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Manchester United and José Mourinho: Liverpool’s Familiar Foes

On Monday, a rejuvenated Liverpool under Jürgen Klopp face off against two fierce rivals on NBC Live Extra.

Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

“I was never very good playing with the words or hiding behind words and hiding behind philosophies,” Jose Mourinho pointed out when he was first unveiled as Manchester United manager. There could be no confusion about Mourinho’s intent: dismissing the perceived weaknesses of his predecessor and one-time mentor to set himself apart from them. Louis van Gaal’s much-vaunted philosophy had become a burden and point of contention as progress went astray at Old Trafford, and so for the noted media manipulator, it was best to start the work as soon as possible.

“There are some managers that the last time they won a title was 10 years ago,” Mourinho then purred in what was a clear dig at his noted rival Arsène Wenger. It was meant as a response as to whether the highly-decorated Portuguese manager had something to prove after the way his second spell at Chelsea disastrously fell apart. In Wenger’s defence, Mourinho exists to spend and win quickly. Others are tasked to build as well as to compete.

This, then, is José Mourinho—the man now in charge of Liverpool’s fiercest rival. Style will be discarded if believes that it obscures or prevents victory. Graciousness is not a virtue, dominating the ball is unimportant, attacking relentlessly is ill-advised, and battles will be pursued to the very end. Grudges will be held. Liverpool fans know him well in both triumph and despair. In the Premier League, Mourinho has a formidable record against Liverpool, with just two defeats and a draw in eleven matches.

Of those eight wins, thwarting Brendan Rodgers at Anfield in 2013/14 undoubtedly hurt Liverpool fans the most. The title wouldn’t end up at Chelsea, but the sight of a badge-thumping Mourinho wailing in victory was unbearable. Preventing Liverpool from winning the title would be a fitting offering, and he revelled in the occasion. Rodgers had been a close friend of Mourinho’s for a number of years, and watching him celebrate in such a manner must have stung for the manager as it did for the fans.

Rafa Benítez before him was no friend of Mourinho during both managers’ first spells in England. The Spanish tactician lost five league games in succession over three seasons before finally securing a win at Anfield in January 2007. Mourinho celebrated Steven Gerrard’s own goal in the 2005 Carling Cup final by attempting to silence Liverpool fans by placing his finger on his lips. It was a game Liverpool lost 3-2 as the self-anointed “Special One” picked up his first trophy in English football to add to the many he won in charge of FC Porto.

However, Mourinho didn’t enjoy every game against Liverpool. He was witness to the club’s aura and pedigree in Europe under Benítez. Liverpool reached the Champions League final in 2005 and 2007 by besting Chelsea and Mourinho at the semi-final stage. While Chelsea eventually won European trophies under Roberto Di Matteo and Benítez himself, Mourinho would never reach a European final with Chelsea. Liverpool won the FA Cup in 2006, too, after beating Chelsea 2-1 in the semi-final at Old Trafford.

Liverpool v Chelsea - Premier League
A dejected Brendan Rodgers watches Liverpool’s title hopes slip away.
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Mourinho’s only other league defeat against Liverpool was crafted by the man who is currently a Premier League darling—Jürgen Klopp. The same man whose effervescent Borussia Dortmund team one forced Mourinho into an unusually gracious post-match interview after a 4-1 defeat in the first leg of a Champions League semi-final in April 2013. How neutrals across the world watched Klopp lead his side that day wishing he was in charge of their beloved team.

“I think they were the best team by far,” Mourinho had said after that game in 2013. “On every individual battle on the pitch they were stronger than us, they were more aggressive physically, they were more aggressive mentally so I think they deserve. How did it go from 1-1 to 4-1? I really don't know. We lost easy possession, easy possession, and we couldn't cope with their counter-attack and with their transition.”

Both teams, Klopp’s Dortmund and Mourinho’s Madrid, had already met in the group stages, the Germans beating the Spanish giants at home before securing a point at the Bernabeau. Yet Dortmund entered the game under a cloud with Mario Götze’s transfer to rivals Bayern Munich an unnecessary distraction before an important match. Klopp, as Liverpool fans have come to know, addressed those concerns with typical candour.

“If anybody doesn't manage to realise how much effort has gone into getting us to where we are then maybe they should not bother turning up,” Klopp said ahead of the first Champions League semi-final for Dortmund since 1998. “If anybody cannot hide their disappointment then it would be nice if they would pass their tickets onto somebody who can. This team deserves to be supported. Leave the negative thoughts at home, come here, give us everything you've got, and let us beat Real Madrid.”

They did just that, and a 2-0 win for Mourinho and Real Madrid in the second leg wasn’t enough to overturn the deficit that was created by the ferocity and intensity of Klopp’s attacking philosophy. Mourinho’s final chance of winning Madrid’s La Décima was extinguished by a growing force in European football, one with a wide smile behind it all.

