It may have seemed like a tactical masterstroke at the time, but the folly of Jose Mourinho’s defensive set-up at in a much-hyped derby clash with Liverpool was brutally exposed last Sunday.
Manchester United had headed to Anfield full of vigour, gleefully swatting teams aside with an abundance of goals and flair. Mourinho played to type, though, and set his side out to earn a 0-0 draw. They did.
Last Sunday, Liverpool headed to Wembley to play a Tottenham side on a roll, having earned a superb 1-1 draw with Real Madrid in the Bernabeu the week prior. Unlike Mourinho, Mauricio Pochettino decided to go for the jugular.
Harry Kane was supported by the pace of Son Heung-Min from the left flank, while Dele Alli was given freedom to roam the spaces so regularly left by Liverpool’s shoddy defensive play, and Spurs won 4-1, with Kane scoring twice, Son and Alli once apiece. It was, by no exaggeration, a rout, and thoroughly embarrassing for several Liverpool players: not least Dejan Lovren.
Twenty-four hours prior, Mourinho’s side lost 2-1 to Huddersfield Town.
Here, then, is a difference between two managers in a microcosm. Where Pochettino attacked, Mourinho defended. Perhaps both got what they deserved in their respective games against Liverpool – a point earned is a point gained, as some say – but one must wonder how Pochettino would have set up his team if he had been the man stepping off the United team coach two weeks ago.
It nearly came to pass. Louis van Gaal was sacked in 2016, and Pochettino was spotted leaving a luxurious London restaurant with Sir Alex Ferguson just a few weeks later, along with his assistant Jesus Perez. They had shared wine, talked, Pochettino had reportedly asked for advice. Reports in the media swirled like winter’s first snowflakes; would Pochettino be the man to replace Van Gaal, having worked wonders since taking over at Spurs?
It is a case of what might have been. In reality, United were pragmatic, opting to secure the marquee manager of Mourinho instead of the promise of Pochettino. United had endured lean years, thus it made sense that a proven winner would be taking the job – but the decision appears ever more risky as the months tick by.
Mourinho and Pochettino will go head-to-head this weekend, and the encounter is an intriguing one, both on the pitch and off it. Spurs and United are level on points in the Premier League, and the winner of the match could well solidify themselves as the true challengers to Manchester City’s seemingly endless title charge. Yet in the dugouts, too, there will be intrigue.
Such has been the level of the former Argentina defender’s success in north London, the usually phlegmatic club chairman, Daniel Levy, said just weeks ago that he would like Pochettino to sign on for 15 years at the club.
“I would love nothing more than Mauricio still to be our manager in 10 to 15 years' time,” the Spurs chairman wrote in a new book about Pochettino, titled ‘Brave New World’.
“To really build success you need time, longevity. It's easy to go and become a manager at Real Madrid, for instance.
“It's a fantastic club, don't get me wrong, but winning at Tottenham Hotspur is far greater than winning at Real Madrid — and he agrees.
“Mauricio wants this sense of achievement, this recognition, to be the main guy. And at this club, he can be the main guy.”
Mourinho, last season, took United from fourth to sixth, while Pochettino again took Tottenham to a title challenge, playing some truly breathtaking football. Spurs are quick, incisive, and able to change their gameplan at will. Tottenham have brutalized teams, thumping the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and United since the Argentine took over.
They play football “the United way”, and it is not difficult to envisage the latter building a legacy at Spurs, in the same vein as Ferguson at United.
Yet, for Mourinho – pragmatist extraordinaire, who regularly sets up a team blessed with magnificent attacking players to avoid defeat – United is another job.
He does not intend to retire at the club , and may seek alternative employment at another super club if he does not achieve the success that United’s investment calls for – the club spent nearly £150m in the summer – and the whispers are that PSG are interested. United are keen for him to sign a new deal , but he has also talked up the prospect of managing Portugal in the past. Unlike his Spurs counterpart, he has not been setting down roots.
And therein lies the rub. Pochettino is setting himself up for the next five and 10 years, he has a vision, a project, and the support of his chairman to go and achieve it. He has overachieved thus far, willed on by the goals of Kane, but silverware surely cannot be far away.
Mourinho is, as always, living in the moment, eager to see success now, instead of building for it later. It has bitten him before, bringing an ignominious end to reigns at Chelsea, twice, and Real Madrid, and it might well bite him again.
There may not be pangs of jealousy towards Spurs at United just yet, but another implosion in the dugout would surely leave the club regretting allowing Pochettino to slip through their fingers.