Premier League Playback: In defense of Mourinho’s defensive tactics

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TACTICAL MASTERCLASS

Many will say Liverpool played into Jose Mourinho’s hands on Monday at Anfield but in truth they weren’t flexible enough to adapt and get around a predictably solid Manchester United.

There is perhaps nobody better in world soccer in setting up his team to nullify the threat of the opponents.

[ MORE: 3 things learned ]

Mourinho was up to his old tricks and it worked a treat.

After the game he also dished out plenty of intrigue with suggestions it was instead Liverpool who had set up defensively.

“They are a very good team. You like to say that they are the last wonder of the world in attacking football but they are also a team that defends and thinks defensively,” Mourinho said. “I think the fact that they played [Emre] Can and [Jordan] Henderson together to control the position where Paul [Pogba] should be more in control. We thought they were going to play with only one player there but they played with two.”

As he hunched over and delivered that statement (somewhat unprompted) in the press lounge in the depths of Anfield, Mourinho had a point to prove as he was questioned about United only having 35 percent of the ball. He wanted to try and point out just how worried Liverpool had been about United’s attacking threats.

[ MORE: Mourinho wins tactical battle ]

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp was downbeat post game and had the look of a man who perhaps realized he’d been out-thought. Even though they’re of a similar age, both Klopp and Mourinho represent very different soccer ideologies. Klopp the modern pressing style which yields goals at both ends. Mourinho’s defensive tactics which are deemed archaic by most. But both work, if done properly. That’s the hard bit.

When the team sheet was handed to us in the press room at Anfield, there was first a general surprise at just how defensive United’s lineup was (Ashley Young out wide, Marouane Fellaini in midfield and Daley Blind at left back) and then a realization that, yep, this is what Mourinho does best.

[ VIDEO: Analysis from Anfield ]

He has been lambasted by many for “parking the bus” and although long-term United should look for much more than another mixed display from Paul Pogba in an attacking midfield role, plus more attacking intent throughout their team, Mourinho should be lauded for accepting the limitations of his team and getting them to buy into his game plan.

“We controlled the game tactically. We controlled the game emotionally. It is not easy to do both things. The result is acceptable,” Mourinho said. “We wanted more. For long periods in the game we thought that could be possible but we didn’t score. You don’t score you don’t win. I think it was a very positive performance. We stopped them to play but they also did very well on the defensive point of view.

United knew what they were getting when they hired Mourinho. He is a serial winner. It’s often ugly but he isn’t hankering for style points. He never has.

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Any other team heading to Anfield to face Liverpool at this moment in time and wanting to get something would do the same as Mourinho. Don’t kid yourselves in thinking otherwise. Klopp’s side are the highest scorers in the PL and have ripped teams apart in attack. They’ve beaten Arsenal, Leicester and Chelsea and were very unlucky in a draw at Tottenham.

What else could United do?

Yes, United could’ve attacked more against a Liverpool side missing a key central midfielder in Georginio Wijnaldum and influential playmaker Adam Lallana, but if they’d been ripped open, Mourinho would have had extreme negativity brewing so early in his reign at United.

After losing to Manchester City in Week 4, this was a game United simply couldn’t afford to lose to another bitter rival.

In the next 7 days they have Fenerbache in the Europa League, a trip to Chelsea on Sunday and then a game against Man City in the EFL Cup. If they started that tough run of matches with a defeat at bitter rivals Liverpool then it would’ve created a tough situation for Mourinho and his players.

Instead Mourinho trusted himself and returned to type as his side sat back away from home and soaked up pressure, then waited for a glorious chance to arrive. It did early in the second half but the usually reliable Zlatan Ibrahimovic fluffed his lines as he made a hash of his back-post header. Mourinho seemed to split the game up in to four quarters. His side showed more attacking intent at the start of each half, then sat back, knowing they couldn’t match Liverpool’s intensity for the whole 90 minutes.

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Getting players to be that disciplined is very, very tough to achieve. Especially against such a usually fluid Liverpool attack. If other teams could’ve done this against Liverpool this season they would have. Ander Herrera epitomized United’s defensive prowess. The usually silky, playmaking Spaniard was reduced to being somewhat of a hatchet man in midfield as he snapped into tackles and won the ball back.

It is a role he is relishing because he knows how important it is for Mourinho.

“Ander played well but he was surrounded by people who played well. Fellaini played well. Ashley Young played well. Marcus Rashford played well. We closed the sides so well,” Mourinho told ProSoccerTalk. “Ander was completely on the job on Coutinho. He played very well, recovered a lot of balls, gave always a way to get out of their pressing and was very calm in possession.”

Yes, Manchester United’s fans will want more exciting soccer (that is precisely why Louis Van Gaal was fired last season) but this is all part of the process.

Mourinho will want to make this United team as solid as his teams as FC Porto, Chelsea and then Inter Milan were. Look at all of those teams. They won titles by being good defensively and then delivering more attacking instincts once the philosophy was ingrained within them.