It’s comfortable and convenient to set this up as Jürgen Klopp versus José Mourinho in a battle of wills and wiles on the touchline. Liverpool's forthcoming Premier League match against Manchester United is a resumption of one of the game’s fiercest rivalries that is only made richer by the presence of two high-profile managers with their own history. José Mourinho may not be Jürgen Klopp's twin star, as the two share few similarities in managerial philosophy and style, but English football is utterly obsessed with these personalities—ones with the magnetism to be the stars of their teams despite their roles on the sidelines.

Real Madrid v Borussia Dortmund - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Second Leg
Klopp and Mourinho face off in Europe with their former clubs.
Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images

For Liverpool, Klopp represents an accessible, earthy kind of charisma. Hope. Belief. Warmth. Fighting spirit. Unity. Humility. Relentlessness. Thrills. Liverpool fans understand and subscribe to the cult of the manager more than most, and there is nobody better to be the club’s figurehead if sustainability and competitiveness are sought in tandem. And there is no combination of manager and club that could inspire as much animosity and nervousness as United and Mourinho—Liverpool have previous with both of them.

After Liverpool won both home and way against Manchester United in 2013/14, Louis van Gaal won four straight league games against Brendan Rodgers and Jürgen Klopp. How Liverpool lost 1-0 courtesy of an infuriating late Wayne Rooney goal should serve as a reminder for those who would hail Liverpool as clear favourites. Danger lurks. Mourinho is not a mysterious agent of chaos; Manchester United isn't a rival that requires introduction. The way both have upset Liverpool is well known.

Klopp’s most recent experiences with the pair, however, have shown that his methods work and work well. In a first European meeting between the two clubs last season, Klopp’s Liverpool emerged victorious at Anfield in an energetic and dominant display. His first league victory only heaped further pressure on Mourinho that was a taste of the ability to fight back under Klopp.

Whether Mourinho has peaked as an elite manager is uncertain, but Manchester United could be plunged into an early crisis with defeat at Anfield. A third defeat in eight league games with a trip to Stamford Bridge to face his old side almost certainly spells that unwanted six-letter word. The money spent, the wages paid, a world transfer record broken, a managerial guarantee of success presumed to be second only to Pep Guardiola, and a club with the riches as well as history should all combine for so much more.

Yet Mourinho’s way might be left behind on Monday as pressing, counter pressing, and hard running are behind the rise of Liverpool. Mauricio Pochettino, a prominent disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, has completely revitalised Tottenham Hotspur over the past couple of seasons using a similar philosophy. Jürgen Klopp and gegenpressing belong together, and for all the alluring football Pep Guardiola is renowned for, his commitment to counter pressing is just as staunch albeit for slightly different reasons.

Mourinho may not be the charismatic and dominant force of old, but he can still find inspiration in thwarting others. Manchester United, though, need more than that to find a genuine successor to Sir Alex Ferguson. Such expectations proved beyond David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, where high-profile defeats to Liverpool only served to highlight everything lacking in the club’s attempts to find a way forward.

Despite the familiarity of Mourinho and Manchester United, then, this game feels like new territory for Liverpool. It’s certainly unchartered ground for Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. A playing squad and backroom staff that both benefited from key additions this summer, experienced a full pre-season together, and have started the season wonderfully. At the centre of it all has been a grinning, beaming, hugging, air-punching, and charming Jürgen Klopp.

In Liverpool’s first game of the season, against Arsenal, Liverpool’s players—led by secret marquee signing Sadio Mané—mobbed Klopp at the Emirates in a show of delight and unity after coming from behind to lead 4-1. Klopp may have later regretted it on the basis that it helped Arsenal back into the game, but he celebrates like one of the fans. His love for the game struggles to be contained when goals fly in, especially when they’re as good as the ones Liverpool have scored so far this season.

Arsenal v Liverpool - Premier League
Klopp has quickly established himself as a fan favourite by celebrating like a fan.
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

“It is not allowed to celebrate a fourth goal when there's still 35 minutes to go,” Klopp said after Liverpool beat Arsenal 4-3. “I knew in the moment, but it was too late -- I had Sadio on my back and in this moment we switched off the machine for a second. It was so intense, it was so wrong, it was the first game.”

This is the promise Klopp brings. He may be a huge figure for Liverpool and the Premier League, but his passion is matched by a sharp intelligence. The intoxicating affability and endless hugs do not mask a raging desire to compete in every moment of each game. It is his way or no way. It is true that Klopp cannot match Mourinho for trophies and Liverpool cannot match Manchester United money. Yet Liverpool and Klopp seem to have so much more despite only being separated by three points.

Klopp’s approach will be tested by a two-headed adversary on Monday where a home victory would shine an interesting light on the methods employed by Mourinho. The manager Manchester United probably should have hired after Ferguson retired and the manager FSG have been looking for since taking over Liverpool will face each other once again.

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