After being roundly criticised for his tactical setup in the North West derby at the weekend, Jose Mourinho can count on the fact that his position is never quite as bad as it’s being made out to be.
The rancour has been caused by the fact that Manchester United’s performance against Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday afternoon was strange, not that it was bad. In fact, by no stretch of the imagination was it a ‘bad’ performance: the players seemed to carry out their instructions to the letter. But it was strange: just why didn’t Mourinho actually allow his team to take the game to their opponents with more vigour?
The answer probably lies in the United boss’s fear of an injury crisis.
If you say something for long enough, you’ll start to believe it. For years, Mourinho – no matter who he was managing at the time – has mentioned fixture congestion and injuries. Too many games and not enough players. The theme comes up at least once a season, whether it’s a complaint or just the mention of what is clearly a delicate situation for any manager, it still comes up. And the more you’re forced to think about it, the more you’ll start to believe it.
At the weekend, the fact that Paul Pogba, Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick were missing, coupled with the revelation on matchday itself that Eric Bailly and Marcus Rashford were, at the very least, not 100% fit, seemed to be one of the mitigating factors to the result. Perhaps United would have had more midfield presence with their bigger midfield men on the pitch. Maybe Rashford’s pace and directness would have troubled Liverpool more than Anthony Martial’s.
They are excuses, of course. Just like the excuses that were made last season when Mourinho’s United sacked off the league in order to win the Europa League. That’s not meant as a negative judgement: it was a decision that was probably vindicated given the fact they are now in the Champions League and are 17/20 on for a victory against Benfica on 888sport. But it does seem a little bit odd: after spending so much money over the last two seasons, surely United (or some of the other top teams, for that matter) shouldn’t get to make that excuse, or at least not too loudly.
And yet, the idea that United are now in a significantly weaker position now than they were before the weekend – something you might have thought to be the case given the depth of criticism coming Mourinho’s way – is patently false.
For one thing, the 0-0 draw was amplified by the fact that the overwhelming majority of nine goals at the Etihad Stadium just hour later were scored by Manchester City. And whilst that may have made United look bad, it may also have hyped City a little too much. They look imperious and unlikely to drop too many points in games against teams outside of the top six, but then neither do United. Sure, it made people question United’s decision to settle for a point at Anfield, but Stoke at home was probably a game City would have won anyway. Mourinho must have expected to end the weekend two points back.
There’s also the fact that City have a significantly harder task this midweek than United do.
City’s group is – just about – tougher than United’s. This midweek, facing runaway Serie A leaders Napoli isn’t an easy task, and defeat would mean they’ll have to work harder in their remaining Champions League games. United meanwhile, have already travelled to Moscow in this group stage, and although a trip to Lisbon to face Benfica is never an easy task, it’s not what it used to be.
Football is a game where the storyline changes quickly. After setting the Premier League alight on Saturday, Manchester City could bump back down to Earth incredibly quickly with a midweek defeat, whilst United, chastised widely for their style of play at Anfield, aren’t as off-form as the feeling around them at the moment would have you believe.
The situation is much more nuanced than it often appears, and, on reflection, this is a prime example of United being in a much better position than they seemed after the Liverpool game.