Weekly Thoughts From Around Europe

Mourinho; A pragmatic approach still the correct approach?

On the face of it, Manchester United’s 0-0 draw at Anfield looked like a good result; a point away at their fiercest rivals, effectively stifling a Liverpool attack full of pace and intent and remaining within touching distance of a rampant Manchester City side who scored 7 at home to Stoke City on the same day. What the result did do however was call in to question, once again, the approach of Jose Mourinho to big games.

Let’s be perfectly clear here…..Jose Mourinho is a winner. Between 2003 and 2012, he did not go a single calendar year without winning a trophy. In 17 years as a Manager, he has won 8 domestic league titles, 7 domestic cups, 2 Champions League trophies and 2 Europa League titles. In anyone’s book that haul of trophies is enough to cement him as one of the greatest Managers who will ever live. Why then is there antipathy from so many when discussing Mourinho’s place in the great pantheon of football geniuses? Why isn’t he as lauded in some quarters as managers such as Pep Guardiola, Bill Shankly and Alex Ferguson amongst others? 

Of course, that question can be answered in rather simplistic terms; Mourinho is divisive. While there are those who praise his incredible haul of trophies over such a short span of time, there are others who equally do not appreciate his abrasive nature, his perceived arrogance and the way in which he typically sets his teams up to play. Though I understand the criticism of his teams’ style of play at times, did anyone really expect Mourinho to open up the game at Anfield on Saturday? Why would that game have been any different from his approach to countless other big games he has played in his career? Though Sky Sports tried their best to hype up the game as one of the biggest games of the season (and one of the biggest in the world), the pre-match drama far outweighed what was served up on the pitch. Simply put, Mourinho got what he went to Anfield for – to remain unbeaten.

Mourinho doesn’t do high-scoring, high-drama games. He’s far too clever, far too pragmatic for that. He sets his teams up in games against the big teams to nullify the other team’s best player(s) and to hopefully create enough to score a goal or two to get the 3 points. A perfect example was the man-marking job done by Ander Herrera on Philip Coutinho last Saturday which harked back to the job that the Spaniard did to stifle Eden Hazard when Chelsea visited Old Trafford. Mourinho is a master of knowing exactly what it takes to win, or at the very least, avoid defeat in big games.

Or is he?

What might fly under the radar a little is that Jose Mourinho’s teams in their last 12 away games against other members of the top 6 (Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Man City and Arsenal) have not only failed to win a single game but have also failed to score in 8 of the last 9 fixtures. The fact that the English Premier League is now a league that boasts so many ‘big’ teams means that these fixtures are more frequent and increasingly vital in deciding the destination of the title in May. So while Manchester City impressively swatted aside Liverpool and Chelsea in their only two games against top 6 sides so far this season, Manchester United’s albeit gritty display against Liverpool on Saturday already sees them at a disadvantage in what could be referred to as the ‘top 6 league table’.

The fact that Mourinho’s record is surprisingly poor against the bigger sides in away games begs the question then, is his brand of pragmatism in bigger games still a winning formula? It would be disingenuous to suggest that Manchester United have been anything other than scintillating in their games up until the game at Anfield on Saturday. For the most part, they have looked far more like the Fergie era United than at any time since Sir Alex left. A leopard will never change its spots though and Jose is still Jose. No matter how much of a clamour there is from fans and the media for Manchester United to always be on the front foot in games, he is unlikely to stray from what has been a successful formula in the past in the games against direct rivals.

If Guardiola’s City continue to play like they are, then it will be interesting to see whether there is any adaptation in style from Mourinho; I’d suggest that is improbable. If the Premier League trophy is back at Old Trafford for the first time since 2013 in May, I think we can safely assume that Jose still has half a clue in regards to this whole managerial malarkey and those who have criticised or called in to question his methods will be left to rue ever doubting him.