So Manchester United drew 0-0 at Anfield on Saturday and from the reaction you might have reason to believe Jose Mourinho was responsible for Brexit, the post-2015 deluge of deaths of dearly loved celebrities as well as all that is bad about modern football.
An over-reaction? Slightly, but then so was that of the media, both sets of supporters, and Jurgen Klopp.
Let’s start with the German, who said: “It’s not my right to be frustrated… If we were to play this way… we could not do it at Liverpool. But obviously for Manchester United it’s OK. I don’t judge. It’s OK.”
Mourinho’s response to that was to suggest Liverpool’s own performance hadn’t quite been the all-conquering one it had been heralded as.
“They played 90 minutes with Can, Henderson and Wijnaldum and I thought playing at home, seven points behind us, they are going to change,” said the United boss. “They never did. They changed man for man in attack. They kept their three midfield players in the centre of the pitch and I had no chance to answer. I need my bench and I have no bench. I need to play against Henderson, Can and Wijnaldum, power and energy. I had no power and energy. I only had two midfield players and had no one else to compensate that.”
Certainly there is some truth in this. Liverpool were not brilliant and one could point to the poor displays of Mkhitaryan, Herrera and, surprisingly, Matic for United’s inability to convert Mourinho’s game plan into a winning one (though in our reaction column, we floated the idea that this was at least partly due to the lack of a strong defensive spine). It had all the hallmarks of a classic Mourinho away performance, only at United, he has yet to discover the right formula (or be afforded a fit enough team) to make those performances get properly convincing results.
Liverpool had the lion’s share of the ball and the lion’s share of territorial possession but rarely did they create a true opening, and this against Jones and Smalling. Perhaps Klopp’s post-match protestations may carry some political weight but he is under pressure precisely because opposing managers have begun to nullify the ‘gegenpressing’ style and he has no apparent plan B. Indeed, United’s own supporters voiced frustration that they didn’t take the game to a beleaguered opponent.
A forgettable game then, though when the dust settles, the perception of this game will surely mean neither manager comes out of it with any credit. Klopp has avoided all criticism despite playing with those three midfielders at home but there is no denying that if either manager is under pressure, then it is the German.
So, about that perception, then. The media is split into many different areas, and with regards Premier League football, there are two major areas, the print and broadcast media and the online media with websites such as Goal, Bleacher Report, Football365 etc. The Neville brothers were on commentary for Sky and NBC’S coverage (Gary and Phil respectively) and one thing of note to come out was how heavily critical they were of United and some of their players. Innocuous challenges from Lukaku in the first half were blown up in commentary and half-time analysis and there was the serious suggestion from Phil Neville that the Belgian might have seen red on another day for a coming together with Dejan Lovren where the Liverpool defender embarrassingly made a meal of it.
It has been suggested that the brothers have spent so long trying to be neutral that it’s gone the other way; we wouldn’t suggest that, as it’s clear that both of them are United fans at heart, but maybe it was their own frustrations rather than United’s striker that were evident in their reflection of the events.
The Neville brothers by themselves cannot alter perception — and, as we’ll discuss in a second, this isn’t in any way a suggestion that their comments hold any real sway in anything to do with the game — but when they are so critical of United, the reaction to that from the rest of the media is essentially, ‘Even the Nevilles are saying bad things so it must be true’. When the majority of the studios are dominated by former Liverpool and Arsenal players as pundits, the idea of exercising neutrality or at least even the recognition of its existence ought to be noted when absorbing these opinions.
In the interest of balance then, let it be said that in this writer’s view, the game at Anfield, from a Manchester United perspective, was a huge letdown. There was the hope that United would take the game to Liverpool and the hope that in this first big test of the season Mourinho would go on the offensive.
To see him revert to type was frustrating and even if he wasn’t responsible for the individual performances which were disappointing, he was responsible for the game plan, and as the match wore on it became clear that it was a point and not a late flurry for all three that was the objective. Mourinho banked on Klopp being more adventurous and so his own team’s ability to counter attack would have been more evident. That never happened and from a United perspective, it seems like two points dropped rather than one gained.
United have no divine right to win and, as was debated on our YouTube show a few weeks back, the subject of style over substance is still very much on the conversation menu, but if anyone is objecting to Mourinho’s methods on the grounds that they don’t ultimately bring rewards, then they simply haven’t been following football. United’s fans waited patiently for Louis van Gaal’s new philosophy to change the very identity of their club but ultimately the Dutchman was forced to leave because the supporters were not entertained at the weekend, regardless of what constituted the ‘United way’.
In the grand scheme of things United supporters will be happy to not have lost at Anfield and they certainly will still believe their team is better, but the climate at present which includes the bigger picture — the form of Manchester City — means that United and Mourinho are being painted as the anti-footballing unit as opposed to City and Guardiola.
These seeds were sown earlier in the season when United’s trend of scoring early then getting a flurry of late goals was perceived as flattering by the press. It might be a good time to say that how one enjoys football is a genuinely subjective thing. Personally, I have accepted that as the game as evolved, the idea of a 4-4-2 in the style we saw in the 1990s is no longer feasible because of the lack of quality wingers. So, what makes for an entertaining side? Individual quality, good fluid passing, nice tricks, effective passing over short and long distances, dribbling and goals.
