United are making a real drive for the top four now and they’ve closed that gap from 10 points to just two. But in that run of 11 unbeaten league games Tottenham are the only big side that they’ve managed to beat. A clash with Liverpool at Old Trafford will show just how far Jose Mourinho’s side have come if they can take three points.
At the start of this season Jose Mourinho didn’t look happy. He got fined £50k by the FA for comments against referees Anthony Taylor and Mark Clattenburg, and then he got another £16k fine for kicking a water bottle against West Ham. He wasn’t enjoying life at all. But he was going to a massive club with the job of rebuilding the squad, because the previous two years weren’t of the standard Manchester United expect.
Now that the team is starting to come together you can see Mourinho is happier, and the confidence around the place is a huge lift. But there’s more to come.
Manchester United aren’t a ‘complete Mourinho’ team yet, and they’re not at their strongest. They can go on and get even better with time. Mourinho has said it is a long-term project, and he’s absolutely right. He hasn’t panicked even when they were under pressure, and now they’re going in the right direction.
Compared to some of the football they played earlier in the season and the football they’re playing now, it is completely different. One or two touch football, slick passing, moving the ball forward quickly, attacking with pace and scoring goals. This is the DNA of Manchester United. This is what we expect, and there’s more to come.
Liverpool press high, they score plenty of goals, and they attack with ruthless pace. They have 48 goals this season – more than any side in the top flight. United have to get their tactics right. When Jose Mourinho has played the top teams in the past he plays far more defensive. He sets his team up deep, lets the opposition come onto him and then hits them with a sucker-punch on the counter attack.
That’s exactly what his Chelsea side did in the 2013/14 season when Liverpool should have won the title. The Reds had 73 per cent of the ball and 26 shots in that match at Anfield in April, but Mourinho had his team set up to be compact, defend well, and then they hit them with two huge goals on the break. Game over. That was a dedicated strategy that Mourinho implemented to perfection.
While Jose Mourinho spends most of the game in the dugout showing glimmers of emotion, Jurgen Klopp oozes positivity and activity. He’s up and down the touchline, clapping his players, geeing up the fans, and celebrating with the players. But they’re both winners and that’s the key.
To be a successful team the bond between the players and the staff has to be tight. You can see how much they trust each other at Liverpool with Klopp. You can see how much the players like the manager and how they respond to him. He has them playing his way and they’re enjoying it. That’s a good sign if you’re a team that wants to win titles – you need that togetherness.
Both teams come into this game bang in form. Sadio Mane is a big loss for Liverpool, but the return of Philippe Coutinho is a boost. Defensively Manchester United look a touch stronger with Phil Jones and Marcus Rojo forming a surprisingly strong partnership while Zlatan Ibrahimovic is scoring goals for fun in the league – he’s bagged 13 goals in 19 games now. The game will be decided by the team that handles with the pressure the best. There is no point going out there, losing your head, and getting sent off. It’s easy to say, but these guys need to play the game not the occasion.
Manchester United want to make a statement. We always want to beat the big teams and lay down a marker. This is Mourinho’s chance to show his United side really mean business.