A change of league positions and perhaps a changing of the guard, too. Wolves deservedly took Tottenham’s top-six place and it was yet another triumph for the coaching of Nuno Espírito Santo, whose team improbably seem to grow stronger when faced with the most exacting physical demands.
Although there are plenty of mitigating factors for the home side’s malaise, which surfaced in a disjointed performance from back to front, José Mourinho will not wish to dwell for too long on the fact he has now been defeated by two of his former players in the space of eight days. At this rate he risks looking on as one or more of Nuno and Frank Lampard oversee Champions League football, and it will take a masterful use of resources to tip the scales back in Spurs’ favour now.
The frustration for Mourinho here was that after twice taking the lead his players could not hold on. Defensive errors of the type that handed Wolves the initiative are not made directly from the dugout, but perhaps he overthought his selection. Spurs are missing a wealth of quality and experience in attack and they were not helped when Hugo Lloris was ruled out before kick-off. So it seemed a risk to leave both Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, their best defenders, on the bench given the existing lack of leadership, and their replacements rarely looked at ease.
“The result is totally unfair for us,” Mourinho said, but ultimately the better side won. He had selected a back three in which Davinson Sánchez and Japhet Tanganga were expected to deal with Wolves’ attacking pace, while Eric Dier stepped out to build attacks. For a while it worked and an assertive start brought a well-composed opener. Steven Bergwijn had nominally started on the right of a fluid front three but turned up in the No 10 position to feed Giovani Lo Celso. The Argentinian found Serge Aurier overlapping and, although Rui Patrício prevented Dele Alli from converting a fizzing cross, Bergwijn appeared in time to stab home the rebound.
Wolves’ first equaliser reflected poorly on that rejigged backline. First Rúben Vinagre got the better of Aurier too easily, swiping over a cross that Dier stretched to clear but completely missed. Tanganga, taken unawares, could not prevent the ball rebounding off a knee and Matt Doherty had time to finish low past Paulo Gazzaniga.
The away side, rarely flashy but always more than functional, were on top but Aurier struck the next blow before half-time. He had not scored a top-flight goal for two years and that did not seem likely to change when he cut inside Vinagre on to his weaker left foot. The position invited a shot, though, and Patrício was left standing by a rasping drive that would not have shamed Spurs’ absent forwards.
If Alli, found alone in the box by a deep Ben Davies delivery, had not headed wide in the 55th minute then perhaps Mourinho would have been reflecting on a plan well executed. Instead he was left to bemoan that his side were “too good, too nice” in not doing the niggly things that can close out a game. Within two minutes of Alli’s miss Wolves had squared things up again through the outstanding Diogo Jota, who tapped in after Doherty and Raúl Jiménez had picked Tottenham’s left side apart. But his words chimed more strongly with the winner.
It was a brilliant goal, Jota beating Lucas Moura with a flick inside his own half before travelling 40 yards and finding Jiménez open to his right. Jiménez, sleek and super-confident, checked inside Tanganga and finished emphatically but the outcome could have been avoided if Aurier had taken a booking and felled Jota as he broke upfield.
“We were punished because we don’t have that aggression, that ruthlessness,” Mourinho said, making a contrast with an earlier tackle by Rúben Neves that had stopped a Moura counter in its tracks. They lacked those qualities in chasing the game, too; Troy Parrott was introduced only for stoppage time, to the crowd’s displeasure, but Mourinho reiterated his opinion that the 18-year-old is not ready for longer cameos.
For Wolves, playing their 46th game of the season, there was no such hand-wringing. Nuno lauded his team’s powers of recovery after a first half he felt was below par. “We are relentless,” he said. “We believe the game is still to be played. The boys help each other in every action of every game.” That toughness is exactly what Mourinho must seek out. He complimented his players’ spirit but said he could fault “some psychological characteristics that are not easy to change”. A sturdier spine might have helped but, however it is done, Spurs need him to find a way soon.