Tottenham prove caution over their title credentials justified with defeat to rampant Wolves - (2021)
While singling out games between Tottenham and Wolves as ones to watch back at the start of the season would doubtless have opened up a journalist up to accusations of hipsterism, Mauricio Pochettino and Nuno Espirito Santo have crafted two of the most interesting teams in the Premier League. Ships in the night during their playing days – Nuno was a back-up goalkeeper with Deportivo La Coruna in La Liga during Pochettino’s first spell with his beloved Espanyol – Pochettino is now routinely linked with the top jobs in Europe while Nuno is fast establishing himself as a clever coach who has taken remarkably well to the top tier. The two are friends, though fiercely competitive ones.
Wolves may have an advantage over their fellow promoted teams when it comes to recruitment – the club’s well documented relationship with Jorge Mendes has thrown open new markets for them, not least the Portuguese – but it only takes a quick glance at Fulham’s situation to show that strong recruitment means little without quick thinking and adaptation. While there was a backlash against Wolves after their six-match winless run across October and November, the fact that they arrived at Wembley six points off the top six was testament to their status as a historical anomaly among promoted sides.
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Likewise, with their protracted move to a new home dragging on and no new signings made in the summer, Spurs being six points off top spot come kick off felt like a creditable aberration. So too did their record of 11 scored and two conceded across their previous two games against Everton and Bournemouth, with two emphatic wins seeing them hailed – a little gingerly – as genuine title contenders.
Spurs fans have painful memories of the last few times they have been classed as title challengers. While one of Pochettino’s big achievements as manager has been defying their ‘Spursy’ tag for the most part – like all successful mockery, that label had a keen edge of truth to it – their title challenge in 2015-16 died gurgling at Stamford Bridge while the following season, despite going the whole campaign unbeaten at home, they still finished seven points off top spot and well behind Chelsea under Antonio Conte.
Their meeting with Wolves was a reminder that instinctive caution over Tottenham and their title credentials is justified. Both teams showed glimpses of what they do best at Wembley: Spurs often make it look effortless to play between the lines, while Wolves are impressively well organised both in their collective defensive efforts and their quick transitions to attack.
Unfortunately for Spurs, it was Wolves who showcased their best qualities when it mattered most. Despite near-total dominance for Pochettino’s side in the first half, Spurs’ passing, energy and defensive shape declined steadily in the second to the point that – having seen Harry Kane’s shooting star of an opener cancelled out by a header from the immense Willy Boly – they were twice more caught on the counter by Raul Jimenez and Helder Costa to give the scoreline a decidedly grim look.
Title challenge over already?
Already hard pressed against the all-round excellence of Liverpool and the bruised but brutal talent of Manchester City, the result will see Spurs written off in the title race as fast as they supposedly entered it. The truth is that their surge towards the top of the table may have felt like an aberration because, well, it was. The fact that they play at a half-full Wembley, the uncertainty over their ground move, the lack of investment this season: these do not suddenly cease to become factors because of two thumping wins against Everton and Bournemouth. Neither does Pochettino cease to deserve credit, or Tottenham cease to be high achievers, because of defeat to an excellent Wolves side.
As for Nuno and Wolves, they remain the ones to watch outside the traditional top six. They may even smash that glass ceiling in the months to come, though that would be an astounding achievement even for a team of their quality. Boly, Ruben Neves, Raul Jimenez, Ivan Cavaleiro: all deserve to be singled out for their individual performances against Spurs, even if Wolves’ strength is in their togetherness as a unit. Nuno, always keen to emphasise the collective, reserved special praise for substitute Joao Moutinho after his deft passing helped to change the game in the last 25 minutes, saying in his post-match press conference: “What we expect when we make this kind of decision is for the player to change the game. Fresh legs change a lot of things in football… sometimes your plans work out okay.”
Tactical interventions like that, along with the fact Wolves can call upon players of Moutinho’s ability, are why Nuno has now taken points off Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and both Manchester clubs. While Spurs’ rivals have been quick to laugh at a title challenge which lasted under a week, to suggest that their defeat was some inevitable result of the Spurs mentality would be to patronise a team and manager who came to Wembley and smartly beat them. Pochettino certainly bristled at the suggestion after the game that this was a characteristic stumble for Tottenham, saying: “I don’t care about what people say, I cannot control what happens around us.
“This can happen to us, can happen to Wolves, can happen to Liverpool, can happen to Manchester City, that is why it is so difficult to win the Premier League. You need to be consistent and today, for us, it’s a clear example that we are not consistent enough.”
True consistency for Spurs and Pochettino may still come in time, but for now the impetus needed to push on to the top of the table continues to elude them. This will be another painful memory, then, but one inflicted by an exceptional Wolves side.
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