Despite Antonio Conte’s summer departure being widely accepted as an inevitability, Tottenham can still rescue this season. Even if finishing fourth last year has not resulted in much happiness this campaign, the financial rewards for club, playing and coaching staff are considerable.
Newcastle’s win at Nottingham Forest had further upped the ante but at Southampton, as so often with the Tottenham of 2022-23, questions of motivation will have to be raised. Pape Sarr thoughtlessly and unfortunately giving away a penalty in the dying seconds, swinging a leg into a flying Ainsley Maitland-Niles was part of a piece, an individual error redolent of a collective sag.
Just when goals from Harry Kane and Ivan Perisic had them in full control, Tottenham failed to cope with the motivation level of opponents playing for their lives. “We didn’t have control of the game,” said Eric Dier. “We only have ourselves to blame.”
Not that Conte saw much collective spirit, in a post-match washing of his hands as he angrily laid into his players. “The problem is that we are not a team,” he said. “We are 11 players that go on to the pitch. I see selfish players who don’t want to help each other.”
For that stoppage-time spot-kick, James Ward-Prowse stepped up to thrash home and suddenly Southampton were level; deservedly so for efforts that were often chaotic. They refused to surrender.
Rubén Sellés’s tenure as interim manager has taken in wins over Chelsea and Leicester and now this escape act. 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 Saints’ chances of staying up remain alive.
“You have to have belief,” said Ward-Prowse, who took his penalty against his former nextdoor neighbour, Fraser Forster. “We’re in the mix and we have to be positive and look up the table.”
Sellés continues to be tireless in his search for answers. To follow a flat, midweek home defeat by Brentford that kept the club bottom, an indicator of growing desperation was that none of Southampton’s five January signings had been selected to start. His risk-taking eventually paid off.
“I don’t think we deserved to be 3-1 down but we showed character and the crowd helped us,” said Sellés. “Once we scored the second goal we had all the energy. The players want to fight for each other and I’m very proud of it.”
During a first half best remembered for four substitutions, the first in the opening seconds as a tearful Richarlison departed, Spurs fans looked for alternative entertainment. They compared old Arsenal foe Walcott unfavourably to former hero Aaron Lennon and also called for Daniel Levy, present at St Mary’s, to step down. Clearly, fans’ minds were elsewhere, too. Walcott in turn played as if extra motivated.
Seven minutes were added on after so many stoppages, giving Tottenham time to score, Pedro Porro striking with his right foot after Son Heung-min’s incisive pass. The January signing looks ideal for a Conte team, though whether the next manager plays wing-back football is another uncertainty to add to the growing Tottenham pile.
The Tottenham torpor of the first half made a swift reappearance after the break to prelude the anarchy that would follow. In the second half’s opening seconds, Walcott found space vacated by Clément Lenglet, laying up Adams to score.
With 25 minutes left, Kane’s first goal outside London since 8 October re-established Spurs’ lead, if not their command, as Dejan Kulusevski’s feint and cross teed up the captain to score. As with Kane’s header, Perisic’s goal came just as Southampton began to push onwards. Gavin Bazunu, the Premier League’s youngest first-choice goalkeeper but also the keeper with the worst save percentage in the division, could probably have done better.
Three points booked in? Sékou Mara, part of a triple substitution, Sellés’s final Hail Mary, began to cause problems, nodding down for Walcott to score. Rather than swatting aside an opponent bottom of the league, Spurs found themselves clinging on. Sarr’s misfortune and Southampton’s redemption would become as inevitable as Conte’s departure. Summer is a long way off for a manager so dissatisfied. “This is unacceptable, this is the first time in my career I see this,” he said. “I don’t want to see what I have seen today.”