LONDON — Jose Mourinho has rightly been lauded for the streetwise pragmatism he’s introduced to Tottenham since taking the job last December, but they may need to show more ambition if they are to sustain a Premier League title challenge. Crystal Palace fully deserved their 1-1 draw on Sunday, having traded blows in an even contest prior to Harry Kane’s 23rd-minute opener before dictating terms for much of the second half.
Jeffrey Schlupp’s 81st-minute equaliser may have come from conceding one too many “lateral free-kicks,” which Mourinho bemoaned when Spurs dropped points late on against Newcastle and West Ham earlier in the season, but arguably they were punished for conceding the initiative quite so readily.
Kane’s opening goal ensured that his remarkable partnership with Son keeps ticking – they’ve now combined for 32 Premier League goals, four short of Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard’s all-time record — but in reality, it owed more to the England captain’s impudence and a lapse in concentration from Palace goalkeeper Vicente Guaita. Picking up a simple pass from Son in a central position around 35 yards out, Kane tried his luck and hit a swerving right-foot shot that caught Guaita out and found the net.
The game had been end-to-end up until that point, with Eberechi Eze and Wilfried Zaha causing Spurs problems, but after the 35th minute, Spurs managed just one attempt on goal until Palace eventually equalised. They invited the pressure that led to Schlupp’s goal, providing encouragement to the home side and the 2,000 fans inside Selhurst Park for the first time since March 7 as Palace sought a tangible return for their work rate and endeavour.
Spurs only started to play again once their lead had disappeared, and did almost snatch the three points late on as Eric Dier had a stoppage-time free-kick brilliantly saved by Guaita. In truth, they’d missed their opportunity to secure the result long before.
Although such conservatism bore the hallmarks of a classic tactical approach from Mourinho, as was evident in taking seven points from Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, the 58-year-old insisted this decision to sit back and try to see the game out was not his design.
“My instructions didn’t change from the preparation of the game two days ago, yesterday before the game and at half-time,” he said. “This is the kind of game where you need the ball. This is the kind of game where you cannot accept a low block. There are opponents where you have a low block and you can be there for three hours and they don’t hurt [you].
“There are other opponents like Crystal Palace, when you have a low block, they put the giants in the box, the look for pressure, second balls, rebounds, corners, lateral free-kicks, and you cannot accept that.
“We prepared the team not to do that. In the first half, we did that very, very well. In the second half, we didn’t, but I don’t want to blame the players because they want to do it. If they didn’t, it is because they couldn’t do it. If they couldn’t do it, it is because Crystal Palace in that period was very strong. Fifteen or 20 years ago, you had a big difference in the quality of players between the big clubs and the smaller clubs. At this moment, the difference between the clubs is the dimension, but not the quality, of the players. The quality is very similar and they created us problems.”
Spurs were not able to call on Gareth Bale during their late rally, as he missed the game through an illness unrelated to COVID-19. but there was a notable five-minute cameo for Dele Alli, who made his first league appearance since the opening day of the season. It was at this very ground in Jan. 2016 when he scored arguably the finest goal of his career, swivelling superbly to volley home from the edge of the box, but he is a shadow of that player now, facing a fight for his Tottenham future amid speculation Paris Saint-Germain could look to take him on loan in January.
Spurs are a different proposition these days too, and almost certainly for the better given they would end Sunday either top of the table or in second place with Liverpool playing Fulham across the capital. But to stay there in the coming months, Spurs must surely need to show a desire to finish teams off with something more than defensive resilience.