In the dying minutes of the Premier League fixture between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield, Jose Mourinho decided to bring on Luke Shaw for Ashley Young. Young, very conveniently, was as far away from the touchline as possible and hence took some time to realise that his number had gone up. When he did notice it, Young ambled across to the other side of the pitch, making sure he took almost half a minute of the match away with him. So slow was he that Liverpool’s Emre Can pushed him in a gesture that said, ‘hurry up there is not much time and we still have a chance of scoring against you!’
This would have been a normal sight if Manchester United were leading by a one-goal margin. All teams do that and, more often than not, last minute substitutions are made solely to waste time.
In this case, though, the score was 0-0. Manchester United had as much a chance of winning the game as Liverpool had. Yet, it was only the Merseysiders showing the urgency of a team that wants to win. The match, on the whole, was about two sides determined not to give a goal away rather than score one. Over the course of the 90 minutes, this defensive balance shifted more and more towards Manchester United.
This is where one says, ‘Welcome to Jose Mourinho’s world’. Mourinho is not a manager who believes in making statements on the field. Even before the match, he had said that for him, the season was not just about matches at Anfield. It was about the bigger picture. This has been a feature for Mourinho at every club he has been successful in. There are videos of him talking to Chelsea players in his early days with the club in which he says that he doesn’t believe that they “have to win every single game. But the team cannot lose, that is the most important thing.”
Against Liverpool, he knew he was facing a side that had attackers capable of dismantling the best defensive setups in the world. It is probably because of this that Ashley Young started in the wings instead of Jesse Lingard or Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Young’s capabilities at tracking back are far superior to the two. The same could be said about Paul Pogba playing the number 10 role instead of Juan Mata.
For Mourinho, it doesn’t matter whether the match is Manchester United vs Liverpool, Chelsea vs Arsenal or Real Madrid vs Barcelona. If he thinks that his team would be better served by not conceding rather than scoring or somehow tucking in a goal and then, as they say, ‘park the bus’, he would ask his players to do so. If his team’s interests are better served by disrupting the play rather than bringing creativity and beauty into it, so be it. In the end, getting at least a point is what is important.
While appointing him as a manager guarantees trophies in one way or another, this is the flip side to Mourinho’s management. The priority changes from trying to win every game to avoid losing certain games. While it may look ugly, boring and, at times, frustrating, this tactic has worked for him. Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan had less than 30 per cent possession in their 2010 Champions League final against Bayern Munich. Yet it was Inter, a club that in Europe was perpetually under the shadows of their neighbours, who won the match 2-0.
Manchester United fans may forget about this fixture if the season ends with some level of success but even then, many of them may have wondered as they exited Anfield or switched off their television sets and computers. Would Ashley Young have dared to take half a minute to walk out of the pitch if it was Sir Alex Ferguson barking orders from the touchline instead of Jose Mourinho at Anfield while the game was tied 0-0?