Can a leopard change its stripes? Can a tiger change its spots? Can Mourinho have a plan B in big away matches?
Ever since he burst on the scene, announcing himself as “the special one”, Mourinho has used a defense first tactic against teams he perceives as his equal. And last night, against a Liverpool side who have already beaten Arsenal, Leicester, and Chelsea this season, Mourinho did what Mourinho does and had his team shut up shop.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
As a fan of the game, I would prefer to see an open, end-to-end football match, an 8 goal thriller, each goal the product of a moment of brilliance from a previously unknown player. But logically, I know that’s highly unlikely. And so does Mourinho. That’s why he deploys this tactic.
The logic is simple. Mourinho has an expensive team of top level athletes. He knows that those players can virtually guarantee a draw if they stay organized and focused for the full 90 minutes. He also knows that they are good enough that they could win the game off one or two chances. And he knows that if things go wrong he has players on the bench he can call upon to change the game. So, he has his team play a simple game and forces his opponent to break him down. This tactic has a name, coined by Mourinho himself, “parking the bus.”
The question isn’t what Mourinho is going to do it’s when will a manager comprehensively beat his approach? He will lose a few one-off games but I mean comprehensively defeat this bus parking and expose the flaws in the tactic.
It isn’t as much a tactic as it’s just a fact of life. When you have 11 of the best people in their field you can usually guarantee that they will be capable of producing a mediocre result. It’s not how brilliant people want to live their lives and eventually his teams revolt against him but before they grow tired of his bus parking, this tactic produces results. Mourinho has won in every league he has ever managed and won multiple titles in England. This tactic has even been deployed by Leicester City to win the League last season, though they used a variant and that difference is important.
Leicester City played defense first but they didn’t look to nullify the opposition in the way that Mourinho did against Liverpool last night. Leicester also deployed Mahrez and Vardy as part of a lightning fast counter attacking unit which simply overran most opposition defenses.
Against Liverpool, Mourinho didn’t have the players available to play that speedy counter attacking system. He did play Rashford, the young whippet-like Englishman, on the right but with Mkhitaryan, the counter attacking genius signed from Borussia Dortmund this summer, still recovering from injury and with Wayne Rooney well past his sell by date, Manchester United simply didn’t have the players to play a run and gun system. So, Mourinho played his biggest lineup, preferring to go for power instead of pace.
Mourinho played Pogba in the #10 role instead of the diminutive Juan Mata and backed him with the hard-working Ander Herrera and his snarling Belgian Malinois Marouane Fellaini. Up front, Mou had Zlatan who will win nearly every header, can create for Rashford or Pogba, and is a goal threat off any free kicks, corners, or crosses.
Liverpool this season have become known for their work rate and the speed of their counters. They are also a pressing team and try to take the ball away from the opposition high up the pitch. When they come up against a team like Arsenal, who like to build from the back, they press those builders and try to take the ball away from them. This doesn’t mean Liverpool don’t want possession, it means they win back possession often and frustrate their opposition in attack.
Mourinho deployed a variant of the Liverpool press against them. He actually had Pogba and Zlatan, not pressing and tackling, but instead stifling space and not allowing Liverpool to build their attack. The result was nearly perfect in that it didn’t allow Liverpool to get the ball in to their danger men in dangerous areas.
That said, the Mourinho system requires that his players all put in a 90 minute shift of tirelessly running after the ball and controlling space with their movement. It also requires his men to be perfect and mistake free.
Twice Liverpool found cracks in the Mourinho wall. Once when Emre Can accidentally dribbled in the United 18 yard box and got a free shot off, that shot was saved brilliantly by David de Gea. And then once when Coutinho found a yard of space and nearly curled home a brilliant shot from outside the box. Again de Gea came to the rescue.
In attack Paul Pogba looked like a very poor return on United’s investment. United supporters may not like to hear it but when your club buys the most expensive player in English history that fact is going to be mentioned in every match report. Pogba looked powerful and fast but like a classic Ferrari lacks the amenities one expects with a huge price tag. His touch was poor. His control was mediocre. His passing was loose. And it seemed like whenever he got the ball in attack the game grinded to a halt or resulted in a turnover. And yet, it was his cross which found the head of Zlatan and should have won them the game.
That last bit is entirely Mourinho’s game plan. Play defense for 90 minutes and maybe get a winner off a single moment of brilliance. If he gets the winner, he’s hailed as a genius, if he doesn’t get the winner he’s decried as boring. But Mourinho won’t care either way. All he wants is that point.