Spurs threw away a 3-1 lead with 15 minutes to go against Southampton because of course they did. There is no point in Antonio Conte seeing out this season.
With 16 minutes remaining at St Mary’s, Ivan Perisic’s first Spurs goal had put them 3-1 up and heading into the international break in a slightly misleading yet still undeniably real third place.
Twenty minutes later, Spurs are instead an entirely misleading and only temporarily real fourth in the table with their Champions League hopes in ruins.
Let’s be real, Spurs hadn’t played well to go 3-1 up. They haven’t really done ‘playing well’ all season. That’s not what this top-four challenge has been built on. It’s only slightly reductive to say it’s been built entirely on the surprising rubbishness of Liverpool and Chelsea and the unsurprising greatness of Harry Kane, who has somehow managed to turn the base metal of Tottenham’s prosaic football and non-existent attacking ambition into the gold of 21 Premier League goals.
As an achievement, it utterly dwarfs Erling Haaland’s more overtly impressive numbers at the Etihad.
Because Spurs really are an awful spectacle. Their football now is somehow even more bereft of joy and ambition than it was by the end under Mourinho, the plan less clear than it was under Nuno, and the tactical instruction at a level of non-existence not seen since Tim Sherwood and his gilet. Spurs have had every type of bad or unsuitable manager imaginable over recent years, and it should be (but won’t be) to Antonio Conte’s shame that in its end days his Spurs side has come to resemble none quite so thoroughly as it does Sherwood’s directionless, planless, hope-for-the-best shambles.
Conte will presumably ask how he can be expected to compete with Southampton (or Sheffield United, or Wolves, or Leicester City or…) because he’s been gaslighting this entire club and its fanbase since he got here. He still thinks he’s doing them a favour by being here and serving up this unremitting shod.
It’s no great surprise that they are as bad as they now are: when the only prize still on offer concerns where they will play their football next season, why should a manager who doesn’t care for the club and knows he won’t be here particularly give a sh*t? It’s been clear for weeks that he wants to be sacked and walk away with the payoff. Galling as it will be for Daniel Levy, he has to now give Conte what he wants. His team may look like Sherwood’s, but Conte is now at the point Mourinho reached where his mere presence is becoming toxic. Spurs’ relatively decent run a few weeks ago coincided with Conte’s absence and increasingly that appears like it was no coincidence.
Conte and Spurs may point with some justification to the softness of the injury-time penalty that ultimately cost them victory. But that is smoke and mirrors. It distracts and deflects; it’s true that on another day Spurs may have got away with this performance, but that wouldn’t have made the performance satisfactory and nor would it have made it a one-off.
This game fell into Spurs’ lap, but there are few clubs more adept at receiving a horse as a thoughtful and kind present and having a quizzical look at its gnashers before deciding they don’t much care for it. Southampton’s central-defensive pairing were both forced off injured in the first half, the ensuing confusion a significant factor in the acres of space Pedro Porro found himself given in first-half injury time to rattle home the opening goal.
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That should really have been that. Southampton came into this game with only 11 home goals all season and had shown nothing to suggest they had any clue how to add to that total here. Of course, against Spurs, you don’t always need much of a clue. You just need to be there. After some words of wisdom from Conte, Spurs emerged for the second half in a bewildered daze with Cristian Romero, a man who always dives in when it’s absolutely unnecessary and quite often just stands still when direct intervention is rather more required, allowing Che Adams to steal in and grab an equaliser.
Still, Southampton’s makeshift backline couldn’t cope and Spurs moved 3-1 clear despite themselves with a bullet Kane header (of course) and a slightly scruffy but well-directed Perisic strike from the edge of the area.
At which point, Spurs just entirely stopped playing. Like, completely and utterly stopped even attempting the basic rudiments of association football. It’s too easy (if undeniably fun) to pin that entirely on the manager. There are a great many vastly experienced footballers in this team and every single one of them shares responsibility for giving Southampton the sort of encouragement that produced the game’s denouement. But this is a team and club rotting from its head.
Never seen anything like that Antonio Conte press conference just now. 10 minutes of trying to take everyone else down with him. It was such an amazing performance you almost had to admire it.
— Jack Pitt-Brooke (@JackPittBrooke) March 18, 2023
Four defenders were within 10 yards of the Spurs goal but none of them within three yards of Theo Walcott when he pulled one back almost immediately, and from then on a team previously desperately short of goals and confidence poured forward in search of an equaliser. The manner of that equaliser may have been fortunate, but Spurs created the perfect environment for such misfortune to strike. They stopped. They froze. They panicked. They swished at balls in their own penalty area and seemed astonished to discover opposition players around them.
And it is, of course, everything that everyone else likes to laugh at this club for being. If only there were a word for it. The incompetence of others gave Spurs the chance to really cement a top-four spot going into this international break with a run of three games against relegation battlers. They lost shambolically at Wolves, beat Forest unconvincingly, and then produced this disgrace of a performance in response to Newcastle’s hard-earned Friday night win at the City Ground.
Spurs came into March on the back of two fine home wins and with hopes in three competitions. Five games later Spurs have gone out of two cup competitions with abysmal non-performances and, if not entirely torpedoed their top-four hopes, at the very least thrown away a position of strength in the league with a pair of woeful efforts against Wolves and here. It’s hard to see April being any different under an uninterested and unimaginative and unapologetic manager who doesn’t have the answers to questions he isn’t even asking.