Jose Mourinho got the stick and stone from media and fans as his Manchester United drew against Liverpool at Anfield in, what was labelled, the worst derby of the decade. Fans just can’t accept defensive stance he took at Anfield after spending huge money in the summer on transfer. However, having good players doesn’t really equal good team and that is only one of the things that comes into the equation.
Before the match Liverpool was the favourite to win the game. They haven’t been so efficient in decades while United is still in search for best 11. They had big trouble overcoming Ukrainian side Zorya in Europa League and managed only a draw in their last match with Stoke. It is safe to say the mood in the dressing room is far from perfect. To make it worst, after big match against Liverpool, Man Utd has to play Fenerbahce, Chelsea and Guardiola’s Man City in next ten days.
All that together made it a very difficult game for Mourinho who had to make some important decisions. Above all, Mourinho didn’t want to lose the game since that would drop the morale even further as he approaches difficult ten days. He did everything to avoid that and with style, taking care of most threats his opposition posed. Last time he faced a team that plays the ball from back was against Man City. Mourinho opted for quite deep defence and very passive approach with zero pressing. Man City completely dominated United in that match and punished the choice. So, against Liverpool, Mourinho chose to obstruct opposition high up the pitch in order to stop their transition into the middle third. This way he made home side suffer numerous possession turnovers and, what is perhaps more important, Liverpool lost confidence in build up and smooth approach to rival’s goal.
He also sent his team on the pitch with clear idea not to succumb to gegenpressing. “Heavy metal” football that Klopp employs is a trade mark of his team. To avoid that trap Mourinho didn’t want too much fiddling with the ball in own third. De Gea’s ball distribution shows he didn’t make single short pass during the match and if you look at the above diagram of clearances made, you can se United punted the ball on numerous occasions. Being pragmatic is what Mourinho does best and if clearing the ball means not being caught in gegenpressing, then United will and did punt the ball almost every two minutes during the game.
Often disputed Marouane Fellaini found his way into the starting line up as, together with Ibrahimović and Pogba, he is extremely useful in those situations. Statistics show that those punted balls weren’t really so hopeless as United managed to win aerial duels three times more than their opponents. It isn’t a coincidence as almost ten per cent of passes United made were chipped balls for tall and strong Ibrahimović, Pogba and Fellaini. While it is very dubious offensive plan since most of second balls off the headers get scooped by defence anyway, it is still a plan and United played to their strengths. In the end, the best chance they had came in 53rd minute when Ibrahimović headed the ball unusually poor.
However, remember that main idea behind the game plan was not to concede the goal by not getting caught in gegenpressing. The offensive plan was just a side effect of main goal.
However, Mourinho had to think how to stop Liverpool on the ball once they do break the pressing. LFC plays a particular brand of football where full backs provide width while attacking trio is relatively free to roam and switch positions hoping to exploit the width created by wide and offensive full backs.
Above you can see Liverpool in offensive shape with Clyne and Milner very wide while offensive players plus two attacking minded midfielders (Can and Coutinho) look to break through the defensive block. However, Mourinho nullified the space they need by having two energetic wingers who marked full backs. You can tell how well prepared and thought out was Mourinho as he Ashley Young got his first starting spot since January. His ability to repeatedly run up and down the pitch was crucial for Mourinho. Ability Lingard lacks.
Using wingers to mark opposition full backs tightly liberated defensive fore from direct threat and made the half spaces occupied and unapproachable by Firmino, Mane, Sturridge and Coutinho. Mourinho simply nullified the space they need to operate. With Fellaini, Herrera and Pogba in center midfield United completely closed down space and time Liverpool would need to develop their flair and direct runs to the goal. This approach, coupled with quick direct forward passing, insured Liverpool had no chance to catch them in possession to spur counter attack and no space to play direct towards the goal nor ability to create overloads.
Despite having 65 per cent of possession, Liverpool managed only three shots on goal and only one was really dangerous. An incident from 58th minute when Liverpool was able to find Emre Can who managed a shot from inside penalty area. While United had even fewer opportunities, they really didn’t care. They came to seal off one of the most potent teams in Premiership and they did it almost perfectly. While that meant only few players in offensive positions and anger from fans, Mourinho really won’t care. He had a task, studied it well, and his players executed it even better.
Despite the outrage on the social networks, real loser was Juergen Klopp. He failed to adapt and only once he put Adam Lallana on the pitch his team was more dangerous. However, by that time, visitors were already even more decisive to keep bodies behind the ball. In the end, both managers will be happy. Liverpool was favourite but still didn’t lose and they have few “easier” games ahead while United bought some time before difficult weak ahead while keeping the clean sheet against one of the best attacks in the league.