Manchester United were one of only two Premier League teams to prevent Mo Salah from scoring last season. With Jose Mourinho’s defensive credentials under rare scrutiny, he knows stopping his former player is key to pulling off an upset against unbeaten and high-flying Liverpool.
Traditionally, Mourinho is one of the game’s most respected organisers but United have conceded 26 goals in 16 games this season, more than Brighton in the bottom half of the table. Their back-four has blundered frequently and team selection conducted through a revolving door.
Even the excellent David de Gea has caught the wobbles and to make matters worse Salah is lying in wait at Anfield on Sunday, red-hot again after a hat-trick last weekend and Champions League winner against Napoli on Tuesday night.
Mourinho infamously managed the Egyptian superstar for a brief time at Chelsea and twice sent him on loan to Fiorentina and Roma in 2015.
The 26-year-old’s progress since then has been remarkable and Mourinho says he can’t pass on much inside information about Salah to his current defenders based on their days together at Stamford Bridge.
‘The Salah I knew at Chelsea was a project player. Now he is one of the best in the world,’ says Mourinho. ‘He has developed incredibly well since then on every level. He was a fast fragile boy and how he is a fast strong man. Physically amazing.
‘He was not pyschologically adapted to the Premier League when he came from a small club in Switzerland (Basel) to a big club in England.
‘I played him at White Hart Lane and The Eithad and it was too much for him. Now he plays anywhere, Barcelona, Madrid, and he’s like “I am Mo Salah and I am afraid of nobody.”
‘Liverpool have many strengths but he is a nuclear strength.’
Mourinho’s defence was functioning well when he got a goalless draw at Anfield in October last season. Ashley Young stayed tight to Salah in the return at Old Trafford and kept him quiet as United won 2-1.
United let in only 28 goals in the whole of 2017-18 but that was then, this is now.
Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw are injured, while Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling, Antonio Valencia and Phil Jones have all fallen out of favour with Mourinho at different times this season. Jones arrives at Anfield on the back of an own goal against Valencia on Wednesday.
Unsure of his personnel, Mourinho is fretting about how to stop Salah. He won’t care about criticism that he parked the bus at Anfield last season but knows Jurgen Klopp has based his team around the Egyptian Messi to an even greater extent since then.
‘It’s a completely different dynamic now. Last year, they had Philippe Coutinho playing as a fake left-sided player, coming inside to play between the lines.
‘Now Salah sometimes plays from the right, at other times he plays as the striker with (Robert) Firmino dropping behind him. They have so many possibilities to get the best out of Salah.
‘We analyse our opponents, their strengths and weaknesses, in every game and when you go to Liverpool you have to speak and think about Salah. Of course we do. We have to think of the best way to cope with a fantastic player like him and at least try to give him a difficult match.’
Mourinho has always built his greatest teams from the back. He’s always loved characters like John Terry and Sergio Ramos; captains, leaders and advocates of ‘Thou Shalt Not Pass.’
There is no similar character at United. Antonio Valencia is the official United skipper but rarely used by his manager this season amidst reports of tension between them.
Mourinho has made it clear he wants the club to invest quickly in a strong centre-half with Kalidou Koulibaly, Harry Maguire and Toby Alderweireld all targeted. But the manager claims to be in the dark over any potential transfer activity in January.
‘I don’t know if we are going to have new players, I would like to, but I don’t know if it is possible or not,’ he says.
‘It depends on the club and I don’t know. Honestly, I’m focused on my job of playing Liverpool, and Cardiff after that.’