José Mourinho’s second season at Manchester United won’t be judged on one afternoon at Anfield.
There’s a reason his side remain the only one of the big six Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool are yet to beat in the league, and it’s not up to the Portuguese manager to facilitate an entertaining game of free-flowing attacking football which the Merseyside club, who had the best record in head-to-head games between the top six last season, would probably prefer, and would probably win.
Whereas Arsenal and Hoffenheim had gone to Anfield earlier in the season and shipped four goals each, other teams have learnt from previous experiences against Klopp’s side, as well as watching the plight of other teams, and played to Liverpool’s weaknesses rather than their strengths.
Mourinho is more Sean Dyche than Arsène Wenger, more Tony Pulis than Julian Nagelsmann, and in some ways is more Rafael Benítez than Klopp. His side had the second-best defence in the league last season as they built a system based on not conceding. With that now in place they’ve begun to look at the other end of the pitch, because a solid defence can prevent a side from losing. But only the attack can win games.
Romelu Lukaku has helped, and the club knew exactly what they were getting when the Belgian goal-machine arrived at Old Trafford. Now they don’t just boast the best defence in the league but also have the second-best attack behind seemingly unstoppable neighbours Manchester City.
As well as Lukaku, Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been key to this newfound attacking verve, and Klopp’s comments about a player he once managed, plus his decision to go with three run of the mill midfielders rather than sticking with Barcelona transfer target Philippe Coutinho as one of the central trio in his 4-3-3, showed the German’s caution going into this game.
Liverpool were the home side, after all, and will have been expected to force the game. But as Mourinho pointed out afterwards, Klopp kept a similar system throughout rather than replacing one of his box-to-box midfielders with a more attacking option.
“I was waiting for them to make an offensive change to try more, to take out Emre Can or Georginio Wijnaldum and bring on Daniel Sturridge or someone. Which I was waiting for, but he never did it,” said Mourinho.
“I think he’s very offensive, but 90-minutes in the same system, the same players, he didn’t try anything.”
Both managers agreed that United’s counter-attack was their main threat, and Klopp repeatedly pointed out that he had no problem with the opposition’s tactics. He explained what these tactics were, but emphasised that this was not a criticism.
“He was afraid of our counter-attack,” added Mourinho. “This is what I tried when I put on Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford. I had no way to improve my midfield, so I just tried to improve in attacking areas.”
Klopp reinforced this idea with his own post-match comments.
“We protected our offensive situation perfectly against one of the best counter-attacking teams in the world,” said the German.
“If you don’t protect Mkhitaryan, he runs from here back to Manchester with the ball — and Lukaku — we defended well. It was obvious Man United had a more defensive approach, I think that was obvious and that's completely fine”
Since arriving in Manchester Mourinho has slowly worked away at turning the rivalry between England’s two most successful clubs into a damp squib, and with the lack of local players within the two sides, the scuffles which used to mark even the dullest of north west derbies are now dying out too.
That said, his side came close on a couple of occasions, through Lukaku whose shot was saved by Simon Mignolet, and Nemanja Matić who crashed a left-footed effort over the bar from distance. Anthony Martial was lively, if stifled in the first half, but in the second half the side failed to register a shot.
However, there’s no reason this game needs to be the same when the sides meet at Old Trafford in March, especially with Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini back, and who knows might arrive in January.
The two sides are second and third when it comes to total expected goals this term, with United over-performing in terms of actual goals by 1.57, and Liverpool underperforming by 4.67.
Mourinho is much more likely to be judged on his side’s display at Old Trafford, not least by the club’s own fans who will want their team to display the attacking verve their players have shown so far this season on their own patch against their old rivals.
The play of the aforementioned Lukaku, Mkhitaryan, and Martial has been punctuated by the free spirit that is Rashford, and they might want to see their local boy get more than the 25 minutes he was afforded at Anfield.
In the opening six games of the season United created at least ten chances in each game, had at least 15 shots, and at least 20 touches in the opposition's box. In the game against Liverpool these numbers were two, six, and six.
While United's display during this 0-0 draw will probably upset the TV companies more than it will anyone involved with the Red Devils, and it doesn't necessarily mean that they've turned back into a defence-only side, the manager may not get a pass from his own crowd if the performance is repeated on home soil next year.