Final nail in United's coffin
The days of Red Devils serving up entertaining football are over
MAN UNITED 0
Manchester United made a pact with the wrong devil.
The old swaggering kings of creativity are dead. Long live the king of caution.
The muted applause at the end of Anfield's wretched spectacle yesterday morning (Singapore time) was the final nail squeezing itself into the dullest of coffins.
In the commentary box, Ryan Giggs diplomatically suggested that United's followers should probably get used to sterile, tactical games of chess.
Under Jose Mourinho, the boredom is here to stay.
This was not an elite football match or an engrossing sporting spectacle.
This was the devil and his dullards in the pale moonlight killing the contest softly, placing a boot on the throat of the world's most popular rivalry in team sports and cutting off the air supply.
Only one man was happy at the final whistle. A manager who has replaced the enigmatic maverick with an argumentative bore.
The only man who can muster a smile when informed that United managed just 35 per cent of possession against Liverpool, their lowest total since Opta records began in 2004.
Mourinho's only response was to childishly claim that his staff recorded a possession figure of 42 per cent, quibbling with the number rather than the strategy.
At this juncture, myopic United followers will probably point out that a draw against their oldest enemy at Anfield with a transitional side is a noble result.
To make such a hollow boast is to deny the journey that made United the biggest club in the world.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, points and games were lost against Liverpool in cup final-like conditions where the form guide was usually knocked aside the moment the pumped-up Reds slapped the legendary sign.
This is Anfield. This is Liverpool against United. Victories are preferred and goals expected, but a memorable contest is a given.
Or at least it used to be.
Under Mourinho, this is as good as it's ever going to get.
His apologists speak of a point well earned, but they're borrowing the words of Burnley supporters, with one obvious difference.
The whole of Burnley would struggle to buy one Paul Pogba, a United player that Mourinho refused to fully unleash at Anfield, shackling the Frenchman to both Zlatan Ibrahimovic and an outdated tactical philosophy.
Against Liverpool, Pogba was expected to doth his cap to the archaic big man up front as Mourinho buried the contest in a midfield quagmire.
There was a time, two managers and a lifetime ago now, when Marouane Fellaini was considered an insult to United's refined sensibilities, a clear indication that David Moyes was a no-frills coach at the wrong club.
Now, Fellaini is the definitive Mourinho prototype, all heads, elbows, knees and toes, like a belligerent toddler mauling a nursery rhyme.
Fellaini muscled his way through Liverpool's midfield and Ander Herrera harried and hounded Philippe Coutinho, earning dubious outfield Man-of-the-Match honours for United.
The diminutive Spaniard garnered praise for his rugged tenacity, his limpet-like marking and constant back-tracking; the typical attributes associated with a Mourinho player.
But Herrera can be a lovely, effervescent footballer when granted time and space to operate. He's so much more than a water carrier.
Alas, Mourinho's most effective sides are not about playing, but stopping. That's why Juan Mata and Michael Carrick, elegant footballers who might have dissipated the stink that hung over Anfield, never left the bench.
Mourinho once claimed that protecting a scoreline was the easiest job in the world. He relishes the opportunity to get his chess pawns out against an A-lister and churn out one negative move after another until checkmate is achieved.
He's a brilliant architect of anti-football.
But now he finds himself at a club whose very legacy depends upon a positive playing philosophy, even in the largely trophy-less years under Ron Atkinson.
Win, lose or draw, but never bore. That's the United way.
The EPL's more recent devotees, those who swallow the hype wholesale, may accept the contemporary drivel about the result being the only thing that matters.
But the rest of us perhaps retain that naive, quaint notion of being engaged once in a while, of being able to watch two teams try to play out of midfield rather than one, of occasionally being kept awake.
If that's not the case, if Mourinho is right and elite football is now about containment, rather than creativity, then he's welcome to it.
But it's the end of United's world as we know it.
BY THE NUMBERS
11 Manchester United's Ander Herrera made 11 interceptions against Liverpool, the highest in this season's EPL.
Killing in the name of Jose
SHADES OF SCHMEICHEL: Man United goalkeeper David de Gea making a spectacular save from Philippe Coutinho’s longrange effort. PHOTO: REUTERS
1 SCRAPPY INSTEAD OF SKILFUL
Ander Herrera chased Philippe Coutinho. Ashley Young doubled up with Daley Blind to chase Sadio Mane. Paul Pogba chased Jordan Henderson and Marouane Fellaini chased everyone. The rudimentary formula worked.
Of course it did. It's the tactics of the school playground, always easier to stop, rather than start.
From kick-off, United's template was abundantly clear. Crush Liverpool's counter-pressing and that's about it.
There was no thought beyond that, no real United effort to keep the ball or pass their way towards Loris Karius' goal.
It's a strategy that would serve a relegation candidate well. But United boast the most expensive footballer in the world and a squad that costs hundreds of millions of dollars to assemble.
But Mourinho didn't trust them to try anything beyond the stifling tactics of a Sunday morning pub team.
2 RISK-FREE TO THE END
Liverpool didn't play particularly well, either. It was an off-night for the Reds, but not for the want of trying.
Adam Lallana came on and added a rare inventive spark. Divock Orgi was introduced and ordered to attack. Even late arrival Alberto Moreno was brought on to test his pace against a tiring United.
What did Mourinho do? He sent on Wayne Rooney to essentially play at right back. A striker, earning £300,000 ($510,000) a week, was thrown on to give United two right-backs, instead of one, because you can never have enough defensive cover in a Mourinho side.
3 NO LOVE OF MAVERICKS
From George Best to Eric Cantona, among many others, United have always been home to mavericks, artists and the endlessly inventive.
But Mourinho doesn't trust them or their unpredictability. As United and Liverpool got stuck in a central midfield sludge of scrappy tackles and misplaced passes, the contest was crying out for a footballer blessed with the rare ability to stop, breathe, pass and reinvigorate proceedings.
Even if it was just a cameo. United had two on the bench in Michael Carrick and Juan Mata, but they were never likely to come on.
4 RESTRAINING THE MONSTER
Paul Pogba is a midfield monster, but he's not a No. 10. He's a No. 8, rampaging through the middle and feasting on weak spines.
But he was not allowed to play that way at Anfield. Mourinho is still wedded to the Didier Drogba model of a tall, muscular presence at the apex of a regimented attacking pyramid.
Other sides, namely Manchester City, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool (most of the time), no longer play that way, preferring a more rounded approach which spreads the goals around.
But Mourinho's insistence in a formation that brought him his greatest success inevitably restricts Pogba's movements.
- LIVERPOOL: Loris Karius, Nathaniel Clyne, Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren, James Milner (Alberto Moreno 86), Emre Can, Jordan Henderson, Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Daniel Sturridge (Adam Lallana 60), Roberto Firmino (Divock Origi 85)
- MAN UNITED: David de Gea, Antonio Valencia, Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini, Marcus Rashford (Wayne Rooney 77), Paul Pogba, Ashley Young (Luke Shaw 90+2), Zlatan Ibrahimovic