The gap to fifth place is not yet large enough to ignore, but it might soon be if Chelsea continue to stumble. Liverpool and Manchester United are both in far better shape than Antonio Conte’s side. The bookmakers believe that the top-four race has run, and that Tottenham are the only possible casualty anyway.
Yet this still matters. Reasonable Liverpool supporters might not go as far as calling their recent history with Manchester United as a changing of the guard, but there is certainly a sense that they are the Premier League’s feelgood club while Manchester United continue to search for their groove under Jose Mourinho. Liverpool have a chance to record consecutive league finishes above United for the first time since 1991.
Finishing as runners-up to Manchester City is important for United, too. The argument against criticism of Mourinho is that nobody could reasonably have expected to keep up with City’s domestic pace. That might well be true, but Pep Guardiola’s side are now lapping even their closest challengers. Finish in third, and that argument goes out of the window.
So too does the argument about City’s spending. Since the start of last season, Liverpool have made a £34m profit on transfer fees. Manchester United have made a £248m loss. The current gap of two points does not reflect that tremendous spend but finishing behind Klopp really would make Mourinho look more like yesterday’s man. Time to silence the noisy family from down the road, even if the neighbours are still hosting their season-long rave.
Manager To Watch – Jose Mourinho
We will never know quite what impact Mourinho’s tactics at Anfield had on Manchester United’s season, but the evidence is there. Prior to that 0-0 draw, United had scored 21 times in their seven league games, one goal less than Manchester City, who were on the same points. In the next ten games, including the one at Anfield, United dropped 11 league points and scored goals at a rate of 1.6 per game rather than 3.0.
In that game, Mourinho instructed United to sacrifice possession and effectively also abandon their hopes of winning the game. United completed almost 250 passes fewer than Liverpool, had only 37.8% possession and managed just a single shot on target in 90 minutes.
That strategy was viewed by many Manchester United supporters as appropriate given Liverpool’s attacking potential, but it also hinted that Mourinho was scared of Liverpool. Gary Neville speaks about how Alex Ferguson would have never countenanced settling for one point at Anfield when his side could take three and rub their rivals’ noses in their own turf. Like it or not, a handbrake had been applied.
The irony is that now that strategy – or a version of it – might make sense. Liverpool had scored only five times in their four league games before the October fixture, hardly evidence of an attack likely to overpower United. Now they have scored two or more goals in 11 of their last 12 league matches.
And yet at Old Trafford, Mourinho cannot do the same thing. Containing a rival away from home can be sold as pragmatic, but doing so at home will be interpreted as cowardice if it is not successful, even by United supporters. Can Mourinho really risk playing with a deep defence again and hoping that Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah don’t get the better of Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof?
Mourinho’s best option is probably a halfway house solution. He can instruct United to stay resolute, particularly in the first half, but they must play with counter-attacking verve to stop Romelu Lukaku becoming as isolated as he was at Anfield. They have a striker bang in form; it would be foolish not to use him.
Liverpool’s weakest point is their holding midfield and their defence. If that makes attack Manchester United’s best form of defence given the propensity for Liverpool to score at least once, it’s not a strategy that comes naturally to Mourinho.
One-On-One Battle To Watch – Abdoulaye Doucoure Vs Jack Wilshere
One is a midfielder linked with a big-money move to Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool after choosing to embark on a career abroad and excelling in the Premier League. The other is out of contract at Arsenal this summer and could move on a free transfer, desperately trying to fight for relevance with club and country. They were born exactly one year apart.
Wilshere is the elder of the two, but still with the career of a boy footballer. His problem is not just his own physical flaws and the damaging reputation they create, but that younger players than him are now passing him by in the fast lane.
Wilshere has impressed since coming back into Arsenal’s team, but it’s not hard to stand out when surrounded by such incompetence. Players such as Doucoure are now multi-functional: midfielders who have shot, created chances, tackled and intercepted all at a significantly quicker rate than Wilshere. The Arsenal man’s task is to prove that he too can belong in tomorrow, rather than yesterday.
European Game To Watch – Inter Vs Napoli
It has been quite the week for Juventus. Not only did Massimo Allegri’s team qualify for the Champions League quarter-finals at Wembley, but that came on the back of a weekend in Serie A when Juventus finally gained the advantage in the title race. A last-minute victory over Lazio followed Napoli’s home defeat to Roma.
In fact, Napoli are in danger of being subjected to the same catcalls as Tottenham but on a more extreme scale. The quality of their football has been extraordinary this season, and despite last week’s defeat they are on course to reach 97 points. That would be the second highest points total ever in an Italian top-flight season, after Juventus’s 102 in 2013/14. But remember, nobody remembers who came second. Pffft.
The flipside to the positivity is that Napoli were eliminated from the Champions League by Shakhtar Donetsk, the Europa League by RB Leipzig and the Coppa Italia by Atalanta. The only trophy option is to set aside last week’s home defeat, win in the San Siro (where Inter have lost once since May 2017) and get their title challenge back on track.