Jose Mourinho came under much criticism on Thursday from Manchester United supporters, rival fans and the media alike, following his team’s 0-0 draw against Manchester City. While Pep Guardiola defended Mourinho’s tactics, claiming he thought that United had travelled to the Etihad with the intention of winning, not many shared his viewpoint.
United had just 31 percent possession, their lowest since such statistics were measured in the Premier League, and had just three shots in 90 minutes.
Yet for all of City’s possession and attempts, the best chances fell to the away team. Ander Herrera should have put United 1-0 up just before half-time when Marcus Rashford delivered a perfect ball into the back post.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan also should have scored after Claudio Bravo flapped at a cross and the ball fell to the Armenian with the goalkeeper on the floor. Mkhitaryan’s shot went straight to Bravo, though, when he had the whole goal to aim at.
In contrast, David De Gea only made one good save in the game after a Sergio Aguero attempt from well outside the box threatened to creep inside the post, although the goalkeeper was able to catch the ball, so it clearly wasn’t too testing. City also came very close to scoring early on but were denied by the post.
There’s no denying that City dominated possession, but then they also didn’t do an awful lot with it. This is a predicament that United fans are all too familiar with thanks to the Louis van Gaal era at the club. Week after week United would keep the ball but fail to score. They’ve also endured a similar situation at Old Trafford this season. There hasn’t been much sympathy for Mourinho though, so United fans certainly won’t be offering a shoulder for City fans to cry on over their team’s lack of ability to turn possession in to goals.
Still, aside from City’s failure to capitalise in the game, questions are being asked of why Mourinho set his team up to play in such a way and whether that’s something a Manchester United manager should be doing. The popular chant this season claims that “Jose’s playing the way that United should,” but Thursday’s display was anything but the attacking football supporters had become accustomed to under Sir Alex Ferguson.
However, time has a funny way of playing tricks on a person’s memory, so anyone claiming that Ferguson hasn’t attempted the same tactics in the past as Mourinho did at the Etihad is forgetting what happened at the same ground five years ago.
With United favourites to win the title, they faced City and Ferguson set up his team not to lose. United played a five-man midfield, with Wayne Rooney the lone striker, but lost 1-0. Two weeks later City won their first league title in more than 40 years.
If only Ferguson had been able to get out of his players what Mourinho did on Thursday. The stakes have changed, with a top-four spot the prize available for the Manchester clubs rather than the title, but there’s no shame in playing with the aim of not losing when that result gets you where you need to be.
In the 2008 Champions League semifinal, United had 27 percent possession at the Camp Nou and had just one shot on target, but that 0-0 draw set them up perfectly for the return leg, which they won 1-0 before going on to lift the trophy after beating Chelsea in the final.
Mourinho wants to bring those days back to Old Trafford and if the point United gained on Liverpool on Thursday gets the club back in the Champions League, his methods shouldn’t be criticised. This is not how United play every week, but when the situation requires, Mourinho has got this sort of performance in his locker.
United are currently without half a team full of players thanks to injury. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Juan Mata, Paul Pogba, Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are all unavailable.
Worse than the fact those players were missing for the City game is that those who started haven’t been given a rest for weeks or months. Eric Bailly, for example, has played eight games in April, which works out at playing 90 minutes every three days for a month.
Still, even without that context, Mourinho is entitled to do what he has to do to get the point he needed. But with that context, it makes all the more sense. United’s players are exhausted, thanks to the heavy fixture list their success in cup competitions has given them, with little option to rotate because of the injuries.
The questions over Mourinho’s ability have been louder but maybe Guardiola should be wondering why his City team were unable to worry a weakened and shattered United side at home. United played with 10 men for almost quarter of an hour yet De Gea didn’t have a save to make in that time.
Maybe hailing it as a defensive masterclass is going too far, but Mourinho got the result he wanted and Guardiola didn’t. If United win on Sunday they will go a point ahead of Liverpool and a step closer to Champions League football.
Don’t be surprised if Mourinho employs the same tactics away to Arsenal and Tottenham as he did at the Etihad, hoping that on these occasions his players will be able to make more of the limited chances they have this time and secure their place in Europe’s elite competition for next season.