Even though Antonio Conte’s summer departure is widely accepted as inevitable and the annual questions about Harry Kane’s future are sure to follow, Tottenham can still bail out this season. Although finishing fourth last year has not been a happy one this season, the financial rewards for the club, the coaching staff and the game are considerable.
Newcastle’s win at Nottingham Forest had upped the ante even more, but as so often with Spurs this season, at Southampton it was quite difficult to tell how much they wanted it. Goals from Kane and Ivan Perisic looked to have won them the game, only for Pape Sarr to mindlessly commit a penalty in the dying seconds, swinging a leg at a flying Kamaldeen Sulemana. James Ward-Prowse advanced to score the penalty, and suddenly Southampton were level; deservedly so.
Rubén Sellés’ tenure as caretaker manager has brought victories against Chelsea and Leicester, but defensive errors and bad luck with injuries seemed to have extinguished hope this time around. Now Carlos Alcaraz and Ward-Prowse are no longer the only Southampton players to have scored a Premier League goal for the club since the World Cup. Ché Adams and then Theo Walcott buried that statistical ghost and the Saints’ chances of staying awake are still alive.
Sellés continues tirelessly in his search for answers, rolling the dice forever. Following a flat home defeat to Brentford that kept Southampton bottom, an indicator of growing despair was that none of the club’s five January signings were selected to start here. Such risk-taking values eventually paid off.
Meanwhile, Conte had stayed with the same team that beat Nottingham Forest, only to lose Richarlison early on. For his part, Armel Bella-Kotchap left the scene, to be replaced by Mohammed Salisu in the Southampton defense. The lively starts, in which Son Heung-min deflected a Pedro Porro pass and Adams did the same, trying to redirect a Ward-Prowse shot, soon faded.
Spurs fans began looking elsewhere for entertainment, unfavorably comparing former Arsenal foe Walcott to former hero Aaron Lennon, while also calling for the resignation of St Mary’s-present Daniel Levy. Walcott himself played the whole time as if he was more motivated to take on the Spurs.
Sellés was forced to make a second defensive substitution in the 33rd minute, with Jan Bednarek leaving with a rib injury. Arsenal loan Ainsley Maitland-Niles came in as Kyle Walker-Peters moved in at centre-back against his former club. Tottenham then leveled the casualty list by losing Ben Davies when Perisic came on. Repeated stoppages made play distracting, best shown when Fraser Forster distractedly passed the ball back for a Southampton corner.
A further seven minutes late in the first half gave Tottenham time to score, Porro firing a right-footed shot after Son’s incisive pass. Two previous chances had been flown wide to the left of him; he roofed the net. The January signing, admittedly granted plenty of space, seems ideal for a Conte team, although whether the next manager plays wing football is another uncertainty to add to Tottenham’s growing stack.
Tottenham’s lethargy of the first half made a quick appearance as Walcott created an equalizer early in the second half, speeding into the space vacated by Clément Lenglet, setting up Adams to slip into the equalizer. When Ward-Prowse hit a free-kick into the edge of the net shortly after, it seemed the momentum was on Southampton.
However, with 25 minutes to go, Kane’s first goal away to London since 8 October reaffirmed Spurs’ lead, if not their command of the proceedings, Dejan Kulusevski’s feint and cross tee allowed the captain scored. Sellés mixed things up again by making a triple change.
As with Kane’s header, Perisic’s goal came just as Southampton began to push forward. Gavin Bazunu, the youngest starting goalkeeper in the Premier League but also the goalkeeper with the worst save percentage in the division, could have done better with a shot that went wide of the ground.
Three points reserved for Tottenham? Sékou Mara, part of that Southampton triple substitution, began to wreak havoc, heading in for Walcott to score. Instead of casting off a bottom-of-the-league opponent, Spurs were now holding on. And while Sarr’s thoughtless intervention will be to blame, his mistake was part of a piece as Tottenham failed to cope with the level of motivation of opponents who were playing for their lives.