SOUTHAMPTON, England — Southampton took an early lead but couldn’t hold on as Tottenham ran out comfortable 4-1 winners. Here are three quick thoughts from Wednesday’s game at St. Mary’s:
1. Spurs win easily, despite not playing well
This hasn’t been the most comfortable of seasons for Tottenham so far, but this was a comfortable victory. Mauricio Pochettino’s return to Southampton ended in a 4-1 victory, and they could even afford to miss a penalty as his side moved to within a point of Arsenal and the Champions League places.
A brace from Dele Alli, one from Harry Kane (the culprit with that squandered spot-kick) and another from Heung-Min Son sealed the victory for Spurs, who initially looked sluggish and lacking in sharpness but ultimately finished off a frustrating Southampton, who had Nathan Redmond sent off in the second half with a degree of comfort.
Southampton took the lead in just the second minute. Victor Wanyama’s first act after returning to St. Mary’s following his summer move was to concede a free kick on the Southampton left, which was swung over by James Ward-Prowse. Virgil van Dijk rose, with only the slightest hint of a challenge, to head it in. It was a remarkably simple goal: beautifully so for Southampton, troublingly so for Tottenham.
For the next 15 minutes Claude Puel’s side could have doubled or even tripled their lead, as their buzzing forward line caused the Tottenham defence plenty of problems, adding to the ones Pochettino’s back line caused for themselves with some abysmally sloppy passing. Yet it was the visitors who got the next goal, as Moussa Sissoko’s deflected cross found Alli in the middle, and he glanced a header high into the net, off the post.
Tottenham were the better team for the remainder of the half without necessarily being that special, dominating possession but not doing anything enormously impressive with it. Kane was relatively isolated up front, limited in both service and his own imagination, but at least one of those changed early in the second half. The hitherto frustrating Christian Eriksen swung over a corner from the right, and Kane snuck ahead of his marker at the near post and powered a header home.
Kane then had a glorious chance to wrap the game up a few minutes later. A brilliant Moussa Sissoko pass set Alli through on goal, but he was pulled back by Nathan Redmond: a penalty and a red card ensued, but Kane launched the spot kick high into the home fans, who enjoyed a moment of gleeful schadenfreude.
Oddly, from that point, it was the 10 men of the hosts who showed more purpose than the numerically superior visitors. A trio of substitutions gave them some impetus, and there was a five-minute period when Tottenham very nearly donated the game to them with some more careless passing.
But that purpose wasn’t married with any real skill, chances were passed up, and just as something unlikely loomed, Spurs discovered their ruthlessness. Eriksen put substitute Son through (via a deflection) to slot in a third goal before Danny Rose jinked down the left and found Alli, who opened his body and steered a fourth into the bottom corner.
2. Sissoko’s best game so far for Spurs?
Whisper it quietly, but Moussa Sissoko — or to give him his full name, The Much-Maligned Moussa Sissoko — looks like he might be recovering some of his form.
It’s a little early to suggest that the £30 million Tottenham spent on him in August represents sound business — there’s more evidence for the opposing view so far — but the Frenchman was terrific at St. Mary’s. It was his deflected cross that produced Alli’s goal, a strike that finally altered the game in Tottenham’s favour, and his inch-perfect through-ball should have inspired the killer moment, only for Kane to loft the resultant penalty into 2017.
Among the biggest reasons for Tottenham’s lacking a little of last season’s dynamism this term have been the absence of Erik Lamela and the sporadic fitness of Mousa Dembele, as they don’t have alternative players who can give similar thrust to their attacks. The theory was that Sissoko would provide it, but he has been more like the Sissoko who frustrated fans of relegated Newcastle rather than the Sissoko who was one of the better players in the Euro 2016 final.
In Wednesday’s game, as he has been in a couple recent outings, he did what Tottenham and Mauricio Pochettino needed him to do, a real purpose to his running and a clarity to his thinking, both of which have broadly been absent.
The spectre of his showing against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League, a heroically shambolic outing that inspired a thousand Newcastle fans to scold, “I told you so,” will always be there and has been more indicative of his time at Tottenham so far. But this was encouraging and a hint that he is capable of much more.
3. Southampton should hold on to Van Dijk
This was a slightly curious performance from Southampton and one that seemed to sum up their season as a whole. For the opening 20 minutes, they dominated, should have been much further ahead and then were irritatingly passive for the rest of the first half, pegged back by a Spurs team that wasn’t even playing that well.
After the break, Puel’s side seemed to be inspired by only a red card and a Tottenham goal, belatedly finding a bit of enthusiasm before it was snuffed out in the closing five minutes. Southampton might be eighth in the table, but they’re only four points ahead of Burnley in 14th. The last time they won two games in a row was in September, and they’ve beaten a side in the top 10 only once this season.
Perhaps the only consistent thing about them was centre-back, goalscorer and wall of muscle Virgil van Dijk. It must be a fairly exhausting business being a Southampton fan who boos former players, such is their status as an unofficial nursery club for the Premier League’s moneyed semi-elite, but they might have to add the Dutchman to their list of opprobrium soon.
Rumours that the usual suspects are forming a disorderly queue for the defender have been around for a while now, and it’s no real surprise. Even in a game such as this, in which he did nothing spectacular defensively, there’s an assurance to Van Dijk that a few of the title-challenging teams could do with. At one point in the first half, he was confident enough to attempt a roulette about 40 yards from his own goal, without any sense that he might fail or put his side in any danger.
If there is a breaking point to Southampton’s policy of cashing in on their best players, it hasn’t arrived. However, if over the next six months they lose both Van Dijk and Jose Fonte, the latter also rumoured to be available in January, then they might get a little closer to it. Van Dijk should perhaps represent their limit, the offer to which they should finally say no.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.