”Just another match” according to the manager. In truth, there are many home truths about Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off at Anfield that reason out the manager’s stance to treat British football’s biggest fixture like any other game. For starters, and perhaps most crucially, it’ just three points up for grabs! Winning the game or losing it doesn’t cost you or earn you any more points than you would earn or lose in an ordinary premier league fixture. As a consequence it is also true that the manager cannot afford to be seen by his players to prioritize one league game over another. All that is a given.
But will also not be lost on the manager that the symbolism attached to Saturday’s derby transcends that of most fixtures the club will play this season. Indeed, victory will in itself be a statement of intent having had to deal with doubts about the club’s ambition because of a kind fixture list. Put another way, the club can feed off the context in which this game has been built-up to make significant strides in confidence for the challenges ahead.
The most intriguing aspect about the derby is almost certainly going to be how United line-up. Jose Mourinho is not known for approaching games of this magnitude without a touch of conservatism. Yet Liverpool are a conundrum unto themselves! They can be exhilarating in attack but cannot keep a clean sheet if their life depended on it. In effect, surrendering the initiative to them is also allowing them a chance to exploit their strength. Even so, and for all their attacking exploits, we’ve still outscored the Scousers so far this term and can hold a candle to a claim for having one of the better defences in the league.
Granted, Liverpool always raise their game when we’re in town but United will march onto the Anfield turf in the not so familiar position of being favourites, albeit marginally. This is what is making Jose Mourinho’s plan difficult to second guess. For when we were not favourites in this fixture last season at about the same stage, it was easy to predict that the manager would instruct his players to sit back and soak up the pressure to kill it as a spectacle.
Yet United have been anything but conservative this season so far. That the club’s median scoreline for the campaign so far is 4-0 is evidence sufficient. To put the shackles on against a side that could easily struggle to deal with the firepower United possess at the moment would border on managerial negligence.
All factors considered therefore, it is safe to assume that we’ll see a bit of both on Saturday. Contrary to popular belief, pragmatism is in not necessarily using crude methods to achieve a target but fundamentally using the best practical methods to arrive at a desired goal. To borrow a word from an era gone by, this is what Jose’s philosophy is all about. Winning 4-0 at home against Crystal Palace is every bit as pragmatic as winning 0-1 at Southampton. Either circumstances demanded a different approach at arriving at the same goal–to win!
We can therefore deduce that Jose Mourinho is not going to Anfield and leave his team vulnerable to Liverpool’s fast paced start that has often blitzed the best of teams in the league. We also know that United’s organisation and personnel will win them periods of the game with possession and allow them to pin Liverpool back. When the game settles in a deuce, the manager will be confident that our back six can deal with their front four whilst the same cannot be said of their defence against our front four. This is where the manager will expect the balance to shift.
Injuries have accounted for a less than full strength team on both sides, but it is rarely about personnel when it comes to derbies. Fans will expect the players to exhibit the passion and controlled aggression that will be simmering on the terraces. United’s start to the season means that they have nothing to fear about going to Anfield. Jose Mourinho himself has such a tremendous record (just the one defeat all career) at the home of the old enemy that he will be confident of extending it.
If this is the first major question United are being asked this season, it demands the first major answer.