Tottenham’s win over Wolves at Molineux in December was the heist of the season. It was also in the early days of Jose Mourinho, when inexplicable results came with the suggestion of sleight of hand. Watching back now, on the many, many surges of Adama Traore and the last positive contribution of an ailing Jan Vertonghen, Spurs were just absurdly lucky.
Not that they’ve had much good fortune since. Mourinho added Hugo Lloris to his lengthy injury list before kick-off on Sunday, Erik Lamela was rested and remains unable to train, and Toby Alderweireld paid for recent poor performances with his starting place.
Wolves’ revenge was there for the taking and they duly took it. They recovered from a losing position twice, scored three well-worked goals in the process, and put themselves well in the hunt for Champions League qualification. Unfortunately for Tottenham, though, this wasn’t a day to be magnanimous in defeat; they’re in a terrible muddle.
Initially, there really had been encouraging signs. Mourinho reacted to the damage Traore had caused before Christmas, devising a plan that largely worked. The winger may not quite be back to where he was pre-injury, but his incendiary threat remains real enough – and it was contained manfully by a combination of Japhet Tanganga, on the left of a back-three, and Ben Davies, playing outside him at wing-back.
That’s the Mourinho that Spurs supporters want to hear more from. Less the moaning malcontent, who spends his press conferences spinning hard luck tales; more the pragmatist, the coach who uses what he does have to plot a way forward.
That dynamic was smart: Davies and Tanganga pincered in on Traore and his effect on the game remained largely latent.
Fortunately so, because Mourinho’s defence isn’t built to withstand any sort of examination. It’s one disadvantage for which he definitely is due some sympathy. The constant changes breed chaos and inform performances littered with terrible mistakes and, regrettably, that trend continued at White Hart Lane.
Within that slapstick lies a truth which is close to making this season a write-off. Really, Mourinho is trying to construct something without any foundations, and with a known design flaw. They’re a car with square wheels, a tent without any pegs; an idea which is so compromised as to not require any further testing.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t any good players in this Spurs side. There are – plenty – but none of them inhabit key positions. The consequence of which was shown in this defeat to Wolves, which really became a conflict between what Mourinho’s team could do and what they couldn’t, with all the usual protagonists dutifully playing their part.
It was Giovani Lo Celso’s tight, slick turns versus the midfield’s inability to protect the players behind. It was the flaring runs of Lucas Moura and Steven Bergwijn against their collective inability to retain possession. Give and take, all over the pitch.
It was Dele Alli against himself. The smart, imaginative touches he’s capable of, which were at the heart of Serge Aurier’s fine goal, and the indulgent pauses in his game, which surrender the ball carelessly and kill attacking moves stone dead. They’re one and the same, these yins and yangs, manifestations of something which has different results depending on the scenario.
Defined by those contrasts, Spurs are a team of strange moments – of players doing things they really shouldn’t have to. In the first half, Aurier danced inside his man to curl left-footed (!) inside the far post. In the second, Lo Celso ran 60 yards to make a critical intervention in his own box, whipping a loose ball off the pitch and to safety.
It shows a laudable spirit, also that these players are willing to extend themselves beyond their comfort zones, but it’s not conducive to any sort of rhythm. Nor any order.
It’s the opposite, in fact. It creates this overwhelming sense that catastrophe lurks around every corner. While properly structured teams need to be broken down over time, Mourinho’s Spurs can concede from any situation at any moment. From attacking corners, from phases of possession deep in the opposition half; they’re never safe.
It doesn’t mean that they don’t play well in patches. Tottenham did here, probably offering more of a threat than at any other point during the last month. It just means that those moves don’t result in any sort of momentum. It doesn’t matter how many runs are made or shots are taken, because there’s no way of containing that pressure, storing it up, and then using it any productive way.
Even the goals Spurs scored on Sunday seemed to be random acts of chance, the results of little more than ten seconds of briefly connected play which somehow just fell into place.
But the goals they conceded were descriptive, with each of them betraying a different type of incompetence. A missed clearance here, a missed tackle there. They were all well-taken and nicely constructed, but they faced so little resistance that that hardly seems the point. They weren’t scored against a team, rather a collection of players who only vaguely understand their roles and play as if they’re aware of their own glaring weaknesses.
Mourinho will pretend to think something or other, of course. He’ll profess himself happy with this, delighted with that, and enthused by something that – secretly – reflects well on him. On and on we go.
Whatever, though. The only real conclusion to reach is that nothing about Tottenham will matter until the season ends.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter
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