“No one will show this game in 10 or 20 years,” Jurgen Klopp said after his Liverpool side were frustrated by Manchester United’s tactics in last season’s 0-0 draw at Anfield. Jose Mourinho’s approach had, the German argued, given the game a “hectic” narrative.
The clash of styles between the two managers has again been raised as a talking point ahead of Saturday’s repeat fixture, with many neutrals all too quick to beat Mourinho up over his tendency to occasionally send his side out with the game plan he handed them for the trip to Merseyside 12 months ago. Klopp, meanwhile, has been lauded for the way his Liverpool team have attacked with a devil-may-care nature.
But the end has always justified the means in any sport, and the damnation regularly ascribed to the Portuguese coach is as tiresome as it is misplaced. Of course, the ideal is always to win with style, but the ability to pull that off is what makes Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and the Ajax of the early 1970s among the exceptions rather than the rules.
Even when Liverpool were sweeping all before them in the 1980s, the Reds had a penetrative style with seemingly endless angles of attack but it was all built on a great defensive core. Pass and move was the Liverpool groove, they said, but Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson’s ability at the back was every bit as vital in winning them titles, as was the no-nonsense midfield play of a Graeme Souness or a Steve McMahon.
In erring towards substance rather than style at a time when Klopp has taken Liverpool to the other end of the scale, Mourinho has invited criticism in the knowledge that he will normally have results to back him up in mitigation. And he also knows that whatever he wins, the barracking will always continue in some way shape or form.
With every trophy at Chelsea came the calls that the club had bought success, while his achievements at Inter were permanently set against the backdrop of Juventus’ Calciopoli hangover. At Real Madrid, his achievements were judged in relation to those of the once-in-a-lifetime Barcelona side they had to overcome at every turn.
At United, he is being appraised within further make-believe parameters which don’t really exist. Some opposition fans will use his brand of football as a reason to never give him credit, or they’ll wonder aloud whether he would be capable of the same returns without dipping into the club’s vast reserves of cash.
Then, there are those who want him to use more of United’s own academy products, but if he used three every week, they’d ask for five and if he picked six, they’d want to see eight.
People who talk about wanting to see ‘good football’ often find it difficult to describe exactly what that means, such is the vast subjectivity involved in trying to build new structures by which to grade clubs beyond victory and defeat. And the truth is that Mourinho’s side are far more identifiable as a true Manchester United outfit than they have been in some time, as Gary Neville told StrettyNews recently.
“Mourinho probably plays different football to what historically United have been used to, but what I would say is that it fits more of the profile of what United are. The players he’s signed have got personality and character,” said the legendary right-back.
“Over the years, there have been teams that are better than United at football… Barcelona, Arsenal under Arsene Wenger for many years were a better football side but United don’t get beat in a fight. You play good football, aggressive with penetration, but you don’t get beat in a fight.
“We were weak for a couple of years, but now I look at us going out onto a pitch and I think ‘You wouldn’t want to take them on.’ They’re strong, they’re fast, they’re aggressive, they’ve got power. It sounds very British that, but it’s very United. United teams have always had power and strength. ”
And 12 months on from that dour draw on their last visit to Anfield, United are also supplying the penetrative forward play typical of a Sir Alex Ferguson side too. The point is that it is built around the strong defensive core that any successful team has to be based upon.
Ferguson had Bruce and Pallister, then Johnsen and Stam, and Ferdinand and Vidic at the heart of his most successful of spells. He had Roy Keane as his attack dog in midfield. What’s more, the Scot was also known to travel for big away games, particularly – but not exclusively – in the Champions League, with a sense of caution himself.
Winning football has always been thus. Liverpool’s football at times over the past couple of years under Klopp has been mesmeric, but Mourinho just keeps going about the job of forming a team built to win games.
The Merseysiders have scored 22 and conceded 20 this term, while United have scored 32 and shipped just four over the same period. Sure, the two clubs’ opponents have been of variable quality but it is clear who is closer to being challengers right now.
The desperate desire to denigrate Mourinho and United’s style of play will continue regardless of their achievements. The only measuring stick that matters is wins over losses, trophies over empty cabinets, and nobody knows that or embraces that quite like Mourinho.
So, whatever the result or the nature of Manchester United’s performance on Saturday, Mourinho will be criticised. Everybody will find something which meets with their favoured stance and run with it because that is the way of football fans, particularly in today’s social media-centric world.
The one thing that never changes, though, is that results will always be what separates the winners from the losers.