After everything they have lived and brought upon themselves in recent times, from the slow death of José Mourinho’s tenure to the ill-judged scramble to join the ultimately doomed European Super League, this was a flash of something more heartening for Tottenham.
For most of the first half it had looked like being more of the same for them and a debut to forget for Mourinho’s interim replacement Ryan Mason who, at 29, became the Premier League’s youngest manager. Southampton were better in all areas and Danny Ings’s deft header was the least that they deserved.
But if Mourinho’s demise was driven, in part, by his team’s inability to hold on to a lead – they surrendered 20 points from winning positions – Mason got his tenure up and running with a spirited comeback. It featured a lovely equaliser from Gareth Bale, who was out of his Mourinho doghouse and in the Premier League starting lineup for the first time since mid-March and, in stoppage-time, a Son Heung-min winner from the penalty spot.
Initially the referee, David Coote, had awarded a free-kick on the edge of the area after the Southampton substitute Moussa Djenepo jumped into a reckless challenge on Sergio Reguilon following a half-cleared corner. But VAR would show the contact was just inside the box and, in the absence of the injured Harry Kane, Son completed the dream start for Mason.
Spurs have closed to within two points of fourth-placed Chelsea, having played one game more, and their second-half bravery will boost them for Sunday’s Carabao Cup final against Manchester City. Bale credited Mason with delivering what was needed at half-time in the shape of a “very good team talk”, addressing a “few positional issues and the need to be more patient on the ball” and the turnaround was spectacular.
For Southampton it was yet another occasion when the general promise of their football yielded nothing. Quick and cohesive in the first half, when their swarming press worked effectively, they were timid and reactive thereafter. The loss of Ings to a 58th-minute injury was pivotal, with the team missing his hustle and, in the end, the statistics would show they had outdone Spurs by blowing 21 points from winning situations.
The pre-match scene on the Tottenham High Road had featured a protest from Spurs fans against Daniel Levy’s chairmanship, although the throng was no more than 100-strong. Tuesday night outside Stamford Bridge it was not, mainly because when the furious Chelsea fans convened before the Brighton game, their club was still a part of the European Super League. The disgruntled Spurs fans chanted a bit and went off on a march. It was not exactly fire and brimstone. Nor was their team’s first-half showing.
Southampton were value for their lead at the interval. They had already spurned two clear chances inside the opening 15 minutes and, from an early juncture, it was evident that Spurs’s defensive looseness remained a problem. Serge Aurier was not tight enough to Ings following a James Ward-Prowse corner, although the placement on the header which went in off the far post was perfect.
Spurs had been warned, having enjoyed a remarkable let-off in the second minute when the unmarked Mohammed Salisu headed Nathan Tella’s free-kick at Hugo Lloris. Che Adams had to score on the rebound only to volley too close to the goalkeeper, who produced a fine block. Southampton’s other early moment followed a Jan Bednarek through-ball and an error from Reguilon.
Lloris left his line smartly to stifle Kyle Walker-Peters.
Spurs had to be more assertive in the second-half and they were, setting up higher and coming to control the game. It was difficult to remember Southampton escaping their half.
Bale woke up. There was one lovely flick from him to tee up Son whose blast was blocked by Bednarek, and his goal followed a slick Spurs build-up, Tanguy Ndombele and Son combining to set up Lucas whose shot broke off Salisu. Bale narrowed the focus, taking two touches to work the position and picking out the far top corner.
Spurs thought they had the winner when Son swept home from Reguilon’s cut-back after a flowing move only for VAR to rule Lucas was in an offside position in the eyeline of Alex McCarthy. The technology, though, turned into Spurs’ friend after Djenepo’s rush of blood.
Ralph Hasenhutl professed himself as “empty” and Mason could savour a special feeling. “It’s been a whirlwind few days,” he said. “We were outstanding in the second-half. That was how we want to be.”