Are Manchester United Fans OK with Parking the Bus Away from Home?

Paul Ansorge@@utdrantcastFeatured ColumnistOctober 18, 2017

Mourinho on the touchline at Anfield.
Mourinho on the touchline at Anfield.Rui Vieira/Associated Press

Saturday was really disappointing. This, specifically, is meant from a Manchester United fan's point of view. The Red Devils had won all bar one league game before their trip to Anfield, whereas Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool were something of a spluttering mess—relatively replete with attacking threat but defensively all over the shop.

It was also, presumably, disappointing for Liverpool's supporters given their side fluffed their lines in front of goal, meaning they dispatched none of the high-quality chances their team created.

Finally, it was disappointing to anyone who had fallen for the Sky Sports hype machine and tuned in to watch a big game, full of entertainment for the neutrals. They probably should have known better, but still.

It has inspired a good deal of discussion, of course, as anything involving United tends to do.

Before we address the question in the headline, it is worth noting that plenty of United fans have questioned the fundamental premise that Jose Mourinho "parked the bus" at Anfield.

The team selection and tactics were not full public transport, at least. It was ostensibly a 4-2-3-1. The vaguely bus-ish parts of the plan were the presence of Matteo Darmian at left-back—where an actual bus might be more useful in an attacking capacity—and Ashley Young's deployment at right wing. Young has almost exclusively been used as a full-back in the past couple of seasons, and seeing him trying to rekindle the old attacking magic made it pretty clear why.

The results of this poll are telling. Obviously it is not scientific, but generally, those voting will be United fans or people prepared to follow a United-centric account on Twitter. A significant minority disagreed with the notion that United "parked the bus" at Anfield, blaming poor player performances for United's lack of attacking intent.

The split between the two groups who were prepared to concede that United predominantly set out to spoil is interesting. Of those who believed United parked the bus, a sizeable majority were annoyed by that as a tactic.

So what do United fans make of all this? After all, it is hardly a one-off. Mourinho's lack of ambition in big games in the league last season was bordering on the ridiculous, though there is some slight mitigation in the fact that away trips to Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal came after he had essentially given up on the league. But even with that in mind, the general tone of United's approach in the big games, particularly away from home, has been predominantly negative during his tenure.

The response to a more general question, "Do you care if United regularly play defensively in 'big games?'," drew a wide range of responses.

A couple of notable answers suggested the specifics around the Liverpool game made it something of an anomaly in terms of big games.

And there is something to that. With both Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini out, Mourinho might have felt his midfield options were limited. The game came immediately off the back of an international break—though that was the same for Liverpool. Then there is the general sense that however badly Liverpool are playing, they will always get up for games against United. That might be true as a general rule but was not really the case on Saturday.

Plus the flipside to all this mitigation is that Liverpool have performed well below United's level so far this season that they should have hardly even represented a proper "big team" threat.

There was a subset of responses that addressed this issue—broadly speaking, this was a group who were happy enough to tolerate a really defensive performance in some of the big games but not all of them. So, away at Manchester City, it would make sense to act as spoilers to the sumptuous football Pep Guardiola currently has his team playing. But Liverpool in their current state or, say, a trip to the Emirates to face Arsene Wenger's Arsenal should not qualify.

There were, of course, plenty of respondents—perhaps even a majority—who said the style of play simply did not matter to them, as long as United nicked enough wins along the way to eventually win the league. Of course, if United do win the league, there will not be too many people complaining. But for many of those objecting to the style, there is a presumption it will cost United points rather than help them gain ground.

This argument seems a little limited, in truth. While it is fair to say the tone of the conversation would be different had Romelu Lukaku taken his chance, Liverpool were the side who created by some margin the better chances. What if David De Gea had not made a wonder save? What if Emre Can had not blazed a gilt-edged chance over the bar?

According to the Expected Goals metric of analyst Michael Caley—an attempt to measure the quality of chances created by either team—a 2-0 win for Liverpool would have been an entirely fair result based on the pattern of play.

This is a key reason many object to the style of play. As pointed out, two wins and three losses is better than five draws—though this is slightly complicated by the effect it has on other teams' points totals. There is a reason football changed to three points for a win, and it was to de-incentivise draws.

A number of people mentioned that they were happy for a broadly defensive outlook to be used on occasion, so long as it did not represent a complete lack of ambition. Plenty of people also mentioned they were OK with it away but seeing it at home would hurt more.

But there are those who object purely on principle.

These are attractive arguments. Football is meant to be enjoyed, and though there are those who would argue all that matters is the result, in truth if that were the case, why would anyone watch the actual games?

Clearly, United fans are divided on the topic. That is no surprise. Before Mourinho's appointment, it was always clear there was going to be a degree of cultural mismatch between his standard methodology and some United fans' perception of their club.

In the end, no one will be complaining if they win the league, but if they do not, performances like the one they put in on Saturday will continue to draw a good degree of ire from some circles.