Over the last two Premier League seasons, few fixtures have generated widespread wrath quite like Liverpool vs Manchester United. Two scoreless draws between two teams unwilling to press the issue that produced just nine shots on target combined. Hardly what you’d expect from the most-watched match on the Premier League calendar, or the two most successful sides in the history of English football both once famed for their relentless attacking verve.
Inevitably, Jose Mourinho has taken centre stage as the villain of the piece, his pragmatic mindset and negative tactics seen as the ultimate cause. It’s certainly true that United searched for goals in both games far less proactively than Liverpool and it’s certainly true that Mourinho’s primary objective at Anfield on both occasions was not to lose. He’ll view that as mission accomplished.
And yet, equally inevitable is the manner in which we often view this fixture through rose-tinted glasses. There have been unforgettable moments, gorgeous goals and fabulous drama between both sides down the years, but the Northwest derby has rarely been an entertaining affair.
The 51 meetings in the Premier League to date have averaged just 2.5 goals per match – across all competitions since 1973/74, the average drops even lower to just 2.2 goals per match – and to put that into perspective, that’s the lowest per-game average for a season in Premier League history. Likewise, just four of those encounters have produced more than four goals.
Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson too rarely let his sides truly open up at Anfield; the last time United scored three goals there in the Premier League was 1999 when they were the champions of Europe; and although the United boss usually insisted performance was as important as results, the trip to Merseyside was one of the few occasions where the scoreline always mattered more. It’s always been a difficult place for any club to go and because of the rivalry between both northwest teams, he knew defeat at Anfield could have a huge impact on not only squad morale but also his own.
Back in October, in the first episode of Sky Sports’ Soccerbox, Gary Neville explained how much losing at Anfield affected a manager widely viewed as god-like. Ferguson’s reaction to a defeat on Merseyside sounded anything but divine – in fact, it sounded almost psychopathic;
“People talk about the hairdryer and it never happened that much to be honest with you during a season, but the most consistent place you would see it was Anfield – at half-time or the end of the game. He could not stand losing at Anfield – and if we won there, it didn’t matter how we played – it was like the best thing in the world.
“The worst I’ve ever seen him consistently was at Anfield if we were losing at half-time or at the end of the game. He’d sit there unmoved in the dressing room at the end of the game while everyone was getting showered for 25 minutes. Just not moving.”
But there is one disenable difference between Ferguson and Mourinho’s fortunes at Anfield. In the Premier League, Ferguson oversaw just a single scoreless draw there; his twice removed successor has already overseen two. That’s the inevitable gamble of Mourinho’s game-plan, one that ironically centres around reducing risk as much as possible according to biographer Diego Torres. If your primary focus is to make less mistakes than the opposition, you have to capitalise on the ones that fall your way.
1 The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors.
2 Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition.
3 Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes.
4 Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.
5 Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake.
6 Whoever has the ball has fear.
7 Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.
The consequential margins are so incredibly fine. A fortnight later, Anthony Martial came on from the bench to score a late equaliser against Tottenham that owed much to a rare moment of disorganisation from the visitors’ otherwise immaculate defence. At Anfield though, Romelu Lukaku just couldn’t stab home a golden chance from just left of the penalty spot. That would have changed the whole complexion of not only the match, but also how we viewed Mourinho’s Anfield strategy after the full-time whistle.
Currently, that’s perhaps the instrumental ingredient missing from Mourinho’s United side; the belief and desire to make those chances count, even in incredibly difficult games.
We saw that proficiently from United during Ferguson’s lengthy tenure and we saw the same opportunist streak in Mourinho’s Chelsea teams as well. In fact, the modern day, serial trophy-winning Blues have arguably been built on the belief to capitalise on such moments that Mourinho ingrained into the very DNA of the club.
In some ways, it can be defined as divine right. And while we usually see that as a bad thing in all walks of life but especially the most competitive era in English football, there is a positive to it as well – the belief that a chance will come your side’s way, and that you have the quality to take advantage of it. Under Mourinho, United just haven’t developed it quite yet.