By Richard Buxton
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – Liverpool has never been “just another game” to Jose Mourinho, despite all of his claims otherwise.
Manchester United’s manager has feuded and colluded with the Anfield club in unequal measure. That special relationship, however, now lacks the spark which had once made it English football’s greatest hypothetical on the back of a third stalemate in two seasons, including Saturday’s 0-0 draw.
Whenever a Mourinho team faces Liverpool, it has proved a recurring theme. Jurgen Klopp’s side had been there for the taking on the back of a solitary win from their previous seven games in all competitions. But negativity again got the better of the Portuguese manager.
Mourinho’s egotism comes from an overall result rather than aesthetics but neither were forthcoming here after a run of games where United had been free-scoring and appearing every inch the champions-elect while their hosts had been stumbling through September.
Sacrificing the creativity of Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata for a rare Matteo Darmian outing and the underused Anthony Martial spectacularly failed to pay dividends. Martial forced to make way for Rashford midway through the second half on the back of an underwhelming performance that was mirrored across United’s line-up.
Romelu Lukaku, in particular, posed further questions of his mental fortitude. Too often the Belgium international was accused of being a flat-track bully at Everton, often going missing in pivotal games. A first return to his former Merseyside parish provided the perfect opportunity to disprove the doubters but once again he failed spectacularly.
Only a combination of David de Gea’s sharp reflexes, notably an outstretched leg to deny Joel Matip, and the hosts’ bouts of profligacy prevented Mourinho’s self-indulgence from seeing more serious glances cast across Manchester for this season’s worthy title winners.
After much soul-searching, the Old Trafford hierarchy appeared to have finally found Alex Ferguson’s natural successor. In truth Mourinho should have been their logical step when the English game’s grandmasters hung up his metaphorical hair dryer in 2013.
But needlessly engaging in bouts of tactical brinkmanship remains the petard by which the two-time Champions League winner may ultimately be hoisted at the Theatre of Dreams.
“I was waiting for Jurgen to change,” Mourinho admitted after the game.
“I was waiting for him to go more attacking, but he kept the three strong midfield players all the time, where he was having control because I had only [Ander] Herrera and [Nemanja] Matic. When I brought [Jesse] Lingard and Rashford, I was waiting for him to bring on [Daniel] Sturridge or [Dominic] Solanke but to keep attacking players.
“But he decided to change player by player and kept the strong midfield and that midfield today was stronger than my midfield. I had Herrera and Matic – nobody else.
“I had nobody on the bench to try and make a difference. I couldn’t bring Herrera to the position [of number] 10 where he could be more aggressive in the high pressing so the team was getting below.
“At times I felt that probably my team was waiting for me to do something but I couldn’t do without any midfield player on the bench so the second half was more difficult for us.”
United have so often served as a turning point in Liverpool’s seasons; in 2015, they put paid to a run where they had won 24 points from a possible 30. This result could provide springboard at a time when Klopp needed it, more than ever before in his Anfield career.
Last weekend marked the German’s two-year anniversary on Merseyside but worrying seeds of doubt are already beginning to sprout. He has vowed to walk away if his quest for a Premier League title proves to be an impossible task. An initial prophecy of delivering domestic success by 2019 currently appears increasingly ambitious.
Open defiance has also followed, boasting that no one is better suited for reviving English football’s perennial stumblers. Like those before him, from the continental calibre of Gerard Houllier and Rafael Benitez to the home-grown stock of Kenny Dalglish and Brendan Rodgers, Klopp finally appears to be succumbing to the Anfield pressure cooker
Statistics, often a crutch for the club’s long-suffering dreamers, continually threaten to condemn him as little more than a minor upgrade on the man he succeeded in Rodgers. Still seven points adrift of the Premier League’s summit, defeat against United would have pushed Liverpool out of this season’s title race before its opening three months were out.
Their failure to punish United when gaps appeared in the visitors’ defence highlighted the shortcomings of Klopp’s own tactical dogma. Mohamed Salah and Emre Can were both guilty of spurning gilt-edged chances either side of the half time interval.
“Maybe we didn’t create enough chances, but the problem is that everything you ask is always underlined with negativity,” Klopp said.
“That’s how it is because of our situation. If we would have won the last five games, today we created enough chances to win the game and we should have been given a penalty, maybe a red card and all that stuff – but now, again, we didn’t.
“We have to stay positive, and for me it’s easy because the performance gives me enough reasons to stay positive, absolutely.”
Sunny disposition remains the Liverpool manager’s overriding emotions but Mourinho’s reverting to old habits points to another potential storm on the horizon. The backdrop may change but the ‘Special One’ is proving once again that he is still not one for turning.
Richard Buxton is a UK-based writer and special correspondent for Sportsnet. He filed this report from Liverpool’s Anfield stadium.