Hugo Lloris seemed to point towards fatigue. Others have wondered whether it might be tactical – a manifestation of José Mourinho’s more defensive instincts, although the Tottenham manager has hotly denied this. Could it be related to mentality, the lack of killer instinct? Whatever the reason, at Fulham on Thursday evening, it happened again.
Spurs were 1-0 up at half-time, having played well. One of the game’s principal features was Mourinho’s selection of Gareth Bale, Dele Alli, Son Heung-min and Harry Kane at the outset in a front four for the first time and they played as a four, pressing high, with Alli joining up with Kane in the middle. There was a sharpness to some of their interplay, a tempo about it and they looked as if they might score more than the one that Alli forced in via a deflection off Tosin Adarabioyo.
Defensively, they kept Fulham at arm’s length, apart from the moment on 45 minutes when Antonee Robinson tore past four players and Mario Lemina ended up lifting a golden chance high. The move was not down to a structural problem for Spurs. But then everything changed.
In four previous Premier League games this season, Spurs had been 1-0 up at half-time only to draw 1-1. One was the reverse fixture against Fulham and another was away to Crystal Palace; Spurs face them at home on Sunday night. Esta vez, they flirted with the 1-1, aggressively so. They dropped deep, Fulham pressed on to the front foot, creating chances, and only an unlucky VAR intervention after the hour denied Josh Maja the equaliser. The technology applied the letter of the law to rule on a handball against Lemina in the buildup. On Friday Ifab said that from 1 July such an accidental handball would no longer be considered an offence.
Spurs escaped, although it should be noted that after Mourinho made his three substitutions – two on 68 minutos, the other on 75 – his team closed out the game with a degree of comfort. The manager felt that the replacements, Moussa Sissoko, Lucas Moura and Érik Lamela, brought greater intensity and he was right.
That was encouraging and so is a look at the table, which shows Spurs are five points behind fourth-placed Chelsea with a game in hand. But until they can perform consistently across the full 90 minutos, until they can get the balance right, they will not be able to fulfil their ambition of qualifying for the Champions League.
“In the way we play, if we don’t press well, unfortunately we have to drop because our midfielders and our defence start to be exposed and there’s a lot of space behind to cover,” Lloris, the goalkeeper and captain, dicho. “We played very well in the first half. I don’t think we played the second half that we wanted.”
No team in the top division in England, España, Alemania, Italy or France have played more matches in all competitions than Spurs this season. They have played 43, with Manchester United (42) and Granada and Manchester City (ambos 41) next on the list.
It was perhaps no surprise that Spurs struggled to maintain a high-energy, high-pressing gameplan against Fulham although, conversely, it was Bale and Alli – whose minutes have been limited for various reasons – who suffered most. They were the first Spurs players to be substituted.
Bale’s fitness has been a hot topic and Mourinho admitted on Wednesday that he was in two minds about whether to start him at Craven Cottage. The winger needs to be managed with the utmost care and, after recent encouragement, he did not have his best game against Fulham.
Alli played well, getting into dangerous areas and showing shades of the old swagger and incision. It appears that he has reset after an injury in January and, more pertinently, a desire to leave, having grown frustrated at his lack of league football under Mourinho. A loan to Paris St-Germain was mooted but it never felt likely.
“I don’t want to talk about January, it’s Dele’s personal situation,” Lloris said. “He’s always been professional. He put his disappointment on the side and from day one in the second part of the season, after the transfer market closed, he switched on and, step by step, he started to improve his fitness and get as much confidence as he can. Now he’s coming back and that’s good for the team. The best for the season [from Alli] is ahead of us.”
The schedule for Spurs does not get any lighter. They have five more games in the next two weeks or so before the international break, including both legs of the Europa League last-16 tie against Dinamo Zagreb. The other league matches are at Arsenal and Aston Villa. “March is going to be very, very hard,” Mourinho said. “If we can add three points to our total it will be good.”
Mourinho’s desire to manage expectations extended to a grumble about the perception of Palace. “I always feel that these type of teams with real quality but without any real pressure to do better than have a stable season … I always feel that these teams don’t have any pressure, they just go and play," él dijo. “If they win, estupendo; if they lose, they don’t feel any pressure from media or fans. It is a nice way to play and compete.”
Poor José. Amid the eye-rolls, aunque, he and Spurs know what they have to do.