The right result in a derby can be a powerful force for an under-fire manager, silencing critics and, at least temporarily, making them something of a cult hero on the terraces as disparaging chants are traded for encouraging, supportive anthems.
But for Jose Mourinho, it’s hard to envisage any scenario in which Sunday’s Northwest Derby at Anfield will improve his standing amongst the Manchester United faithful, the pundits in the studio or the wider Premier League audience.
For starters, this Liverpool side are already so far ahead in so many different ways that a United victory seems largely irrelevant anyway. There is of course the Premier League table, which documents Liverpool’s 16-point superiority over their bitter rivals, but also in terms of style of play and the side’s functionality within that, Jurgen Klopp’s team are simply in a different league right now.
While Liverpool’s football hasn’t been quite as vibrant as it was last season, United’s has been abysmal compared to 2017/18’s and the whole club has become a toxic, cannibalistic collection of incompatible egos that seem to inflict most of the damage on themselves.
In theory, a victory at Anfield should be the springboard to start reversing that trend, but it would still leave United at least five points away from the top four and 13 behind the Reds. More pertinently, negative opinions on Mourinho now seem so entrenched that perceptions would barely change – in fact, a win would probably only further enforce them.
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Say, for example, Mourinho goes about the game in the traditional Mourinho way – as he has for United’s last two trips to Anfield in the Premier League. Every United player operates as part of one of several banks behind the ball, the Red Devils rarely attack and eventually, by some moment of either great fortune or delightful individual brilliance, the visitors come away with all three points from an attritional, ugly, low-scoring game.
Yes, it’s a win in the derby, but it’s not the way United fans want it. It’s not the way Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes – despite taking part in several anti-climatic Northwest Derbies themselves – demand it. It’s a victory done the Mourinho way, not the United way. That only contributes to the prevailing narrative, the idea that the Portuguese is fundamentally at odds with the club’s traditional philosophy.
But likewise, say United defy expectations and pull off a storming victory filled with fine football and exciting attacking play. Then comes the inevitable question; if this Red Devils side is capable of such a performance under such pressure at the home of the club’s biggest rivals, then why exactly has their manager been insisting upon Mourinho-ball for so long? Why have they been trawling through the season with the handbrake on, when they could be genuinely competing with the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City? In many ways, a great performance at Anfield would pose more questions than provide answers.
Then, of course, are the other likely outcomes – a low-scoring draw or a defeat. Perhaps during his first few seasons at Old Trafford, the pragmatic advantage of a bitter-fought away point against key divisional rivals was acceptable if not exactly fitting of a club of United’s prestigious history, but in the context of this disastrous season it simply won’t do. It saves some face in the short term, especially considering how efficient Liverpool have been throughout 2018/19, but it hardly makes a dent in the deficit between United and the rest of the big six.
Defeat, likewise, only highlights that gap and how far United have fallen this season, especially as it would actually constitute Liverpool’s first Premier League victory over the Old Trafford side since 2014 – another disaster season for the club with David Moyes at the helm. Any comparison with the Scot’s nightmare nine months in charge will inevitably do Mourinho no favours.
Thus, it’s difficult to envisage any scenario in which Mourinho comes out of Sunday’s game with his head held high, collective opinion on him being more positive than it is right now. Perhaps that’s an indictment on how one-sided perceptions of the United boss have become, but in truth the Portuguese only has himself to blame.
After two full seasons, five transfer windows and so much money spent, this is his show that’s falling apart at the seams, failing to inspire an increasingly apathetic fan-base. Mourinho’s played himself into a corner, and even a win in the derby doesn’t offer him a way out.