Mario Lemina’s last-gasp winner broke Spurs hearts
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Two minutes: that’s how long it took for Tottenham Hotspur to ease a first few lingering nerves that a decimated defence might make them a less-effective team, following that wild and wacky defeat to Chelsea last time out. It wasn’t the end of them by any means, but it gave Spurs both an early lift and something to fight for.
And 88 minutes: that’s how long Ange Postecoglou had to observe and realise that – despite his makeshift team’s obvious effort, desire and willingness to go above and beyond – there just wasn’t the cohesion and balance needed to keep out the best attacks in the Premier League. And that was before Wolverhampton Wanderers’ late turnaround.
Brennan Johnson it was who scored early, tapping in after a typically fast-flowing move down the right flank but Spurs rarely threatened thereafter and it was a very different type of performance for the majority of the rest of the game. Even so, they still led until just when the injury time board was being raised; a magnificent first touch and volley from Pablo Sarabia later, matters were levelled. And with the latest of late sucker-punches, Mario Lemina slid in to send the home fans delirious, six minutes past the 90, for Wolves 2-1 Tottenham.
In between, a whole lot happened to give Postecoglou both reason for optimism and pause for thought.
While the back line was very much a restructured one, the attack was merely the same, but different: James Maddison’s injury meant his scheming and invention was replaced by Pape Sarr moving slightly higher up, a ferocious runner into the channels and still a hard-working operative in deeper areas. But without Maddison as that connection, and perhaps without the left-wing thrust from deep of full-back Destiny Udogie, Spurs found it a lot more difficult to break out of their defensive shape, a lot more difficult to maintain possession high upfield.
Their intermittent threat, when it came, was of the counter-attacking variety, mainly through Dejan Kulusevski’s ball-carrying, and rarely with the weight of numbers to make a telling final difference.
At the other end of the pitch was where the real tale was told, where Postecoglou’s real lessons to take from the match were.
Eric Dier was making his first league start of the season, recalled at centre-back, alongside Ben Davies – just a second start for him. Both played well, is the starting point of any assessment. But the issue is that they played well individually: recovery challenges, last-ditch clearances, a couple of vital interceptions of low crosses and cut-backs. There was not, as would perhaps be expected given their minimal gametime this term, any semblance of cohesion, of understanding, of partnership. That has been the big plus at the back this term for Spurs, the rapid way in which Cristian Romero and Micky van de Ven have filled in for each other, complemented each other’s skillsets and coped with attacks between them.
Here instead – and add in a switched-to-left-back Emerson Royal under the same headings – it was all about each defender desperately trying to be that last man, get that last touch, make that last block to protect the fragile lead.
There shouldn’t be any blame headed to Dier or Davies for that, as both reasonably did as much as they could, but Spurs’ lack of cohesion saw them exposed and exploited time after time by a very progressive – and very wasteful – Wolves attack.
The hosts averaged fewer than 12 shots per game in the Premier League this season; they had surpassed that tally well before the hour mark here. But a combination of wayward strikes, those aforementioned blocks and frankly odd decision-making meant Guglielmo Vicario was nowhere near as tested as he might have been.
In the end, it took shots number 16 and 17 to beat the Italian, and to beat Spurs.
Pablo Sarabia scored a beautiful equaliser before Wolves’ late winner
But as harsh as that late turnaround in scoreline might feel at the final whistle, the truth is a more ruthless and prolific team, one who averages more than Wolves’ 1.3 goals per game this season perhaps, would have had the points sewn up far earlier.
Postecoglou can take solace in the heart and effort, and the fact that a third of Romero’s ban is over, plus the entirety of Udogie’s. But had Spurs held out, the truth of the game wouldn’t have been any different to the boss, they’d just have more points at the end of it.
Van de Ven in defence and Maddison in attack have been core components of both recovery and intricacy in Spurs’ play this season, and neither have obvious replacements. Work lies ahead over the international break to ensure Tottenham’s early season promise doesn’t fade away entirely in the aftermath of that damaging defeat to Chelsea.
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