Like a plucky, relegation-threatened underdog, Manchester United came to Anfield on Monday night to frustrate their opponents along with any neutral unlucky enough to have tuned in expecting a proper, exciting game to break out between England’s fiercest rivals.
United, with the richest squad in all of football, regularly packed ten behind the ball. They conceded possession, allowing Liverpool to have the ball 65% of the time—meaning they held it only 35%, United’s lowest possession in the Premier League since Opta began to record data.
They didn’t even counter particularly effectively, either, managing only a single shot on target—by comparison, Burnley, who beat Liverpool earlier this season with similar defensive tactics, at least countered effectively and managed to put two of their shots on target.
35% - Man Utd recorded just 35% possession against Liverpool; their lowest figure in a PL game in Opta's records (2003-present). Passive.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 17, 2016
“They are not the last wonder of the world like you like to say they are,” was Mourinho’s churlish response to reporters following the match as he attempted to spin a painfully unwatchable draw into a monumental victory for his side and, more importantly, himself.
Fans of either side would be hard pressed to remember such a dull and negative showing by either side in a rivalry that has historically seen frantic, exciting games. Even United’s last manager, Louis van Gaal, managed a more expansive approach—and better results.
Van Gaal, of course, was derided by United fans and pundits alike for the dull and workmanlike performances of his side. His predecessor, David Moyes, was similarly pilloried for taking a side that looked world-beaters under Alex Ferguson and having them regularly retreat into their shell.
Mourinho, by comparison, has a far better squad than either. He was allowed to splash the cash on Paul Pogba. He brought in Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He has enough sway to manage Wayne Rooney rather than having Rooney manage him. He has the most expensive squad in football.
“They are a good team so we needed to adapt to that,” Mourinho added. “That was the game we planned. We didn’t want to control the game having the ball all the time. We know they want to press. We know that their transition is really strong and high so we adapted.
“The game was completely under control, not just from the tactical point of view but from an emotional point of view. We controlled very well both the emotion of the game and ourselves. We could influence the atmosphere in the stadium which was always showing their disappointment.”
Liverpool fans certainly were disappointed to see the most expensive squad in football turn in the most regressive performance by a United side most will have ever seen. Mourinho, and some United fans, seem to be celebrating it. Celebrating a point snatched like a plucky, relegation-threatened underdog.
Of course, if you’re talking plucky, relegation-threatened underdogs managing a result against Liverpool, Burnley did it better. And their squad didn’t cost £650M to put together and wasn’t managed by the self-anointed Special One. So much for Liverpool-United being must-watch football.