Man United, Jose Mourinho must stop being so cautious in big games
LIVERPOOL, England -- Jose Mourinho knows all about winning Premier League titles. The Manchester United manager won three with Chelsea, so he certainly does not need to be told that some points are better than others and that a title cannot be won by playing champagne football every week.
That has never been Mourinho's way. It has always been a case of getting the job done as efficiently, and quickly as possible and after United's second successive 0-0 draw against Liverpool at Anfield, he will have headed back to Manchester regarding the point earned as one gained rather than two dropped.
In any title-winning season, emerging unbeaten from trips to Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester City is generally a good indicator of a team's ability to end the campaign as champions. But as Pep Guardiola's City raise the bar this season with their attacking football -- arguably the most devastating seen in the Premier League since Arsene Wenger's Invincibles won the title in 2003-04 -- will ground-out draws at the likes of Anfield and the Etihad ultimately be enough?
If Mourinho is to guide United to their first league title since 2012-13, does he now need to evolve his game plan for the biggest games and set out his team to be more ambitious?
Last season's 0-0 draw at Anfield, as desperately dull as it was, carried a different meaning for United because back then, Mourinho had just begun to impose his blueprint on the club and stopping Liverpool scoring at that point was an achievement in itself. But United are a different team with different objectives 12 months on, and this trip to Anfield was an opportunity for them to cut loose and ruthlessly dispatch a Liverpool team that is short on confidence and without its best attacking player in Sadio Mane.
But at the end of another uneventful 90 minutes at Anfield, United and Mourinho emerged with the same result as a year ago, one that exposed their limitations rather than highlighted their strengths and suggested that they are not yet ready to break down strong opponents.
Nonetheless, Mourinho was unrepentant after the game, refusing to accept that his safety-first approach had been unambitious.
"I thought they [Liverpool] were afraid of our counterattack," Mourinho said. "I just tried to improve in attacking areas where I could surprise them, but they kept a strong organisation in midfield.
"I was waiting for him [Klopp] to break it a bit more, but he didn't let it break. I waited for Jurgen to make a change, go more attacking, but he kept with the three strong central midfielders.
"The second half was a bit of chess, but the opponent didn't open the door for me to win the game. Still, a point in this long marathon? A point at Anfield is OK."
Aside from a first-half Romelu Lukaku effort that was saved by goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, United didn't muster a single effort on target, and they barely threatened at all in the second half, prompting Klopp to suggest that Mourinho's team got exactly what they wanted when they arrived at Anfield.
"Manchester United came here for a point and got it," Klopp said. "For sure, you could not play this way at Liverpool, but it's OK for Manchester United."
Mourinho was in no mood to debate Klopp's assertion -- "I haven't come up to talk about what Jurgen says," he said -- but only time will tell whether the United manager's approach is outdated caution or sensible pragmatism amid a long title race.
This was the first real test of United's title ambitions after a start to the season that has seen them face the Premier League's also-rans. And with Liverpool unable to count on the injured Mane, their lack of confidence on the back of one win in seven games before this fixture suggested that United would go in for the kill. It was not the case, though, and Mourinho's team did what Mourinho's teams do: they denied their opponent and emerged with something.
At the end of the season, this point may be the one that wins United the title, but the two points they could have picked up may ultimately be the difference between finishing first and finishing second.
Perhaps the Manchester derby against City at Old Trafford in December will give us truer indication of the strength and ambition of Mourinho's team.
Will, or can, Mourinho risk the safety-first approach at home against United's neighbours, or will he have to show his hand and give his players the licence to attack? Maybe he'll continue to play with the hand-brake on in these games because he did not get the reinforcements he needed in the summer. United still lack an out-and-out winger, which is why Ashley Young has returned to the fold, and it is no secret that Mourinho was desperate to add Inter Milan's left-sided Ivan Perisic to his squad this summer. But United are still a formidable force with the options they have available, and at some point Mourinho will have to unleash them.
The injury-enforced absences of Paul Pogba, Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick did not help him at Anfield, but sooner or later, he will have a full hand to choose from, and if Mourinho and United are to beat City to the title, he will have to play it.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_