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Ken Early: Jose Mourinho’s game needs to evolve – and fast

Dignified, sophisticated play in Man City v Liverpool light years ahead of United’s form

All grown up: Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola praised some of Liverpool’s players as “outstanding”. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

Conventional wisdom would say that the 1-1 draw between Manchester City and Liverpool on Sunday evening was a good result for Jose Mourinho, whose Manchester United team can break into the top four by winning games in hand.

In reality, the match was evidence that Manchester United will struggle to compete in the medium- to long-term with two teams who are playing football of a sophistication no Mourinho side has demonstrated in years.

City v Liverpool was a game that showcased what’s best about 21st century football – intricate choreography at incredible speed. Yaya Toure wasn’t the only one struggling to keep up. Everyone left the stadium feeling some combination of exhilaration and relief.

By contrast the spectacle at the Riverside stadium as United beat Middlesbrough 3-1 earlier on Sunday was medieval. The scoreline belied a game in which Mourinho’s players were subjected to a nerve-shredding siege by the lowest-scoring team in the top four divisions of English football.

United were already 2-0 up and coasting to victory when Middlesbrough threw on their big striker, Rudy Gestede, in an attempt to force a goal by the direct route. Mourinho’s response was to put on Marcos Rojo for Juan Mata. Since Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Eric Bailly were already playing, this meant United had four central defenders on the field. Mourinho hates to see his big men outnumbered.

Knee-jerk reaction

This was a significant decision because it revealed a lot about how Mourinho thinks about football.

First, it was reactive: Mourinho changes his game plan according to what the opponent is doing. Second, it was pessimistic: Mourinho assumes the worst – in this case, that United would inevitably face an aerial siege, which he must equip the team to face. The notion that his team could simply control the rest of the game with possession was either dismissed, or did not occur.

Third, the underlying logic of the decision was immediately reminiscent of that great football thinker Silvio Berlusconi, who was always telling his Milan coaches they ought to be playing more strikers. No amount of reasoned explanation from Fabio Capello or Carlo Ancelotti could ever convince Berlusconi to abandon his conviction that the more strikers you have on the pitch, the more fearsome your attacking play.

Mourinho’s decision suggested that he believes more defenders equals better defending. If this really were the case, four- or five-man central defensive units might be more commonly seen in football. They’re not, for the obvious reason that packing your box with central defenders means you have fewer players with which to control the rest of the pitch. You therefore cede the initiative to the opponent: rather than repulsing the siege, you create the conditions for one.

Puerile distractions

The fatuity of Mourinho’s thinking was exposed within seven minutes, as Gestede escaped the attentions of all four United central defenders to score past de Gea from six yards. It didn’t matter in the end, as United scored a late killer goal thanks to an embarrassing mistake by Victor Valdes. Mourinho responded with the kind of celebration for which Valdes once angrily tried to push him off the pitch at Camp Nou.

Within minutes players from both sides were scuffling in the tunnel and that, combined with Mourinho’s post-match comments criticising Middlesbrough for sacking his protege Aitor Karanka, ensured that nobody was talking about a match that everyone was keen to forget anyway.

In that it was similar to the aftermath of United’s defeat to Chelsea in the FA Cup, which had featured another reactive, pessimistic Mourinho decision, with Marouane Fellaini replacing Henrikh Mkhitaryan after Ander Herrera’s first-half red card. There was little scrutiny of that decision in the days following, perhaps because Mourinho used his press conferences to complain that everyone was jealous of Paul Pogba because he makes so much money. And the circus rolls on.

Inspiring vision

At Eastlands there was a different vision of what the game might be like. The Liverpool manager admitted that Manchester City could have had two penalties. The Manchester City manager praised some of Liverpool’s players as “outstanding”. The focus was on the players and what they had done out on the field.

Guardiola claimed it was one of his proudest days as a manager and, while that sounded rather implausible, you could see why he was pleased with how his team had performed. City reacted bravely to going behind, they kept going relentlessly at the Liverpool weaknesses they had clearly identified before the game, hammering in a series of low crosses, and eventually they made them pay.

“Our problem is we don’t score goals, easy goals, but at least we showed the spirit we didn’t show at Monaco,” Guardiola said. By the sound of it Sergio Agüero is still not doing enough to impress his manager, but the progress City have made in 12 months is clear. If they can finish the campaign playing like this, they will start next season as favourites to win the title.

It was a similar story for Liverpool, whose disappointment at losing two points will be tempered by the knowledge that teams around them have to play a lot of games against each other. You have the impression that Klopp is shaping something which is greater than the sum of its parts.

You don’t get that feeling when you watch Mourinho’s Manchester United. Maybe he ought to think about throwing on a few more strikers.