United's first test raises questions over title credentials
By Simon Evans
LIVERPOOL, England (Reuters) - It was billed as the first test of Manchester United's Premier League title credentials but the tactics employed by manager Jose Mourinho in the 0-0 draw at Liverpool on Saturday raised questions about their capacity to challenge this season.
The fixtures computer had been kind to United, providing them with modest opposition for their opening seven games and Mourinho's side took advantage with 21 goals and six wins along with plenty of entertaining football.
But in their first challenge against one of the 'big six', United went into their shell - clearly under instructions to not allow Liverpool space and to limit their own forward movement.
The tactician could appreciate Mourinho's gameplan, especially given he was without Paul Pogba, Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick as midfield options.
Choosing Ashley Young over Juan Mata on the right flank also made sense given the Englishman's greater reliability than the Spaniard at working back and covering defensive responsibilities but it was still a decision made for reasons of caution.
Yet even with such a lineup, and taking into account the need to limit space for Liverpool's talented Brazilian midfielder Philippe Coutinho, there was surely room for a little more adventure from Mourinho.
United striker Romelu Lukaku, whose poor scoring record against the big six had been highlighted in the build-up, can hardly be criticised for his display in a game where he was left isolated in attack.
Anthony Martial made little impact on the left flank, but he too had little support from full back Matteo Darmian.
Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera operated as defensive central midfielders but, without the energy and enterprise of the injured Pogba ahead of them, United created little from the middle of the park.
Mourinho did make the positive move of bringing on Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard to inject pace into his side but the United boss appeared willing to wait to see if his counterpart, German Juergen Klopp, would roll the dice in the final stages.
"I was waiting for Juergen to change and go more attacking but he kept the three strong midfielders at all times," said Mourinho.
"When I brought on Lingard and Rashford I was waiting for him to give me more space to counter but he didnâ€™t give me," he added.
A fair and accurate analysis from Mourinho but is that the approach of champions in search of three points? It is certainly hard to imagine Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola letting his opponents dictate terms in such a fashion.
And it is City who are, for the moment, United's main target. A team which sets out to win every game, looks to impose themselves on their opponents and control the tempo and rhythm.
Perhaps it was too difficult for United to attempt such an approach at Anfield, but that does suggest they may not be ready to collect the necessary points away at the other top sides.
Next month, Mourinho's side visit Chelsea and in December they are at Arsenal and host City at Old Trafford.
If United are to get close to a 21st league title they will need to do more than frustrate their opponents in those games.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Ken Ferris)