Commentary

United's waiting game has its own pitfalls

Former Chelsea captain John Terry used to say that the biggest matches away from home were where his manager Jose Mourinho "really comes into his own".

It was true. It is equally true to suggest that, in recent times, they have become the matches in which Mourinho goes into his shell.

In his past nine games away to a "big six" rival in the Premier League, his team have not won. Far worse, over those nine games, the first two with Chelsea, the past seven with Manchester United, he has only seen his team score once.

That miserable record was never under threat on Saturday, when United left Merseyside with the result that looked like the height of their ambitions: a 0-0 draw against a Liverpool team whose defensive and psychological frailties have been there for all to exploit.

In time, it might be looked back upon as one of the points that wins United the Premier League title, but, with Manchester City in rampant form, having already beaten Liverpool and Chelsea as well as swatting aside most of the minnows, it looks as if Mourinho and his players are going to have to raise their game.

If anything, after the past few decades, the demand for winning in style is far greater at United, which is one reason why Mourinho never seemed the most natural heir to the traditions of Alex Ferguson.

With Manchester City in rampant form, having already beaten Liverpool and Chelsea as well as swatting aside most of the minnows, it looks as if Mourinho and his players are going to have to raise their game.

Mourinho suggested that he was "waiting" for Jurgen Klopp to take the initiative - to twist rather than stick in the second half, to break up the midfield triumvirate of Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and Emre Can and send on another forward, with Philippe Coutinho dropping deeper.

He said that in such a situation, which never came, United would have found opportunities on the counter-attack.

"We were waiting for the game to be broken, but the game wasn't broken," the Portuguese said.

It might have been intended to draw attention to Klopp's caution on Saturday, but it also said more about Mourinho's outlook.

"My opponent didn't open the door for me to win the game," the United manager said.

Alternatively, Mourinho and his players did not even try to open the door. They barely even acknowledged there was a door.

There is an obvious, unavoidable comparison to be made with Pep Guardiola here. The City manager's approach to these big games is very different: dominate possession, force the opposition back and create chances.

When City beat Chelsea 1-0 at Stamford Bridge two weeks earlier, they did so playing bold, confident, adventurous, expansive football - 62 per cent possession, 17 shots, six of them on target.

On Saturday, United had 38 per cent possession and just six shots, of which only one was on target.

Not a like-for-like comparison, obviously, but it is at least a reminder that there is an alternative to sitting deep and waiting, hoping the opposition will play into your hands by allowing the game to "break".

Mourinho must recognise that there can be such a thing as too much caution. When the big games come up over the weeks ahead - Tottenham at home and away to Chelsea and Arsenal before they entertain City on Dec 9 - Mourinho and United will need to come out of their shell.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2017, with the headline 'United's waiting game has its own pitfalls'. Print Edition | Subscribe