The Premier League returned from an international break on Saturday with what was built up as one of the biggest clashes of the young season. With a match highly anticipated due to its intensity, and even mutual hatred. With a derby that rarely disappoints.
But instead of all that, it returned with Jose Mourinho.
It returned with a 0-0 draw between Liverpool and Manchester United that had Mourinho’s fingerprints all over it. He might as well have patented this type of result. The Red Devils showed little attacking intent, and offered little attacking substance, but a lot of defensive solidity, and a lot of contentment with a stalemate.
It was an identical result to last year’s between the two teams at Anfield. Mourinho’s United has now put two shots on goal in 180 minutes at Liverpool. It hasn’t really come close to scoring.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp seemed critical of Mourinho’s approach afterward. “For sure you could not play this way at Liverpool, but it’s OK for Manchester United,” he said.
United didn’t necessarily come to Anfield specifically for a draw, but it certainly came with the knowledge that its boss would be satisfied with one. Mourinho set his Red Devils up to play without the ball, in their own half, and for a point. They largely did that, largely played there, and got the point they set out for.
United mostly sat in two banks of four, with Romelu Lukaku and Henrikh Mkhitaryan confronting Liverpool around the halfway line, Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic shuffling around midfield to close down space behind them, and Ashley Young and Anthony Martial as defensive wingers.
One of the game’s battles was Liverpool trying to break this structure down – trying to work its way through the maze. Liverpool has 62 percent of the ball. It had success when it was able to overload specific areas, whether that was midfield with one of the center backs stepping up, or the wings with fullbacks getting forward.
United wasn’t as stringent as the scoreline might suggest. Liverpool created enough to grab a goal. It had 18 shots, six on target, and one that was only kept out by a stunning kick-save from the best goalkeeper in the world:
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) October 14, 2017
The Reds had other quality chances as well, but their finishing was both lacking and costly.
xG map for Liverpool – Man United. The usual narrative after a Mourinho team takes an away draw is, "Jose done it again." This was not that. pic.twitter.com/iAPHjkKUXH
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) October 14, 2017
The other game within the game was Liverpool’s attempt to curtail United’s counterattack. Whereas some teams would be cautious to protect against that threat, Jurgen Klopp went in the opposite direction. He ramped up Liverpool’s counterpress, not systemically, but rather in intensity. Liverpool’s forwards and midfielders flew into challenges after losing the ball. Their physicality, and at times recklessness, often prevented United from playing out of trouble when it won the ball.
Lukaku had one first-half chance for the visitors, but the shot on target it produced was their only one of the afternoon. Liverpool, on the other hand, was unrelenting in its search for a winner. But it could only produce half-chances, wayward crosses and half-hearted penalty claims. When Klopp withdrew Mohamed Salah and Philippe Coutinho with around 10 minutes remaining, his team’s effectiveness waned.
United, needless to say, will be the happier of the two teams. The broader question is whether it should approach games with this type of happiness in mind. Draws won’t be sufficient every time out against the top six. Ten points from 10 games against them won’t win a title. At some point, Mourinho is going to have to come out of his shell.
But perhaps there’s a time and a place for that. Saturday apparently wasn’t that time, and Anfield not that place.
United began the campaign with a soft slate of fixtures. Saturday was its first test against a top-half opponents. Its performance, in light of that, was relatively inauspicious. It probably didn’t even deserve the point it got.
But the result, in light of that performance, was appeasing for Mourinho and United – even if similar results in the future won’t ultimately be appeasing come May.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.