Tuesday 22 January 2019

Wolves bare their teeth to give Pochettino some food for thought

Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo. Photo: Getty Images
Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo. Photo: Getty Images

Sam Dean

Mauricio Pochettino had referred to his Tottenham side as a "question mark" in the title race ahead of Saturday's unexpected mauling by Wolves.

In the immediate aftermath, it was more tempting to wonder whether Spurs would be capable of answering the questions that a title race might pose of them.

It will not have been lost on the Spurs fans, as they shuffled down Wembley Way after team's 3-1 defeat, that the nature of this loss would provide more ammunition to all their usual critics.

Just as they seemed to announce themselves as genuine title contenders, plundering 11 goals in two games against Everton and Bournemouth to move six points off the lead, Spurs stalled in the most damaging fashion.

There can be no hiding from the fact that, timing-wise, it was not a great look. You could almost hear the accusations of "Spursiness" drifting over north London.

But it remains premature to rule them out, no matter how much glee opposing fans may have taken from writing the obituaries of their "three-day title challenge".

Never before had a Spurs team reached the halfway mark of a Premier League season with so many points, and it is a theme of Pochettino's reign that Spurs generally improve in the second half of the campaign.

Still, there are reasons for Pochettino to worry. Of greater concern than this result, and the gap between them and leaders Liverpool extending to nine points, will perhaps be the manner of the surrender in the second half.

This was no smash-and-grab from a plucky counter-attacking outfit. Instead, Wolves dominated the game, controlled the ball better and attacked with a venom that Spurs so demonstrably lacked after half-time.

Wolves were passive in the first half, to the extent that Pochettino said that it was "easier than we expected to dominate the game".

But once Nuno Espirito Santo's side had bared their teeth, Spurs did little more than cower and tremble.

The feel of the game had long shifted before Willy Boly cancelled out Harry Kane's opener in the 72nd minute, and Nuno felt confident enough in his side's sudden growth to demand they push for a winner. Raul Jimenez and Helder Costa struck twice in four minutes to complete a deserved turnaround.

The irony for Spurs is that they have spent so much of this season winning games despite having plenty of excuses for failing to do so, including post-World Cup fatigue, injuries, a lack of signings and delays to the new stadium.

Against Wolves, there were far less obvious reasons for Spurs to be weakened.

Yet the tiredness has clearly been building over this busy festive period and it was notable how sluggish they became once Wolves had upped the intensity.

One of the more damning statistics from the game, for example, was that Spurs completed a total of 99 sprints, 37 fewer than they managed in their 5-0 victory over Bournemouth on St Stephen's Day.

This was only the third time they had lost a Premier League home game by two or more goals under Pochettino, and it was also his first league defeat against a newly-promoted side since he joined Spurs.

To describe Wolves as just a "newly-promoted" side, though, does little justice to a team who play some of the most progressive, organised and technical football in the division.

Contributions Wolves have now taken points off each of the 'Big Six', aside from Liverpool, and Nuno praised their "character" as they moved up to seventh place.

The contributions of Jimenez underlined the Mexican's importance to Wolves, who can buy him permanently for about €35m in the summer.

The on-loan Benfica striker has been directly involved in 10 of his side's 23 goals in the Premier League this season, scoring six and creating four.

Nuno will also be encouraged by the intervention of Costa, who struck his first league goal of the season to seal the points.

"I'm pleased (with him)," Nuno said. "But this is the first one and we are 20 games in. He has to do more."

Pochettino was less impressed with his players' second-half performance.

"I think maybe it was easier than we expected to dominate the game in the first half," he said. "They played so deep, chasing us, and we didn't concede one chance.

"But in the second half, we started to feel maybe the game was over and, when you feel the game is over, you start to decide the wrong way, start to play too many long balls. We played more with the heart rather than with the head, and we started to spend a lot of energy."

© Daily Telegraph, London

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