Most who watched Manchester United‘s 0-0 draw with Liverpool at Anfield last weekend will have come away from the game cursing the hour and a half of wasted time they will never get back, as the highly-anticipated encounter between two bitter rivals once again produced little in the way of entertainment.
But José Mourinho will have been thoroughly satisfied with his afternoon's work. The United boss set his side up to contain the potent Reds, intent on not losing the game rather than taking any semblance of a risk in pursuit of all three points.
Job done, then, for the Portuguese tactician. United came away from Merseyside with a share of the spoils, keeping them well within touching distance of neighbours Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table. And the Red Devils were soon back to winning ways in midweek, overcoming Benfica in the Champions League.
But the negative tactics utilised by Mourinho at Anfield may have a more far-reaching impact on United than the former Real Madrid and Chelsea coach was bargaining for, costing them the intangible asset that any title challenge is built on: momentum.
The Old Trafford outfit have started the 2017/18 campaign in fine form, especially in front of goal, notching four goals in six of their 13 all-competitions games, while boasting the joint-best conversion rate (23.6 per cent) in the Premier League – last season their profligacy ranked them 17th in the division.
Is it possible, then, that United's sluggish performance in their 1-0 win away o Benfica in the Champions League was a result of a hangover from the Liverpool draw? The Portuguese champions had been soundly beaten in their first two group-stage fixtures, and the Red Devils brushed aside CSKA Moscow and Basel in their previous continental outings. Yet, at the Estádio da Luz, Mourinho's men lacked verve and impetus.
By playing in such a contained, restricted manner against Liverpool, sacrificing attacking intent in favour of defensive solidity, Mourinho might have inadvertently checked his side's momentum.
After the game at Anfield, the United manager went straight into spin mode, insisting that his side were no more culpable for the lack of goals than their opponents, claiming the hosts were as passive as the visitors on the day.
“For me, the second half was a game of chess,” Mourinho said in his post-match press conference, “but my opponent didn’t open the door for me to win the game … I was waiting for Jürgen to change, I was waiting for him to go more attacking but he kept the three strong midfielders all the time where he was having control because I only had [Ander] Herrera and [Nemanja] Matić.
“Well, you [Liverpool] were at home and you didn’t move anything? I don’t know. I was waiting for that. He didn’t. I think he did well, honestly. He didn’t let the game break. [Jesse] Lingard and [Marcus] Rashford were waiting for the game to be broken but the game wasn’t broken.”
That was knowingly disingenuous from Mourinho. Could Liverpool have been more expansive? Sure. But their 62.2 per cent share of possession and 19 shots to United's six would appear to evidence one side's efforts to win the game and the other's to simply not lose.
The expected goals (xG) statistics – which applies a value to every chance created based on the outcome of historical shots from the same positions – for the game again show it was not an even affair in terms of attacking intent, with Liverpool's xG 1.92 and United's just 0.24.
Against Benfica, United enjoyed the lion's share of possession (64 per cent), but were out-shot by the Portuguese side by 11 efforts at goal to ten. The Red Devils seldom truly troubled the home side, and were it not for Rashford's unusual free-kick from wide exposing the inexperience of 18-year-old goalkeeper Mile Svilar, another 0-0 could well have been on the cards.
But, again, it was job done for Mourinho: three points away from home, regardless of the performance, should not be sniffed at, especially in the Champions League.
United face Huddersfield Town at the John Smith's Stadium on Saturday afternoon. The 20-time champions must show that they have shaken off the ultra-conservative rationale that defined their display against Liverpool, and rediscover their ruthlessness in front of goal.
With Manchester City threatening to pull away at the top of the table, this season's title looks as though it will be won by the power of the eventual champions' attack. United need to rebuild their momentum and safeguard it.