Have United not delivered that in spades this season? Apparently not, although you would have no trouble finding people who would say Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku all started the season brilliantly and Rashford and Martial have both been thrilling, apparently these are the individual components and so the sum of their work is not worth the same praise as Guardiola’s side, given that the Spaniard is famed for his team’s ‘collective’ work.
Death by comparison is nothing new for United fans who have seen their teams compared unfavourably with Arsenal and Liverpool over the last decade even when Sir Alex Ferguson’s team were beating them to the title with convincing ease. Perhaps the only worthy recipient of praise were the perennial challengers Chelsea and there was a definite sense of desensitisation to their title triumphs due to the fact that they had enjoyed such a large financial injection. Yet Chelsea never received the sort of praise afforded to the likes of Arsenal, possibly because there was a palpable sense of artificial achievement in their success.
Over time, games against Chelsea became the standard bearer, but they lacked the intensity of games against Liverpool and Arsenal or even Manchester City. When Manchester City were then taken over, and their identity absolutely exaggerated beyond all recognition, the local rivalry, instead of intensifying, diluted enormously.
City’s 7-2 win against Stoke City provoked a number of reactions in the press, with the Evening News suggesting a City title win as opposed to a United title win would be a victory for football. James Ducker of the Telegraph said the win was one for football’s purists, especially in the context of coming after the 0-0 draw at Anfield earlier in the day.
United are not precluded from any argument about overspending — previous managers have had nightmares in the transfer market which the current boss is working to overcome — nor are they exempt from criticism for style of football. Isn’t it funny, though, how the modern perception of United continues to resemble something of a financial ogre bullying the smaller teams?
The idea of the ‘top six’ issuing ultimatums in terms of revenue for Premier League television finance distribution has pushed United into the familiar position of bad guys. As United are the club whose viewing figures simply dwarf any of their rivals, it would do the reporting press a great deal of credit to acknowledge their resistance to exercise their power in this regard. It is an option they have not exploited but consider this against Manchester City’s consistent disregard for the Financial Fair Play regulations.
The prevailing point to make here is that out of nowhere City have been elevated into a position occupied previously by Arsenal, heralded as the team who are the superior footballing outfit, and no mention of the circumstances will be entertained. For Arsenal, it was generally the fact that their good performances would only come against the likes of Norwich and Derby, and for Manchester City, it is the fact that their first team includes full backs which cost £50m and their reserve side stockpiles the better players from other Premier League clubs who, for some inexplicable reason, are happy to lose two or three years of their career (Wilfried Bony and Fabien Delph come to mind).
Manchester City putting seven goals past Stoke is par for what would be expected for a team that has spent over £600m since winning their last title in 2014. It should be the best ever team seen in the Premier League and should break all records. It should play the best football. Of course it should, because that is what should happen when a limitless amount of money has been poured in from outside of football in order to facilitate it.
Quite how this translates into exceptional and revolutionary management is a bit of a head-scratcher. With the utmost of respect, Mancini and Pellegrini are probably the last two names people would mention when listing impressive Premier League winning managers. There’s a reason for this. There’s a reason that outside of Manchester City, nobody can remember much about those title winning City teams, apart from the idea that Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero were influential. Guardiola is in the unique position that he is the first City manager since the takeover not living month to month with the threat of someone better succeeding him and so the way he is portrayed in the press is somewhat reflective of that, though it is an elevated profile.
On our pods and video shows our social media manager Dave Murphy is fond of calling him ‘Fraudiola’ and maybe that’s pushing it a bit, but it’s very difficult to fairly say the City manager is responsible for their start to the season, at least if by the same token Mourinho is being more harshly judged. One recurring theme from this season has been Mourinho’s intervention in games and his influence, for better or worse, was part of the reason United drew at Anfield. If you’re making a like for like comparison then City’s win at Chelsea, in terms of performance and result, stands out as the key game so far this season, and yet this seems to again be reflective of spending power and how City were even able to blow last season’s champions out of the water in recent years.
Mainstream press will generally laud the praise on City because it’s easier to do with effectively short column space. Online blogs-cum-media such as Football365 will generally criticise United because it’s more popular with their readers — as a long time casual reader of the site, I’m in a position to remember their constant assertions at the time that United’s title wins were in fact reflective of a poor Premier League, which, when compared to contemporary European achievements, seems to be a complete nonsense — and they’ll continue to do so without any thought of balance and objectivity.
Considering the rabid online attitude of Arsenal and Liverpool fans, if you’re running an ostensibly neutral website, it pays to appeal to those supporters. Of course, it doesn’t make for a reasonable and balanced opinion, and this isn’t really a big deal, but perhaps when these websites make a point of making fun about other outlets for their shortcomings maybe their own should be acknowledged.
For mainstream reporters, however, you would hope they would know better and disingenuous seems a very lenient word for the misrepresentation of what is supposed to constitute football for the ‘purists’ when describing Mourinho as ‘anti-football’.
This is a rather long-winded soapbox piece which ultimately will matter little. You would think Mourinho is loving the reaction and planning to use it in the future to his advantage.
However it is also worth commenting that contemporary mainstream reaction does have an effect on how teams are remembered, and it is arguable that in the modern day it has an equalising effect. The press report on Arsenal’s 2008 side with mistier eyes than United’s European Cup winning side. Gary Neville once remarked that the United teams he played for wouldn’t truly be appreciated until long after they’d all retired. He was right, and we’re still waiting for that day. Perhaps he would do well to remember that when laying into the current team.