The Newsweek Countdown Match

José Mourinho Marked Liverpool vs. Manchester United With His Own Brand of Beautiful Boredom

In one of his great works, Beauty, the philosopher and academic Roger Scruton attempts to find a path toward the rationalization of aesthetics.

"Beauty comes," Scruton writes, "from setting human life, sex included, at the distance from which it can be viewed without disgust or prurience. When distance is lost, and imagination swallowed up in fantasy, then beauty may remain, but it is a spoiled beauty, one that has been prised from the individuality of the person who possesses it. It has lost its value and gained a price."

If there is beauty in soccer—and there often is—then it must often be of the spoiled kind, at least according to Scruton’s argument. On Saturday at Anfield, Liverpool, distance was impossible to achieve. Manchester United were in town for a fixture steeped in the kind of history British football provides with assurance: passionate, angry, bitter, often ironic, and sometimes straying into tastelessness and hurtfulness, too.

For anyone except a neutral—that is to say, every Liverpool and Manchester United fan—objectivity is unintelligible when your two cities lie a tick over 34 miles apart, when you are engaged in this Sisyphean battle over who is English football’s grandest club, now and in the past.

But even for neutrals, this fixture has begun to resemble beauty spoiled. That’s not all José Mourinho’s fault, of course. Long before Mourinho brought his particular kind of smoldering genius to Old Trafford in the summer of 2016, Liverpool versus Manchester United—and vice-versa—was characterized by caution. To not lose is to retain the theory, at least, that you are English football’s grandest club, at least for now.

Still, Mourinho may be accused (not entirely negatively, depending on your conception of how football should be played and even how beauty should be displayed) of taking this idea to its extreme. His United team has approached something lovely often in the early stages of this season, at once polished and muscular, sleek and rugged. And heavy with goals, too: 21 of them in seven league games before this one. In the biggest games, though, Mourinho likes not to lose.

“One thing is an entertaining game for fans, another thing is entertaining game for the people who read football in a different way. That’s different,” Mourinho said after the game. “For me, the second half was a game of chess, but my opponent didn’t open the door for me to win the game.” Liverpool dominated possession and chances, though. They outshot United 19-6 and would have won but for the goalkeeper David De Gea, which sounds like a backhanded compliment—what team wouldn’t win if the opposition had no goalkeeper? In this case, though, De Gea was especially brilliant, particularly in denying Joel Matip in the first half.

For all that, though, United could have won had Romelu Lukaku not spurned a first-half chance of his own. They remain unbeaten in the league, still seven points ahead of Liverpool but now two behind Manchester City. Viewed from a distance, City’s performance against Stoke City on Saturday—a 7-2 obliteration—was beautiful, how football should be played by everyone in an ideal world that actually sounds more than a little homogeneous and boring. Perhaps Mourinho and United teach us that football, unlike art, shouldn’t be viewed through a long-focus lens.

Player of the Match: David De Gea.

Match rating: 6/10.

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