What Qualifies as Success at Borussia Dortmund?

In a way, in a year of such uncertainty, there is something comforting about seeing an old standard raised: Mourinho has spent much of 2020 actually being quite likable on Instagram, but it is reassuring to know that, deep down, he has not changed. He is still the recidivist fire-starter he always was.

But that does not mean his assertion should be dismissed. Liverpool’s 2-1 win was a reminder that there are many ways to read a game and — this is the bit that is too often forgotten — it is possible that all of them are right.

Mourinho, certainly, had a case: Spurs created four “big chances” — a measure used by Opta, the data provider, to describe occasions when a team might reasonably expect to score more than half the time. Heung-Min Son scored one; Harry Kane and Steven Bergwijn, between them, missed the others. Liverpool, by contrast, created none.

The Expected Goals metric told much the same story: Spurs won that, too. Mourinho’s team went to Anfield with a plan and, bar some erratic finishing — one of those vagaries of soccer that can never be entirely controlled — found that it worked. Mourinho was not playing fast and loose with the facts.

But neither was Klopp when he, predictably, disagreed. Liverpool dominated the ball. It dictated play for long stretches of the game. It had more shots. It had countless more opportunities to have shots.

Expected Goals is a valuable statistic, but at its basic level it does not (and is not designed to) tell the whole story of a game. It does not capture, for example, the ebb and flow of pressure, how the current of possibility shifts between teams. Not every attack ends in a shot, but that does not make all of those attacks worthless in assessing a team’s performance. (There are metrics, like nonshot Expected Goals, that measure this.)

Liverpool won that contest by a country mile. For much of the game, it felt as if Liverpool was the team on the cusp of a breakthrough. Spurs were not hanging on, but nor was their threat constant. So Klopp’s denial was not rooted in fantasy, either. The better team did lose. But also the better team won. It depends how you read it. And neither of those readings is invalid.

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