Paul Pogba’s potency energises José Mourinho for United’s ultimate test
Louis van Gaal may not have been the saviour Manchester United were hoping for but at least he delivered in the north-west derbies. United beat Liverpool home and away last season, even if they were eliminated by Jürgen Klopp’s side over two legs in the Europa League, and José Mourinho already knows he cannot match that 100% record after gaining only a draw at Anfield in October.
In fairness, Van Gaal had to face Klopp only once in the Premier League. The first of United’s victories over Liverpool last season was one of the last games of Brendan Rodgers’ tenure. In fact, the away side’s uncharacteristic meekness in going down 3-1 at Old Trafford is often cited as proof of the need for managerial change.
Mourinho makes a reasonable point, too, when he says he was still getting to know his players when he sent them to Anfield to park the bus three months ago. His defensive tactics drew complaints, mostly from the people who had been trying to sell the game to the television audience as a spectacle, though Mourinho was within his rights to cut out risks and try to steady the ship.
United had just lost at home to Manchester City and away to Watford. Liverpool were looking for a fifth successive victory and hoping to join City at the top of the table. A draw in those circumstances was not a bad result, and a certain grudging admiration was even permissible for the way Mourinho went about proving he could still suck the life out of a game even at a new club with an unfamiliar set of players.
The difference between then and now is that Mourinho has been in the job six months and does know his players. United have won their last six league games, not bad going whatever the opposition, and victory against Liverpool would extend their winning run in all competitions to 10. It was in that spirit that Mourinho urged the Old Trafford crowd to make a bit more noise and contribute to a big-match atmosphere after the EFL Cup win over Hull on Tuesday.
The United manager is not hoping to unsettle his opponents, he knows Liverpool are far too experienced and professional to be intimidated merely by crowd volume, but he believes greater vocal backing could spur his own team to greater efforts. He would not be saying that if he intended to park the bus again. No manager in the world would expect supporters to respond enthusiastically to the solidity of a defensive display. Well, in the outer reaches of a cup competition perhaps, but not in a north-west derby.
Mourinho seems to be indicating that United are ready to go for this one, as they must. Not only are they the home side, they are the team with ground to make up in the league. Thanks to those six successive wins, United would put themselves within two points of Liverpool with victory on Sunday afternoon, and everyone is aware by now that because the present top six is likely to be the top six at the end of the season, any movement within it will be mostly due to results in meetings between top-six sides.
“It is turning out to be an amazing championship,” Mourinho said. “Last season was amazing too, but in a different way. Leicester made history but the top clubs were underperforming. My team was underperforming. Manchester United was underperforming and so was Manchester City. Lots of the top clubs were doing it but this season you have weekends where all the top six are winning. Sometimes not even one drops points. The only way it is going to happen is when two of them play against each other. You need Chelsea v Tottenham for one to lose points, or Chelsea against Arsenal, or us against Liverpool or City. The top teams are really strong at the moment.”
That being the case, it appears every encounter between top-six sides this season will be viewed as a potential title decider. Even this one, now that United have put themselves in a position to stay in touch with the leaders.
Would a win against Liverpool put United back in the title race? Mourinho was not falling for that. “We are in the race to win the next match,” he said, coolly. “There are far too many points still to play for to make predictions. It is too early. But I think we can win against Liverpool, and then our interest would turn to Stoke City. Because it would be a mistake to concentrate solely on the top six. Other teams are also really good. There are many strong teams in this competition.”
Mourinho does not dispute that Liverpool are among the strongest. “They are a very good team, with a good manager,” he said. Because Liverpool have been up to second this season and because Klopp has been in situ that little bit longer than Mourinho, there is a perception that United are still slightly behind in their rebuilding, their visitors closer to the finished article. Sunday’s game is in some ways a test of United’s development. Perhaps, given the keenness of the rivalry, the ultimate test.
Only one thing is certain: United will want to be on the front foot this time, not simply content to stop their opponents as they were at Anfield. “That was necessary because of the limited time I had to work with the players,” Mourinho said. “Now we know each other much better, we have worked out a certain way to play football and we have the confidence of some good results.”
A team with David de Gea in goal and Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front certainly has a right to be confident, although in recent weeks it has been the performance of Paul Pogba in midfield that has caught the eye. It could be argued that the most expensive player in the world is always going to attract attention, whether he plays well, poorly or simply remains anonymous, though in fact of late the 23-year-old has started to look a sound investment, even at the price.
Mourinho particularly likes his eye for a goal and believes that in time he could become as prolific as Frank Lampard. “We have been making slight tactical adjustments to get him into positions where he can be dangerous, so he always has the possibility to try to score,” he explained. “I remember when I first arrived at Chelsea we were playing 4-4-2 in my first games with Frank as the inside player on the left, and it took me a couple of months to fully understand that this guy had so much potential to score goals. I had to change the system for him. I think in this moment Paul is very happy in the way the team allows him to play, and I know he can score goals. I don’t want to set targets for him but I always feel that in every game he is going to have chances to score, without being a goalscorer.”
Liverpool barely saw the real Pogba in October, when United played a disciplined game based on only 35% of possession. On Sunday afternoon, with added confidence and more time on the ball, United and their record signing should amount to a different proposition.
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