We got a game here, finally, of sorts. For that we probably had Antonio Conte to thank and a half-time team talk one suspects was thick on invective and thin on instruction. Tottenham remain undefeated and underwhelming but Harry Kane’s second-half goal gave them all three points and a win that in tone and toughness felt like a comeback.
The pieces are not quite fitting yet. Son Heung-min looks undercooked and a little short of form; the midfield is still vulnerable to being outnumbered; the team as a whole still looks a little more comfortable counterattacking than genuinely controlling games. But there is spirit and resilience, as well as the quality and depth to make it count. Eric Dier and Ivan Perisic were excellent. Richarlison looked sharp and spangly as a late substitute.
It was not easy and it was rarely pretty either, particularly during a first half when Wolves were clearly the better team. Bruno Lage’s side is rich in talent and fight but above all one gets the sense they are utterly horrible to play against: a swarm of wrought, chiselled midfielders all snapping and swearing at you in Portuguese.
“For sure in the first half we struggled a bit for many reasons,” Conte said. “We suffered. In the second half, I tried to fix some situations but also we had to have a lot of energy.”
Wolves arrived with a smart plan and a fresh pair of legs: the £38m midfielder Matheus Nunes, the newest and shiniest asset in the Jorge Mendes portfolio, signed from Sporting this week and thrown straight in for his debut.
Quite a player he is, too: a big deadly spider of a man, all poise and precision and scuttling legs and eyes in the back of his head. He had a good chance with a glancing header, the dangerous Rúben Neves had a couple of strikes from distance and, as Spurs continued to launch it aimlessly, the home crowd began to grouse a little, as if trapped in a very long and very hot airport queue.
Anyway, that was the first half. The second was a different flavour of milk altogether: Tottenham screaming out of the blocks and moving the ball with purpose and substance. Kane hit the bar with a header. The maladroit Son hit the post. Perisic began to gain in influence. The volume ticked up a few bars. Tottenham won a corner. Son took it.
Almost from the moment the ball left Son’s foot the corner looked a disappointment: short, low and dying away towards the near post. Except – surprise – Perisic had been stationed there for this scenario, and flicked the ball on for an unmarked Kane to head in at the far post.
A set-piece routine that felt like a throwback to the Mauricio Pochettino days and a Premier League milestone for Kane: his 185th goal, beating Sergio Agüero’s post-1992 record for the most at one club. Dixie Dean’s all-time top-flight record of 310 remains well out of reach for now.
So what had changed? Certainly nothing significant tactically. No substitutions were made until the 76th minute. The only real shift was in ambition, intensity, bravery: the bravery to play the difficult pass, to weather the shin-crunching challenge, to hold the ball under pressure rather than get rid of it. Further proof of this arrived when Kane, stung by an earlier challenge from Neves, gave him a little off-the-ball bump.
Nathan Collins returned the favour and quickly the situation had generated into the sort of mass, finger-waggling, multinational squabble that everyone likes to see.
Ultimately Wolves’ best chance of winning came in the first half and for all the good vibes around Molineux after a lavish transfer window, there remains a slight gap between expectation and delivery, between the ability to neuter games and the ability to grab them and kill them off.
“We controlled the game, but in the end we don’t have any points,” Lage said. “So we go home with frustration and confidence.”
Which feels like a pretty good summation of Wolves: three games, no wins, and yet for all that a certain cautious optimism.