It is our game to watch in Big Weekend, so do go read that too. After you’ve read this, obviously…
It seemed like an innocuous quote at the time, but with over a decade’s worth of hindsight, it was the Premier League’s first real glimpse of Jose Mourinho: ultimate pragmatist. Two months into his first reign as Chelsea manager, the Blues entertained Liverpool on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. The two sides would be crowned England’s and Europe’s champions respectively by the following May, but this was no classic. Chelsea emerged from an eminently forgettable game as 1-0 winners.
The Guardian‘s match report from Stamford Bridge just over 13 years ago is still available, and still wholly relevant. ‘Groggy with boredom, living-room viewers must have been letting the remotes slip from numb fingers yesterday.’ It is a wonderful snapshot of Mourinho’s first-ever meeting with Liverpool, his arch-nemesis, preserved as a reminder that the more things change, the more things stay the same.
“We kept our confidence and defensively did very well but we scored the goal and got all three points,” Mourinho said post-match, the start of a pattern for the Portuguese. They beat Manchester United, fourth-placed Everton (twice) and Liverpool in the return fixture at Anfield that season, all by scorelines of 1-0. They drew twice with Arsenal, conceding just two goals against an irresistible attack.
To characterise Mourinho as a defensive coach is unfair. Arsenal were the only side to score more goals by the end of that season, and Manchester City are the only club outscoring his current Manchester United outfit. In 11 games in all competitions this season, United have scored four goals or more in five games. In Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, they boast a forward line as brilliant as they are hungry and determined.
But to overlook Mourinho’s tendency to cherish solidity and structure over attacking verve in an important game would be foolish. If the Portuguese is offered the choice of either a guaranteed clean sheet or a one-in-two chance of being awarded a penalty ahead of a game against a fellow title challenger, more often than not, he will opt for the safer option. If you do not concede, you cannot lose. If you do not lose, you cannot lose ground in the race. It is simple logic, but it is effective. It wins titles.
The Portuguese might well suggest otherwise, but that has to be the aim in his second season at Old Trafford. If United fall just short of an unstoppable City charge or a resurgent Chelsea, failure would be painful but forgivable. Finishing five places and 24 points behind the champions would be inexcusable and is, at this stage, unfathomable.
The club’s inability to beat the lesser sides in the league last season was well-documented, but even Mourinho’s trusty big-game manual betrayed him. In a mini-league between Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, City, United and Tottenham since his appointment last summer, United are only kept off the bottom by virtue of Arsenal’s poor goal difference. They have won just two of ten league games against their closest rivals under Mourinho, and have scored only one away goal.
The alternative argument is that, in said mini-league, only one club has lost fewer games than United since Mourinho’s appointment. The aforementioned arch-nemesis, Liverpool, have certainly developed something of a penchance for the bigger occasion.
“It is not the result we wanted but it is a positive result,” Mourinho said after his last visit to Anfield, true to form. “It is a result that stops a direct opponent getting three points at home, so not a bad result.” United claimed a record low 35% possession and had fewer shots, but a 0-0 draw was a victory in itself.
Twelve months later, and the shoe is almost on the other foot. United were sixth heading into that game; Liverpool are seventh. Liverpool had been declared a genuine title contender, the only side capable of matching Manchester City’s free-scoring start; United are now cast in that role. United are the heavy favourites against a struggling side, expected to take the initiative just as Liverpool were this time last year. The parallels are obvious.
Jurgen Klopp is under a considerable amount of pressure, but so is Mourinho – albeit a different, lesser kind. He has faced Liverpool 25 times throughout his career – more often than any other club aside from Barcelona – but has not beaten them since January 2015. His sides have not scored more than one goal against them in each of their last six games. The angel on Mourinho’s shoulder would suggest to still play it safe, prioritising a clean sheet even against a misfiring attack; the Red Devils’ advocate would see Liverpool as a wounded animal. This is the first real chance United have had to prove themselves a superior outfit to last season.
Aiming only to avoid defeat will not suffice this time. It may be a simplistic and reductive comparison, but City travelled to the team currently in eighth and beat them 6-0 last month. That was a statement. A 0-0 draw with the side in seventh would be little more than a mumbled response.
A trip to Anfield in the first game after the October international break was the game Mourinho dared not lose last season. If the Portuguese can ignore his instincts on Saturday, it might well be the game he dared to win this time.