry, the former Chelsea captain, once remarked that the big games are when Mourinho “comes into his own” and one of the reasons for the Portuguese’s success in them is because no one can ever be quite sure what he is planning next. He is football’s arch-chameleon in that respect. Even without the injured Sadio Mane, and with Adam Lallana still sidelined, Liverpool fans will have a pretty good idea of how Klopp will try to tackle United. Mourinho? If he does opt for a similar approach to last time out at Anfield, you can be sure it will have modifications that make it far from an identikit system, and, if it is more expansive, it will come inevitably complete with the checks and balances that help to explain why his sides are so rarely hopelessly exposed.
When it comes to those highstakes fixtures, in particular, few managers tailor their tactics so studiously around the strengths and weaknesses of opponents – and awareness of his team’s own qualities and shortcomings. “We prepare a game better when we’re aware of our own weaknesses,” Mourinho says. “I tell my players that, for me, beautiful is not giving our opponents what they want.”
The rewards have been handsome. In his 13 full seasons as a manager with Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and United, Mourinho has won almost 60 per cent of his 130 league matches against sides that finished the campaign in the top six, losing just 17 of them – barely 13 per cent – and amassing an average of 2.04 points per match. There have been 60 clean sheets, and of those 17 defeats, only six were by more than a one-goal margin. Thirty wins and 20 draws from 65 away fixtures underline how successful he is on his travels, and although more than a quarter of all victories were 1-0 wins, 42 were by at least a two-goal margin and 18 by at least a three-goal margin.
And that is the point about Mourinho: there are many strings to his bow. When Inter beat Barcelona 3-1 in the Champions League in April 2010, Mourinho had his side press high and Wesley Sneijder dictate the play, which caught their opponents off guard. Against Ajax in the Europa League final last May, Mourinho vetoed United’s centre-halves from playing the ball to his midfielders, vacating the area where Ajax would ordinarily recover possession by pressing high.
By contrast, in the Champions League with Chelsea in 2007, Mourinho flooded the midfield against Liverpool in the first half at Stamford Bridge and had his wide forwards launch frequent aerial bombardments into their opponents’ box. When Chelsea ended Manchester City’s 100 per cent home record in February 2014, Mourinho dropped his star player, Oscar, and ransacked Manuel Pellegrini’s side on the counter-attack, in much the same way as Real did to Barcelona in April 2012 en route to inflicting the Catalan club’s first home defeat in 55 matches.
Perhaps at Anfield tomorrow, Mourinho will look to do similar, operating a low defensive block and then seeking to exploit a fragile Liverpool underbelly on the
‘I tell my players that, for me, beautiful is not giving opponents what they want’
transition. Or maybe Ander Herrera, in the absence of the injured Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini, will be tasked with man-marking Philippe Coutinho in the same way he so effectively shadowed Eden Hazard against Chelsea last season. Mourinho certainly sees beauty in collective defensive rigour where other managers may only see negativity or caution. United’s goalless draw at Anfield 12 months ago bore many of the traits of Chelsea’s 2-0 win
there in April 2014, a result that dealt a huge blow to Liverpool’s title aspirations and invited accusations that Mourinho had “killed football” with his team’s perceived time-wasting and overtly defensive set-up. The perception of control is contentious. Many regard having plenty of the ball as control. But if possession fails to translate into chances, and the opponents are untroubled, can that be categorised as control? Mourinho stressed that point after last year’s trip to Anfield, when he said United “didn’t want to control the game by having the ball all the time”.
One thing is certain tomorrow – Mourinho will have another carefully crafted plan in place.