I wasn’t going to write about this seeing that I’m not sure how many of my readers follow football, but The Old Batsman – who is usually more at home writing about cricket – has touched on it so I have changed my mind. I’m talking, of course, about Manchester United’s scoreless draw away against Liverpool last Monday evening.
After the match everybody – Liverpool and Man Utd fans alike – panned Jose Mourinho for his “negative” tactics and making the game as boring as hell. Which surprised me a bit, because I watched the whole 90 minutes and I found it very entertaining.
Let’s switch sports for a second. Back in June the England rugby union team played Australia in Melbourne in the second of a three test series. England went into the match 1-0 up having won the first test, and if they won in Melbourne they would clinch the series. England prevailed 23-7 but for most of the second half Australia were within a converted try of England and unleashed wave after wave of attacking play which England were forced to defend against. To somebody watching the match hoping to see plenty of tries it must have been a pretty dull affair: the second half was basically a row of fifteen plus phases of non-stop tackling, mostly around the ruck. For me, I was just pleased with the result (to see why a Wales supporter would be pleased, read this). A week later I was sat with a friend of mine in Exeter listening to the third test on the radio. He asked me what the second test had been like and I said “It was good, but it was mainly just England making tackle after tackle to keep the Australians out.” My friend, who used to be a pretty handy openside flanker in his youth, said “That’s the kind of rugby I like! I don’t mind watching that!”
I mention this because it serves to illustrate why I enjoyed the Liverpool v Man Utd match and nobody else did. If you wanted to see fast, attacking football with lots of goals then yes, it was boring. But for me it was a fascinating example of what to do when you’re facing a better opponent away from home. Before the match everyone was speaking as if the result was a foregone conclusion in favour of Liverpool. They had won their previous four matches 2-1, 5-1, 3-0, 2-1, and 4-1. They’d scored 16 goals in their last 5 games, conceding 4. They were a team that was settled and had found form under Jurgen Klopp who played a high-up-the-pitch pressing style which their opponents found hard to deal with.
Manchester United, by contrast, were a side that wasn’t settled: Mourinho didn’t know what his best XI was, Paul Pogba was struggling to justify his hefty price tag, and club favourite Wayne Rooney was looking more and more like losing his first team spot. They’d drawn against Stoke City and lost to Watford, and had been comprehensively outplayed by Manchester City.
So what was Mourinho supposed to do? If he’d turned up at Anfield determined to play fast, attacking football Liverpool would have been 3-0 up by half time. Instead he instructed his players simply to disrupt everything Liverpool did, stop them from playing, and hope somehow they can snatch a goal from somewhere. Jamie Carragher – no fool he when it comes to football analysis – said before the game on Sky Sports that this is what Mourinho would do because he did the same thing against Liverpool when he was Chelsea manager two years before. So knowing what to expect, I watched the match unfold and enjoyed it.
Something else annoyed me, though. Not the Liverpool fans complaining about Manchester United’s tactics: sure, they’d be delighted if Man Utd came to attack and got thumped, that goes without saying. Mourinho’s job is not to keep Liverpool fans entertained and happy. It was the Manchester United fans – an unlikeable lot at the best of times, mostly – that irritated me. The BBC and Twitter feeds were alive with people harking back to the glory days of Alex Ferguson and how he wouldn’t have come to Anfield with this attitude.
Which is bollocks. I must have watched pretty much every Man Utd v Liverpool match since 1996, with a gap between 2006-2010 when I was in Sakhalin sans television. At that stage of the season, with the disparity between the sides, and with the previous results as they were Ferguson would have been perfectly satisfied with a 0-0 draw. Sure his tactics might have been different, but the idea that Ferguson used to take on Liverpool and outplay them to a victory every year is revisionist nonsense. Between 1996 and 2013, Man Utd played Liverpool 39 times, losing 9 of them and drawing 5. The 2005/6 season saw Liverpool and Man Utd play out a 0-0 draw at Anfield. Ferguson might have had success against Liverpool, including at Anfield, but it was never a foregone conclusion and from what I remember it was usually pretty hard work. And bear in mind that Ferguson’s sides by and large dominated the Premier League and Liverpool rarely did anything in that era. Yet in 2008/9 Liverpool came to Old Trafford and walked away 4-1 winners. It was never plain sailing.
In summary, any Man Utd fan who is criticising Mourinho for his tactics last Monday night needs to grow up a bit.