Managerial fashion is seasonal in soccer. Today’s hot manager could be hopelessly outmoded tomorrow and wearable again the following day.
Jose Mourinho was supposed to be past it. For all his experience, and the unfathomable transfer fees Manchester United has paid out to buoy his squad, the Portuguese provocateur has yet to remake the Red Devils into a true Premier League title contender. And in an age of whizzing attacking soccer, his typically dour tactical approach has felt dated.
Jurgen Klopp remains one of the most fashionable and admired managers in the game. And his work with Liverpool has been impressive. He has painstakingly forged an identity with a club that had burned through so many managers and waves of new signings in search of new success that it felt faceless. Certainly, Klopp has had his own considerable financial backing, but he also improved incumbent players and constructed a scintillating attacking collective.
Saturday’s head-to-head showdown between the archrivals, and the high-profile managers, put second place in the Premier League in the balance. With a win, third-place Liverpool would overtake United. A victory for the home team, however, would consolidate a spot in the top four and next year’s Champions League. Neither squad, of course, poses any danger to champions-elect Manchester City.
Liverpool was perhaps favored slightly on form, having lost just once in its last 20 league games and taking 14 wins in that run, including three straight. United has had a tougher time of it lately, losing two of five and struggling to a 91st-minute winner over Crystal Palace on Monday. But games such as these have a habit of standing alone from the context of recent form and results.
Sure enough, Manchester United claimed a 2-1 victory on a pair of early Marcus Rashford goals, countered by a freaky Eric Bailly own goal.
In the buildup, the latest installment of this old grudge match was billed as a battle of managers.
And they took predictably divergent approaches. The magnetic Klopp gave it the big-game treatment. The preening Mourinho went with the just-another-game dismissal.
They also seemed to underscore their contrasting styles with their lineups. Klopp, of course, went with his full arsenal of attacking firepower in Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane. Mourinho, however, fielded two holding midfielders in Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay and was accused of lacking ambition. To that, you could counter that Mourinho also fielded three strikers in Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Rashford, and two natural wingers as his backs in Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. But pragmatism is in the eye of the beholder.
United took a cautious but direct approach, buttoning up its defense and lumping balls forward at Lukaku. It paid off handsomely. In the 14th minute, Rashford speculated on Lukaku’s flick-on, turned Trent Alexander-Arnold inside out on the dribble, cut it back and smashed his finish past Loris Karius.
Manchester United players celebrate one of Marcus Rashford’s two goals in a 2-1 victory over Liverpool. (Getty)
United immediately sat in and nearly conceded an equalizer from Virgil van Dijk on a corner. But the defender’s open header at the near post from a corner caromed off his shoulder and curved just wide.
Seconds later, Lukaku knocked down a long ball as if his marker Dejan Lovren wasn’t even there. It fell for Juan Mata and eventually made its way to Rashford, who swept it across Karius, with a little deflection off Alexander-Arnold, and into the net.
In the span of 24 minutes, United had put up the sort of score that would allow it to ride out the remainder of the game. Indeed, it very nearly put a fat cherry on top before halftime when Sanchez put Mata in front of Karius all by himself to cap a lovely United attack. The Spaniard opted for a bicycle kick, somewhat fancifully, but shinned it just wide.
Liverpool, a side that has been tearing teams apart with the dribbles of its fleet-footed attackers, found no avenues through the red brick wall Mourinho had erected in his own half. Save for a pair of semi-credible penalty shouts from Liverpool, neither of which were granted, a block of six defensive players gave nothing away at all.
Until it did. The only reason it was ever a game was that Bailly scored a spectacularly unfortunate own goal. He somehow poked the ball past David De Gea with a magnificent flying back-heel flick.
But United withstood Liverpool’s late assault in a furious finale. And as such, United has opened a five-point gap over Liverpool with eight games to play. Liverpool, meanwhile, is at the mercy of Tottenham Hotspur’s result at Bournemouth on Sunday. If the North Londoners take a win, Liverpool will be cast into fourth place and suddenly in peril of dropping out of the top four altogether — should Chelsea find its form following a disastrous recent run.
So Mourinho prevailed over Klopp. Not in the pretty way, or indeed in the fashionable style. But with an efficiency that has stood the test of time.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.