Overwhelming Individual Brilliance Papers Over Tottenham’s Systematic Flaws in Southampton Victory

Heung-Min Son, Harry Kane
Son Heung-min scored four times in the 5-2 victory at Southampton, with Harry Kane providing all four assists | Robin Jones/Getty Images

Never before has the old ‘game of two halves’ cliché been truer than to summarise Tottenham’s 5-2 victory over Southampton on Sunday afternoon.

It’s quite remarkable as to how it happened.

This was a contest the Saints were totally in control of, with their early superiority rewarded by a superb Danny Ings strike just after the half-hour mark.

Jose Mourinho responded perfectly after being out-coached by Ralph Hasenhuttl in the opening periodJose Mourinho responded perfectly after being out-coached by Ralph Hasenhuttl in the opening period
Jose Mourinho responded perfectly after being out-coached by Ralph Hasenhuttl in the opening period | Pool/Getty Images

Jose Mourinho was starkly out-thought by his opposite number Ralph Hasenhuttl. While Spurs struggled mightily to sustain any sort of possession the hosts completely overwhelmed the visitors with their work on the ball, picking apart their initial 4-2-3-1 defensive structure at consummate ease.

Mourinho’s side simply couldn’t cope with the astute movement of inverted wingers Moussa Djenepo and Stuart Armstrong into their respective half-spaces, while Che Adams continued to find gaping pockets in behind the Lilywhites’ midfield, frequently offering the Saints a distinct route for progression up field.

Spurs looked all over the place. Overwhelmed by the speed and savviness of Southampton’s attacking play, they were fortunate to be just a goal behind. Adams, in particular – who impressed with his overall play – was a particular culprit for squandering ‘good’ opportunities.

Then came that sequence just before the break. The sequence spearheaded by a pirouetting Tanguy Ndombele which set the precedent for a second-half mauling.

The Frenchman’s work on the halfway line was awe-inspiring. Within a flash Ndombele received Ben Davies’ header, shrugged off the brutish Oriol Romeu like he was a 16-year-old making his first-team debut before displaying the innate brilliance that makes him such a unique – and special – footballer.

James Ward-Prowse was left in the dust by the 24-year-old’s magic and five seconds later, Son Heung-min was wheeling away in celebration. The first of just the four goals the South Korean scored on the south coast. The first of four he’d dispatch with such precision and conviction. The first of four he’d score because of a certain Harry Kane.

This is who Mourinho’s Spurs are. It’s not systemic – and rarely pretty – but instead, it’s completely reliant on the intuition of superb individuals. This was Mourinho’s Spurs in all their glory.

The same build-up and structural issues remained at the start of the second period before they started to settle in a 4-4-2 out of possession. A switch which markedly helped Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg on his return to St. Mary’s. The Dane was superb in the second period.

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Che AdamsPierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Che Adams
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg enjoyed a fine afternoon after returning to a more familiar role | Pool/Getty Images

Nevertheless, the formation change handed Spurs more of a foundation to attack Southampton’s suicidal defensive line. There was undoubtedly a logic to Hasenhuttl’s proactive approach – Bayern Munich won the Champions League with the distance between their most advanced and deepest lines being about ten metres – and its benefits were laid bare in the opening period; condensing the space Spurs had to work between the lines and regularly catching the Lilywhites attackers offside.

But when the visitors’ backline and midfield were handed more time in possession as the effectiveness of the Saints’ press were mitigated in the second period, Son and co wreaked mayhem.

Kane embarked on his own Harlem globetrotter-like display after the restart, proving himself to be the most complete centre forward the game has to offer with some of the most sublime passing you’ll ever see from a number nine.

The Englishman was playing like his hero, a certain Tom Brady, with Son his Randy Moss. The pair combined as if they were playing for the 2007 New England Patriots.

While Hansi Flick has the quickest man on the planet not called Usain Bolt in Alphonso Davies and the nifty David Alaba to protect Bayern from succumbing to constant in-behind penetration, Hasenhuttl was relying on the slow-turning duo Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek.

Harry Kane, Jose MourinhoHarry Kane, Jose Mourinho
A Harry Kane masterclass | Pool/Getty Images

It’s no surprise that it got ugly quick, with Kane eventually getting himself on the scoresheet after he’d delivered a sumptuous four-course meal for partner in crime Son.

Nevertheless, while Spurs’ work in transition was nothing short of scintillating and their individual brilliance the major factor in Sunday’s triumph, the 5-2 scoreline undoubtedly papers over the distinct cracks laid bare in the opening period.

Not every week will Spurs have the luxury of facing such a high line and Mourinho simply can’t rely on the magic of his majestic attacking – and midfield – talents as the primary source of chance creation. It’s not sustainable.

The Southampton triumph certainly showed the potential of this Tottenham squad, one which is set to be bolstered by a former icon and an incredibly dynamic full-back.

They have the capacity to overwhelm teams, while Ndombele has the ability to bring about a greater sense of control in midfield with his press-resistance and unpredictability in the first and second phases.

James Ward-Prowse, Tanguy NdombeleJames Ward-Prowse, Tanguy Ndombele
A fully fit Tanguy Ndombele solves a number of issues for Spurs in the build-up phase | Pool/Getty Images

It appears the perfect afternoon for the Lilywhite faithful but there was enough to suggest that Spurs are far from the finished article under Jose Mourinho.

Let’