Liverpool, a lunchtime kick-off, a packed Old Trafford, the fight for second place. The scene is set on Saturday for Manchester United's juices to flow and José Mourinho to issue a battle cry to his players that would draw on the club's storied tradition of going for the jugular against their great rivals.
Except, that is just not the Portuguese's style. It has certainly not been since he took over at United in the summer of 2016. And there is a firm argument that going gung-ho and attack-first has not been Mourinho's style for a long time. Certainly not since his first Chelsea title-winning side of 2004-5 that featured Arjen Robben and Damien Duff as flying wingmen and accumulated a record 95 points.
Since then Mourinho has gradually become entrenched as a back-foot manager whose motto might be: "Sneak a 1-0 win." His 2011-12 La Liga champions were a Real Madrid led by the always sparkling Cristiano Ronaldo. They piled up records: 100 points, 121 goals, 32 wins. Yet while exciting to watch this was a unit accused of playing on the counterattack rather than seizing the initiative and lacking the creativity of Lionel Messi's Barcelona.
At United Mourinho has an array of forward talents yet his managerial DNA means they continue to be constrained. He can call on Paul Pogba, Alexis Sánchez, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Juan Mata to support the number 9, Romelu Lukaku; all love to rove forward and create havoc. But Mourinho's default position is for defence and so whoever he selects from this band of six are muted and United dour in most games.
United fans look at free-flowing runaway leaders, Manchester City, and Jürgen Klopp's visitors and wonder how exciting United might be if Mourinho allowed more freedom.
The conundrum was laid open in Monday’s 3-2 win at Crystal Palace. Only when trailing 2-0 in the second half and Mourinho’s hand was forced did United fizz.
Before, they were pedestrian and functional as per the norm. Mourinho’s prevailing calculation is the corollary of this approach contains and nullifies the opponent. Cancel them out, snuff any verve, and stodginess prevails – the aim being to emerge with an “economical” win. Against Palace the strategy went south as United entered the break 1-0 behind, received an earful from Mourinho, then conceded again three minutes into the second half.
Afterwards the manager said he had discussed tactics at the interval, while making a switch that removed a midfielder – Scott McTominay – and added a forward, Marcus Rashford.
Only after Patrick van Aanholt's second did United up their intensity and go for Palace's throat. After Chris Smalling pulled one back Mourinho threw Mata on for Antonio Valencia – Lingard moved into the latter's right-back berth – and Luke Shaw for Ashley Young.
The Palace manager, Roy Hodgson, later pointed to how "Rashford, Lukaku, Mata, Lingard, Sánchez and Luke Shaw" flew forward. Suddenly Palace were overrun, Lukaku scored a 76th-minute equaliser and up stepped Nemanja Matic to hit a sweet long-range, closing-seconds winner.
Mourinho’s post-match assessment of Lingard’s move to right-back was telling, and also works as a microcosm of his vision: “What I call the crazy right-back was also very important. We had to take the risks and Lingard as a right-back is this kind of crazy right-back that can make a defensive mistake by losing his position, but he can also be an extra man attacking other areas. It was difficult for them – Roy saw it, he then brought [Alexander] Sørloth to play wide and try to cover him, but he was really aggressive and Mata came to the inside so we created them a lot of problems in the second half.”
Mourinho's view of Lingard as a "crazy" right-back is best contextualised by how Pep Guardiola might characterise him. The manager of swashbuckling City would see Lingard's pace and devilry first and consider the qualities an asset. Any defensive deficiencies would be a lesser concern, as they are with the Catalan's own right-back, Kyle Walker.
Mourinho’s mention that “we had to take risks” reads as pure anathema to him, as if the truism of “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is fantasy football hogwash.
And while the manner of Palace’s defeat proved breathtaking and Mourinho’s expression showed even he was swept up by the emotion, this was a kind of anti-United, dying-moments win. Fergie-time became Mourinho-time as he oversaw a never-say-die victory just before the referee’s final whistle only because he had to. For his Scottish predecessor this was United’s blueprint, their calling card.
For Mourinho, the reverse is true. And against Liverpool he will be particularly reluctant to de-park the bus. City's sole league defeat came when Klopp's side tore them apart in nine second-half minutes as Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah scored in a 4-3 win.
Considered wisdom says that if Liverpool are blazed at, this is precisely how they will kill you, a la City. Imagine how a home humiliation against the team United supporters love to beat would go down. The question remains: will Mourinho dare to go for it?
- Guardian Service