Sometimes, football makes fools of us all. After 26 minutes at Molineux, Wolverhampton Wanderers had been comfortably the better side. After 30, they were two goals down to Tottenham. There wasn’t a person in the ground who saw that scoreline in the game’s future.
Spurs had struggled. Mousa Dembele had limped off in the opening minutes, leaving Mauricio Pochettino to hastily reassemble his midfield. Not yet confident in Christian Eriksen’s ability to survive an entire game, Pochettino replaced Dembele with Son Heung Min, loading his side’s forward areas but significantly depleting its middle. Tottenham looked exposed and, for much of that opening half-an-hour, their opponents played with great pace and direction, moving the ball swiftly across the pitch, through and around that porous midfield, and into dangerous positions.
And then Erik Lamela scored. A smart one-two with Son sent the Argentine in alone with Rui Patricio and he pushed a neat finished between the goalkeeper’s legs.
It was shocking. But it was also familiar. Two weeks ago, Wolves had also had the better of their opening exchanges with Watford and yet, just as they did here, they conspired to concede. In that game, one quickly became two, with Roberto Pereyra doubling his side’s lead less than five minutes later. For Pereyra then, read Moura now: the Brazilian found himself on the end of a perfect Kieran Trippier cross and from barely six yards he was never likely to miss, heading across and beyond the exposed Patricio.
Without doing anything particularly well or exerting any sort of authority, Spurs found themselves completely in control of the game by default. As the half progressed, their counter-attacking threat began to fire and by the time the whistle went two goals could well have been three or four.
Most worrying for Nuno Espirito Santo will be the difficulty in diagnosing this defeat and curing what seems to be becoming a common ailment. Spurs were weak here. They were inconvenienced by that early Dembele injury, without three first-team players in Dele Alli, Jan Vertonghen and Eriksen, and in Juan Foyth they were carrying a Premier League debutant at centre-half.
Wolves did everything they could to exploit those weaknesses and, actually, for long periods of both halves they played as well as they have all season. The Watford performance had admittedly disintegrated, with Javi Gracia’s side doing an admirable containment job on Santo’s influential wing-backs. Here, that wasn’t the case. Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves moved the ball very nicely – typically a barometer of overall health – and Matt Doherty and Jonny kept raiding.
The chances didn’t really present themselves, though, and that’s a concern. Wolves create a lot of promising positions and they do often attack in a way that suggests a goal is near, but their ability to carve out proper opportunities – the sort from which they can really expect to score – is becoming a problem. It’s even been visible in some of the games they’ve won, particularly the domination of Burnley in September, when a thoroughly excellent showing full of shots and life yielded just a one-nil win.
This is the age-old Premier League parable: being notionally the better team isn’t enough. That superiority must eventually be translated into openings and goals, or else there will almost always be a sting in the tail.
Wolves don’t lack spirit, though. When Harry Kane made it 0-3, slamming in at the second attempt after good work again from Lamela, the game seemed definitively over. It wasn’t: Trippier was caught over-playing in his own corner, allowing Jimenez to tempt Foyth into a rash tackle. Penalty, Neves made no mistake. Ten minutes later, Jonny escaped down the touchline and, on entering the box, drew another foul from the wilting Foyth. It was slightly less clear cut, but the result was the same – Jimenez converting this time.
The equaliser would never come. Pochettino flung Davinson Sanchez on to the field as an emergency buttress and, albeit with a few nervous moments, Spurs survived. For Wolves, a chastening 0-3 loss became a far more respectable 2-3 and in that comeback lay obvious merit. The players rallied, the crowd were entirely behind them and, by the end, Tottenham were desperate for the whistle.
Really though, it just served to underline the issue: Wolves had been by far the better team and should never have been scrambling for a draw in the first place. And, given how much pressure and territory they enjoyed in those final ten minutes, they really should have found a third goal.
Yes, they had been denied a legitimate goal in the first half by a wrongly-raised flag and, admittedly, Hugo Lloris was called upon to make several very fine saves, but this was still very much superiority squandered. It’s okay to pat lesser sides on the head – Huddersfield perhaps, or Cardiff – but these players are talented, their manager is highly capable, and the continuation of this issue will put their momentum at risk.
What a shame that would be, because there’s so much potential here and this one imperfection is standing in the way.
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