“Fantastic performance,” said Jose Mourinho. “Amazing goal.” The first part was serious, the second said with a smile.
Victory allowed him the levity of the light-hearted. He was discussing Eric Bailly, whose first start in almost four months saw the Ivorian produce a near-imperious display. Nearly, because he contrived to score for Liverpool in remarkable fashion, applying a backheel flick to Sadio Mane’s cross.
It mattered not. United’s first-half display was crowned by two goals from Marcus Rashford. Mourinho, faulted for his big-game record at United, has beaten Chelsea and Liverpool in successive games at Old Trafford.
If he perhaps claimed too much of the credit for beating Antonio Conte’s team, his imprint was apparent in just the second time he tasted victory over Jurgen Klopp.
There is an argument that the German represents the future and the Portuguese the past. This was an occasion to rebut it, a day when Mourinho allied his innate pragmatism with the adventure to field four forwards.
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It ended in a classic Mourinho rearguard action, the Portuguese savouring Marouane Fellaini’s presence as an impact substitute designed to protect a lead.
His team dropped deep – “it was not our intention to be as defensive as we were,” Mourinho said – but, Bailly’s aberration apart, defended well. Ashley Young kept Mohamed Salah quieter than many a specialist left-back has done. The Egyptian scored against the rest of the top six; not against United.
Mourinho’s side prevailed with 32 per cent of possession. "You can be in control without having the ball, you can be in trouble when you have the ball," he said. Liverpool’s pressure did not produce enough chances.
United’s did. “In the situations around the two goals, it was not like it should be,” lamented Klopp. In contrast, Mourinho savoured the effectiveness of his gameplan. He targeted Dejan Lovren in an aerial attack that bypassed Virgil van Dijk. He deployed Romelu Lukaku to devastating effect.
“Lukaku was confident from experience that could be dominant towards Lovren,” Mourinho said. “His performance was fantastic and he didn’t score.”
It has been a mantra of Mourinho’s that he does not judge Lukaku by his goal return. Specialist scorer turned selfless foil, looking an old-fashioned target man as he won duel after duel. “You can’t lose a header with Lukaku,” Klopp said. Lovren lost two, at considerable cost.
Mourinho has a realist’s willing to play to strengths. United had an unashamed, effective directness. Both United goals stemmed from David de Gea’s goal kicks. Each showed Lukaku had the better of Lovren in the air.
The opener was a vignette of Rashford’s abilities: the pace to sprint on to Lukaku’s flick on, the skill to dart away from Trent Alexander-Arnold, the shot arrowed and angled beyond Loris Karius. The second showed certain similarities, though Rashford’s predatory instincts were stirred when Lukaku fed Juan Mata, Virgil van Dijk intercepted and the ball bounced free.
United’s initial superiority was almost encapsulated spectacularly. Alexis Sanchez dinked a cross, Juan Mata attempted an overhead kick and just missed the target. “A third, Mata goal would be amazing and fantastic,” Mourinho said.
Instead, Liverpool fought back. Klopp claimed a penalty for Fellaini’s challenge on Mane.
Fortune, he felt, did not favour his side. “It is all about the result and we lost,” said the German bluntly. “Perfect result,” Mourinho countered. “Perfect performance, I would not go that far.”
But a top-four finish is all but secured. United have a cushion in second. Mourinho could afford to joke about own goals.