Mourinho, Man United got things right vs. Liverpool at noisy Old Trafford
It has been a fine couple of weeks for Manchester United, thanks to three straight Premier League wins against Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Liverpool. The team are second in the table and have a nine-point cushion for a Champions League place, which has been the focus in each of the last four seasons, during which they finished in the top four just once.
United are more comfortable this term with eight league games to play and can switch attention to two big cup games at Old Trafford this week against Sevilla on Tuesday and Brighton & Hove Albion four days later.
Saturday brought the second 2-1 win over Liverpool in 18 hours after the club's bottom-of-the-table reserves won by the same scoreline at Anfield on Friday night. United's first team have been held to struggle against the top teams, but have beaten Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool in the league this season.
In fact, United have beaten every team below them at least once this season -- from Spurs in third to bottom-placed West Brom -- and have a (slim) chance to beat leaders Manchester City, as well as Arsenal for a second time, before the season is out.
Moreover, United could also beat City, Chelsea and Liverpool in the Champions League, though they have to get past Sevilla first. Let's hope there's no repeat of what happened at the quarterfinal stage 20 years ago when, after a 0-0 draw in Monaco, Sir Alex Ferguson's side fell behind early at Old Trafford and went out on away goals.
It has been said that Jose Mourinho's pragmatic team lack the dramatic moments of yore, but the second half at Crystal Palace last Monday was as nail-biting as any game in recent years and resulted in a comeback win from 2-0 down that was sealed by a wonder goal in the last minute. This has been far from a boring season; there have been plenty of good games, interesting cup ties and clean sheets.
It has also been said that United are too cautious, that Mourinho is too keen to "park the bus." The accusation was levelled after a 0-0 draw at Liverpool in October but, while the game was frustrating to watch and stalled momentum, a goalless draw at Anfield was a not a bad result.
Nor was the 0-0 in Sevilla three weeks ago; Mourinho doesn't feel that he has the team to attack top sides away from home and it took Ferguson 12 years before he realised a dream of going to Barcelona and having the confidence in his side to take the game to one of the best teams in the world. That classic game, in 1998, ended 3-3.
United go to City next month and are likely to play defensively again. Defeat will almost certainly mean their cross-town rivals clinch the title that day, so maybe the end will justify the means for fans, who have no desire to watch their rivals celebrate the title on derby day. The alternative is to try and bloody some opposing noses by going for it.
It will be for Mourinho to decide but on Saturday at Old Trafford, where United have lost only once all season, they didn't park the bus. While there were no shots on target from either side until Marcus Rashford's epic 14th-minute goal -- and only four in total during the entire game -- the home side was attack-minded throughout. It was also great to see the players run to the fans to celebrate goals, something their manager encourages.
Mourinho went with a 4-2-3-1 formation, which shifted to a 4-4-2 when United did not have possession. He planned to stop Liverpool's talented front three, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, getting the ball and his gambit largely worked: Jurgen Klopp's side, who would have gone above United had they won, were defeated for the first time in seven league games.
Juan Mata played predominantly on the right, but was also on the left at times, and could feel satisfied with his performance as he posed for pictures with fans in his Manchester restaurant on Saturday night. Many others could feel equally pleased: Ashley Young contained Salah, Eric Bailly is back, brilliant and even managed to score past David De Gea. Bailly's central-defensive partner Chris Smalling had another good game and Romelu Lukaku was exceptional in the first half.
It has also been said - rightly -- that atmosphere is lacking at Old Trafford, but that was not the case on Saturday. The noise was as loud as it has been for years with rousing, primal screams of "United!" coming from the Stretford End, as well as J and K stands. Even the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand was bellowing out classic ditties about never seeing Steven Gerrard win the league.
Mourinho was happier with the atmosphere after his recent criticisms, though he didn't appreciate the supporters' reaction to a stray Scott McTominay pass at one point. There didn't seem to be any obvious abuse of the manager's blue-eyed boy, who also had a good game, though composure was not a common emotion among home fans during the last few minutes as Liverpool pushed for an equaliser.
Incredulity greeted the raising of an electronic board to indicate six minutes of stoppage time, but United held on for victory against Liverpool to end a run of four straight draws and a Europa League defeat. It was about time.
Yes, it would have been better had Alexis Sanchez stood out or if Paul Pogba had been fit to start and star, but those two will get plenty of chances to shine and they'll need to. As it was, two goals from Manchester-born United fan to defeat Liverpool will more than do for now.
Bring on the Spaniards by the score, por favor.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.