“The best team lost,” said Jose Mourinho. The more mischievous might be tempted to remark that normally Mourinho prefers it that way; that his gameplan is to ensure the better team is beaten. It depends upon the definition of best.
Tottenham had 24 per cent of possession at Anfield on Wednesday. A decade ago, Mourinho's 10-man Inter Milan prevailed in a Champions League semi-final against Barcelona with 24 per cent; it was a defensive masterclass, albeit from a side with a first-leg lead. Six years ago, Mourinho's Chelsea derailed Liverpool's title challenge at Anfield by winning with just 27 per cent.
Mourinho has rarely been interested in moral victories, but he had one of sorts. Tottenham registered a higher expected goals than Liverpool, 1.52 to 1.22. "The moment the post denied us the victory we deserved," wrote Mourinho on Instagram, captioning a picture of himself looking sullen.
That Steven Bergwijn missed two golden chances and Harry Kane one – the usually less prolific, Roberto Firmino scored an altogether harder header from a corner – contributed.
Tottenham were less efficient than the classic Mourinho teams. But the ultimate pragmatist has rarely consoled himself by referencing the calibre of chances created. Tottenham had ‘lost’ their four previous games on expected goals while amassing eight points; there were few complaints about injustice from Mourinho.
Instead, the biggest game of the season underlined the battle of ideas at the division’s summit. Manchester City and Liverpool are scarcely duplicate teams, with Pep Guardiola placing more of an emphasis on possession and Jurgen Klopp on passing, but there is more commonality of thought.
City could have the ball for two-thirds of games. Liverpool had it for 59.6 per cent of matches last season. Tottenham have spent more time without it than with it this season, a 48.9 percent share putting them 12th. It demands a different approach.
When the final whistle blew at Anfield, Eric Dier had made the most clearances in the division this season. That table tends to be topped by Burnley defenders or, before he left Brighton, Shane Duffy. Serge Aurier averages the most tackles per game, Toby Alderweireld the second most blocks.
While Mourinho is trying to take Klopp’s crown, Tottenham’s defenders are posing a threat to James Tarkowski’s usual, but unofficial, distinctions. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, meanwhile, produced one of the season’s more cynical acts by grabbing Firmino’s shirt; he accepted the resulting booking uncomplainingly.
Liverpool v Tottenham player ratings
Mourinho’s critics could deem Tottenham’s defeat a victory for football. The Portuguese’s status as a bad loser, which prompted impish comparisons to Donald Trump, reflected the reality he could have won, that a man widely dismissed as yesterday’s manager might have topped the table today.
He borrowed from his past. Bergwijn's two shots showed he was reviving the gameplan that brought his Manchester United victory against Klopp's Liverpool: using a quick right-footer to get inside Trent Alexander-Arnold brought back memories of Marcus Rashford, who scored a brace that 2018 day.
His methods may not please, but there was evidence of the analytical brain he has used to forensically dissect opponents. Recalling Giovani Lo Celso brought back the passer who opened up Liverpool with the pass for Son Heung-min's equaliser. Switching to 4-4-1-1 meant Moussa Sissoko moved to the right to use his formidable engine against the overlapping Andrew Robertson.
For Mourinho, righteousness comes not from beauty but from duty. Tottenham showed determination and concentration (until, fatefully, they let Firmino free in the box). A safety-first strategy was working. They had the efficiency to turn their limited time on the ball into four clear opportunities.
Despite what Mourinho thought, the “best team won,” as Alexander-Arnold responded on Instagram. But, within Mourinho’s parameters, Spurs might yet prove to be the best over the season.