A drab, dour, and disappointing goalless draw. And yet, the full-time whistle was music to the ears of Jose Mourinho, as his Manchester United side left Anfield with a point against Liverpool.
Jurgen Klopp’s men have been hitting the back of the net for fun this season, relentlessly pressing defences into an abject surrender. Mourinho had other plans on Monday night, and for the first time in his managerial reign at United, he returned to his old villainous ways. This was vintage, party-crashing, momentum-sucking Mourinho. This was the Mourinho that hushed the Nou Camp, the Mourinho that destroyed a title challenge at Anfield two years ago. While his side only left the pitch with a single point, this was Mourinho in his element, orchestrating his side in halting the dynamism of Liverpool’s attacking line-up.
His team selection meant that he was sure to obtain the fury of some, as he opted for Marouane Fellaini to partner Ander Herrera in the middle of the park, with Paul Pogba playing just behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Fellaini is not what one would identify as a typical Manchester United midfielder. He doesn’t split defences open with passes of finesse, and he does not possess an aura of comfort with the ball at his feet. Nevertheless, he served his purpose as Mourinho’s wrecking ball, harrowing the opposition alongside the mightily impressive Ander Herrera.
Herrera has displayed flashes of quality throughout his time at the club, but has yet to cement himself as an indispensable member of United’s midfield. This performance highlighted that alongside his qualities on the ball, he does possess the aggression and fiery character that is needed in a game of magnitude. His constant interceptions must have stirred the rage of Klopp, as his players were hunted down and circled by the men in blue.
Sadio Mane, whose pace has left many chasing shadows this season, looked lost and devoid of any ideas, while Daniel Sturridge’s performance was lacking in the relentlessness that has characterised Liverpool this season.
There were no obvious attempts to play out from the back through David de Gea, limiting Liverpool’s ability to win the ball high up the pitch. The sugar-rush madness of Liverpool’s attacking verve this season simply disappeared amidst the defensive wall that was laid upon the Anfield turf. In many ways, it was a game for the unsung and valiant members of the United squad. Ashley Young channelled his wing-back teachings from the Louis Van Gaal era to provide valiant support to the defensive line, while Antonio Valencia pulled off a sensational tackle on Roberto Firmino in the closing stages of the match that was an elastic stretch of desperation.
Moments of brilliance seemed a lost cause. The much maligned Paul Pogba did almost provide some much-needed spark to the second half, selling Jordan Henderson with a dummy and sending a cross to the head of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. However, rather than test the nervy Loris Karius, Ibrahimovic played the ball across goal in the hope of finding a finishing move from elsewhere. On the home front, it was the usual suspect Philippe Coutinho looking to conjure something from nowhere, launching a strike from distance. De Gea, who had already expertly denied Emre Can minutes earlier, pressed his launch button and flew into the night sky to deny a top-corner special from the Brazilian wizard. It was a rare moment of mutual excellence, in a match lacking any real zest.
It is important to note that United offered little going forward and that a point is not to be worthy of exuberant celebration. Furthermore, one may expect some more urgency in attack when a side contains a forward in the mould of Ibrahimovic. Nevertheless, this was the biggest statement of the Mourinho era at Old Trafford. He is not afraid to go against the United ethos of attractive attacking football. This was a performance that identified the need to take the sting out of a Liverpool side gaining great momentum, one that will be challenging United for the title come May.