Comment and Analysis @nicholaspwright
Jose Mourinho under pressure to attack when Manchester United host Liverpool
Last Updated: 08/03/18 4:03pm
Jose Mourinho drew criticism for his defensive tactics in Manchester United's goalless draw with Liverpool at Anfield in October, but what's the best way to play against Jurgen Klopp's side?
Mourinho was forced to defend his approach after the October encounter. United only mustered one shot on target and had David De Gea to thank for an outstanding close-range save from Joel Matip, with Klopp insisting he would never use the same spoiling tactics at Liverpool.
It prompted plenty of debate. Liverpool's unbeaten home record suggests the point should not be sniffed at, but the apparent lack of attacking ambition was difficult for many supporters to stomach. So how should Mourinho approach the return game at Old Trafford on Sky Sports Premier League?
Park the bus again?
Mourinho's first option is to ignore the critics and shut the game down again. Liverpool are at their most dangerous when given space to counter attack, but it's no secret that they tend to struggle when breaking down teams who sit deep and defend compactly - just as they did against United at Anfield.
Mourinho might also consider the fact that Klopp's men are in far better form than they were back in October, having won four of their last five games and scored 13 goals in the process. Negating their counter-attacking threat will be vital if United are to stop Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane from causing problems.
United head into the game knowing a draw would keep them two points above their rivals and consolidate their position behind City. Catching Pep Guardiola's side already looks like an impossibility, so would another draw against a team with a formidable record against the top-six really be an unacceptable result?
The reality is that Manchester United supporters are unlikely to accept such conservatism at home. Mourinho might feel he can justify his defensive tactics in away games against their rivals, but at Old Trafford it's different. He will be expected to prioritise victory rather than simply avoid defeat.
Go for the jugular?
Many will be eager for Mourinho to release the shackles and take the game to Liverpool. United have some of the most exciting attacking players in the country. Is deploying as many of them as possible the best way to get at a Liverpool defence which remains susceptible to collapse?
History suggests it would be a risky approach. Liverpool have scored more goals from fast breaks than any other Premier League side this season, according to Opta, with Arsenal and Manchester City among the sides to have been punished for over-committing in attack.
Mourinho will also be wary of what happened in United's visit to Tottenham at the end of January. The Portuguese named an uncharacteristically attacking team that day. Many fans welcomed the presence of Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard in the same starting line-up, but Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic were duly overrun in midfield and United were soundly beaten 2-0.
Learn from Spurs?
On Saturday, the challenge for Mourinho will be to find the right balance. Play it too safe and he will risk the ire of supporters and invite more pressure onto the team. Be too gung-ho and Manchester United risk being ripped apart on the counter-attack.
Mourinho would do well to study Tottenham's 4-1 win over Liverpool in October. Klopp's side went into that game having put seven goals past Maribor in their previous fixture, but Mauricio Pochettino was able to blunt their attacking threat while giving them a taste of their own medicine on the break.
Spurs only had 36 per cent of the possession that day at Wembley but frustrated Liverpool by dropping deep and maintaining a disciplined defensive structure. The back three of Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez were flanked by Serge Aurier and Kieran Trippier and protected by Harry Winks, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli.
They were hard-working and difficult to break down, but what's crucial is that they were also a constant threat from turnovers. Pochettino's men were instructed to counter-press Liverpool and play the ball forward for Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son as quickly as possible whenever they won it.
By playing so directly, Spurs were able to catch Liverpool out of position, exploit spaces and provoke defensive errors repeatedly. And despite the visitors' dominance of possession and the fact they made nearly twice as many passes as the hosts, Spurs managed 11 shots from inside the box compared to Liverpool's four.
Mourinho certainly has the tools at his disposal to do something similar. Manchester United have shown defensive frailties in recent weeks, but the midfield has been bolstered by Scott McTominay's emergence alongside Matic, and there is certainly no shortage of pace on the break.
Martial's availability is uncertain after he missed the 3-2 win over Crystal Palace due to injury, but in Lukaku, Sanchez, Rashford and Lingard, Mourinho has plenty of options to trouble Liverpool in the same way Spurs did. By achieving that on Saturday, he could propel United to a valuable victory and avoid another round of debate around his tactics.
Watch The Debate on Wednesday for further discussion of the tactical battle at Old Trafford and watch Manchester United v Liverpool live on Sky Sports Premier League HD from 11.30am on Saturday