Mourinho’s tactical masterclass at Anfield is up there with his best defensive displays as a manager. He often reverted to type during his first season back at Chelsea with the way he set his team up at Manchester United at the start of the season and then at Liverpool at the end as he thwarted the Reds’ title hopes with a damaging defeat.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

After his last defensive master class at Anfield a disheveled Mourinho (he’d been a victim of a flu for most of the week leading up to the game) roared down the touchline to celebrate with Chelsea’s fans and pound his chest triumphantly. On that day in late April 2014 his understrength side — Chelsea had a UEFA Champions League semifinal against Atletico Madrid either side of the game — held firm under a massive Liverpool bombardment and made the most of a now infamous slip from Steven Gerrard.

Mourinho was not celebrating victory at Anfield on Monday but the moans of discontent which flowed down from the stands from the home fans will have been music to his ears.

This is a man who revels in shutting opponents down when he knows his side should be set up to avoid defeat rather than going for the win. He can do it at will. That’s what should be celebrated.

If anyone was questioning Mourinho’s tactical acumen after a shaky start to this season at United and a shocking start to last season as Chelsea boss, once again he proved just how astute he is.

Call it “anti-football” or overly defensive but it gets results. He proves that time and time again.


POSITIVES FOR BRADLEY ON DEBUT

Dressed all in black, Bob Bradley stood on the sidelines at the Emirates Stadium with his arms crossed as he surveyed the scene.

The first American to ever manage in the Premier League had arrived.

[ MORE: Positive vibes for Swans ]

Even if Bradley has played down that feat in the last few weeks since his landmark appointment at Swansea City, we know this is a big deal for American soccer. Plenty will be hoping Bradley enjoys a positive spell in South Wales to boost the respect levels of American managers and players in Europe.

On the surface there were plenty of positives to take from Swansea’s thrilling 3-2 defeat at Arsenal. Bradley’s side started slowly and were 2-0 down after 33 minutes but they battled back well to make a game of things at 2-1 and then 3-2. When Arsenal went down to 10-men Swansea looked gassed and it was the Gunners who had the better chances to score late on.

Facing an Arsenal side who recorded their sixth-straight win was never the easiest of tasks for Bradley to begin with but the brilliant Modou Barrow (Bradley told ProSoccerTalk we’ve “only scratched the surface” when it comes to his talent) and tricky Gylfi Sigurdsson impressing, plus Jefferson Montero and Fernando Llorente to return, he has plenty to work with in the upcoming fixtures which look a lot more winnable.

It is still early days for Bradley but in true fashion, he’s not getting ahead of himself when ProSoccerTalk asked him about the support from the Swansea fans and how he felt after the game.

“In the short time I’ve been at Swansea I know how special the ‘Jack Army’ is and the connection between those fans and the community. To look into that part of the stadium and see those people, I would expect that they’re not satisfied but maybe, like me, they saw a few things today that makes them say ‘alright, we like what we see,’” Bradley said. “That doesn’t mean that you get ahead of yourselves. The work you do to become a good team, no matter the league, is real. It is hard work and you try to convince the players every day that the reason most teams don’t become good is that they are not capable of real work week in and week out to improve in so many areas. I like this group. It has been really nice to come in and see the response.”


SPURS, MAN CITY SETTLE FOR DRAWS

Heading into their UEFA Champions League games, title chasers Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City will both be suffering from a case of the “what if’s?”

Tottenham and Man City both had to settle for unwanted 1-1 draws this weekend.

Pep Guardiola‘s Man City were in desperate need of a boost after losing to Tottenham before the international break and having two weeks to mull it over. Ahead of their huge Champions League trip to Barcelona on Wednesday, Guardiola didn’t get the win he needed as City has now gone three games without a win in all competitions.

They should’ve beat Everton on Saturday but a combination of dogged defending from the Toffees, bad luck and two tremendous penalty saves from Marteen Stekelenburg did the business as he denied both Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero. City is still working out the kinks but after the game Pep’s old Barca teammate, Ronald Koeman, said that was the best side he has ever managed against. Everton knew they were lucky and Man City were left cursing their luck.

The same can  be said for another title hopeful, Tottenham.

Spurs battered West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, forcing Ben Foster into several impressive saves in the first half and eventually Dele Alli equalized late on to rescue them a point after former midfielder Nacer Chadli scored against them (but didn’t celebrate). Spurs remain the only PL team still unbeaten and with Man City stumbling a little, plus Liverpool, Man United and Arsenal all showing plenty of weaknesses, Mauricio Pochettino won’t be too concerned with points dropped at West Brom, a side which drew 1-1 with Spurs home and away last season too.

Plus, Spurs have Harry Kane back in full training this week as their main goalscoring threat will return fresh for a huge stretch of games in both the PL and UCL in the coming months.


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here