It always seemed likely to be a close-run thing whether Antonio Conte would break Tottenham or Tottenham would break Conte, and at the moment it is the Spursiness that is on top. Conte’s five league titles may have come in a perpetual frenzy of touchline fury, but he was reduced in the second half to wandering disconsolately around his technical area, giving the occasional bark of disappointment.
After a nine-game unbeaten run in the league after his appointment, three successive defeats mean the honeymoon is definitively over. With familiarity, ingrained habits are beginning to grate. Why can they not put their trousers on the hanger? Why can’t they ever take the rubbish out? Why will they not do the absolute basics of defending?
Games in hand mean Spurs are still well-placed in the race for fourth behind West Ham and Manchester United, but this defeat means they now have Wolves as well as Arsenal in their way.
Bruno Lage’s Wolves can have a pleasantly soporific quality, like tropical fish in a tank. You start watching the patterns and before you know it five or six minutes have gone by and nothing much has happened. But that still doesn’t quite explain the collective switch-off that led to Tottenham going behind in the sixth minute.
Raúl Jiménez’s goal was a case study of everything that’s been going wrong with Spurs this season. Unable to handle the Wolves press just as they had been unable to handle Southampton last Wednesday, Spurs conceded a cheap free-kick. Harry Kane’s headed clearance was probably a little more central than would have been ideal, but it would not have been a major problem had anybody followed it out.
As it was, Rúben Neves was given time to measure a shot – that’s Rúben Neves who has scored 14 times from outside the area in his four and a half years at Wolves; why would you bother closing him down? Hugo Lloris, troubled by an awkward bounce just in front of him, shovelled the ball out to Leander Dendoncker and although the goalkeeper was able to recover to palm out his mis-hit shot, Jiménez rammed in the rebound. And all the Tottenham defenders, rabbits trapped in a pinball machine, looked on in uneasy bemusement.
They played a much more active role in Wolves’s second. Lloris, almost passing the ball out for a corner, put Ben Davies under pressure, squandering possession as Wolves closed him down. Daniel Podence’s shot hit Davinson Sánchez, ricocheted on to Rodrigo Bentancur, cannoned against the post and fell for Dendoncker to knock in. And to think there had been doubts as to whether the Uruguayan would be able to adapt to the new environment.
Conte had accused his side of being too emotional against Southampton; here they looked apathetic, bordering on the comatose. His reaction was to take off Ryan Sessegnon for Dejan Kulusevski after 28 minutes and to switch from the back three to a 4-2-3-1, and perhaps, given how Spurs were being swamped in the middle of midfield, there was a tactical logic to that. The influence of Neves, certainly, waned with Kulusevski occupying a similar zone. But, frankly, if players stand and watch the ball bounce around them, the formation is a secondary concern.
The issue is even deeper than that. Bentancur, perhaps, will bring the requisite quality on the ball at the back of midfield, but for a couple of seasons, certainly since the departures of Mousa Dembélé and Christian Eriksen, Spurs have had nobody who can hold the ball under pressure.
Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso were both sidelined quickly by Conte and loaned out in January. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, whose form has dipped since the Italian arrived, was left out – the first time that has happened at Spurs when he has been available – an indication perhaps that he doesn’t quite fit the Conte blueprint.
Tottenham were better in the second half and perhaps a comeback might have been sparked had Harry Winks’s drive been deflected in rather than against the outside of the post, but Wolves had chances as well, and it took a number of saves from Lloris to keep Spurs in it.
And the point, anyway, is that no side with Champions League aspirations can just be giving two goals away, especially not against an immediate rival. Conte has been in charge for 19 games and kept just five clean sheets. If Spurs are to finish in the top four, that is nowhere near good enough.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism