When Manchester United fans rejoice in their position as holders of the record for most English league title wins, they chant their their 20 successes were achieved ‘the Matt Busby way’. But on Monday they got their first real taste of football 'the Jose Mourinho way' in the 0-0 stalemate against Liverpool at Anfield.
This was a fixture which had ended scoreless only once in 60 meetings in all competitions over the past 25 years. Yet Mourinho’s approach ensured a tight, tense affair that ultimately saw United succeed in closing out a previously free-flowing Liverpool side, but fail in causing Jurgen Klopp’s outfit enough problems to test a weak-looking defence.
In truth, Man Utd knew what they were getting in Mourinho. There was some suggestion that they may go for Mauricio Pochettino, who has shown at Espanyol, Southampton and Tottenham the kind of sensibilities normally demanded of a United manager. When they plumped for the former Chelsea and Inter boss, they did so having seen some of the highly-structured, cautious performances his sides had regularly put in to claim important points away from home.
It was clear from the moment United’s team was announced exactly what kind of performance this was likely to be. Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini were perhaps the Red Devils’ best two outfield players on the night, but both earned far more plaudits for their tracking and breaking-up of play than they did for their creative abilities.
Antonio Valencia and Eric Bailly also stood out at key moments, most notably when the Ecuadorian right-back made an exceptional tackle on Robert Firmino late in the day after Philippe Coutinho’s magnificent flick had finally opened up United. As a defensive team display, it was close to perfect.
Some will argue that David de Gea’s two fantastic saves in the second half bailed the manager out, but had United taken a different approach the Spaniard may well have been worked for more regularly over the course of the 90 minutes.
All that was really missing for United was a snatched winner. It should have arrived early in the second half when Paul Pogba’s wonderful cross found Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the far post, but the Swede somehow sent his headed effort back across the face of Loris Karius’ goal. After an explosive start, Ibrahimovic’s performances have simmered more in recent games, but nobody could have expected him to miss such a glorious opportunity.
United fans will wonder whether the defensive tactics were really worth it, with back-to-back victories in league visits to Anfield under Louis van Gaal proving that it doesn’t always take such a performance to get something against Liverpool. But the form of Klopp’s men had left a fair proportion of the United fan base fearing much worse than a 0-0 draw.
Mourinho will take the positives from this performance. In the last three league games he has seen that his team knows how to attack at will, as they did against Leicester and Stoke, and now he can safely say that when the need arises for a rearguard display they can also deliver.
It might not be typically the United way but whether Mourinho is a success or a failure in his reign as Manchester United manager, he will do so in his own inimitable style. United fans will just have to accept that this may prove to be the price of success.