After yet another international break, albeit more entertaining than those before it, the Premier League returns with one of its most enthralling fixtures. Most of the time, at least. Co-leaders Manchester United travel to Liverpool knowing that a victory would send them 10 points clear of the Merseysiders, and surely deal a fatal blow to their title chances even at this early stage of the season. It marks a massive role reversal compared to the last time they met at Anfield.
Almost exactly a year ago, Jose Mourinho’s reign was getting off to an uninspiring start, having picked up fewer points than Louis van Gaal managed the previous season, while Liverpool – inspired by summer signing Sadio Mane, who is sidelined for this rematch – had been absolutely purring. They hosted United with top spot in their sights, and Mourinho could hardly contain his satisfaction after the game when he engineered yet another defensive masterclass.
‘They are not the last wonder of the world like you [the media] say they are,’ he said gleefully. After so much build-up, how inevitable that the game should end in a goalless stalemate. And how typical of Mourinho too. This display was not quite out of his top drawer of bore draws, but it was close.
United limited the hosts to just three shots on target – they only mustered fewer in home matches against Manchester City and, surprisingly, Crystal Palace – but only had one themselves, their joint-worst all season. In giving up 65% possession, it represented their lowest share of the ball since Opta began recording data in 2003, at least until they travelled to the Etihad towards the end of the season to take on Pep Guardiola’s suffocating City side.
Jose Mourinho on last season’s bore draw
A year later and United are a very different proposition. After two seasons of achingly pedestrian possession football under Van Gaal, and a period of inconsistent transition under Mourinho, they are now playing with their old vigour and intensity. There is a swashbuckling air to performances, attacking relentlessly and ruthlessly even into the dying embers of matches. Only City have scored more goals, with the Red Devils currently averaging +2.7 goal difference per game – way up on last season.
Jurgen Klopp on last season’s bore draw
Now perhaps the greatest intrigue surrounding Saturday’s game is which United team – and which side of Mourinho – will show up at Anfield. Will the boisterousness and sense of fun remain, or will the Special One revert to type?
In all likelihood, it will be the latter. The match represents United’s first real test of the season and their first against a side in the top half of the Premier League table – though nevertheless it would be classified as a must-not-lose rather than a must-win, and few managers are as aware of the distinction as Mourinho. The gameplan he used on his last visit to Anfield still feels like the perfect way to stop Liverpool, and the international break will only increase his fervour to try it again.
The Portuguese coach is notorious for using a lack of preparation to justify a negative gameplan, and with several of his first-team players not returning to England until 72 hours before kick-off he has the perfect excuse to ditch the more attacking and expansive style that had delighted fans recently.
A year ago, United lined up deep but pressed aggressively in their own half, matching Liverpool’s intensive style that was such a trademark of Jurgen Klopp’s early reign but which has been noticeably dialled down. Mourinho’s side attempted 28 tackles that day (winning 20), as many as they have managed in any game under the Portuguese since he took over. The key to that, as Mourinho made a point of noting afterwards, was his midfield.
‘The two midfielders did a phenomenal job for the team,’ he said afterwards. ‘Not just because they were offensively good but also because they kept control of the game. The team was always conformable.’ Specifically, he was referring to the job Ander Herrera did in shackling the attacking talents of Brazilian duo Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino.
Premier League shots on target per game 2017/18
Curiously, Herrera has found himself on the periphery of Mourinho’s plans this season despite being named United’s Player of the Year and establishing himself as one of the manager’s most trusted lieutenants. His performance against Liverpool totally shut down any space in the hole, and would only be bettered by his man-marking job on Eden Hazard several months later – a tactic that plenty of teams will try and replicate this season.
In his place, Nemanja Matic has undoubtedly brought a greater degree of balance to the side, and allowed the attackers ahead of him more freedom; ironically, the presence of a more defence-orientated player has allowed United’s more advanced players to play with greater attacking abandon.
But injuries to Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini, and Herrera’s omission from the Spain squad, coupled with the difficulty of facing a team with as many attacking weapons as Liverpool, lends weight to the expectation that the Spaniard will return to the starting XI on Saturday. If that happens, United’s free-flowing football may disappear, even if only temporarily.
Mourinho will not mind, but perhaps he should. Unlike his early days in the Premier League, there are simply too many good teams competing for the title to take the approach that a draw is good enough against a rival. Swatting aside minnows and avoiding defeat in the big games used to be enough, but not anymore; United were hampered last season by winning just two of their top-six clashes – title winners Chelsea won five, the joint most.
Liverpool had the opposite problem, averaging exactly as many points against the top six as they picked up against the rest of the league. Their struggles against the Premier League’s lesser lights remain, but United can show that they have adapted and evolved from last season. Every fibre of Mourinho will want to reapply the handbrake, but maybe, just once, he should try and resist the urge. Without Mane, Liverpool are wounded. He must go in for the kill.