In a season unsuited for big statements about a team’s value or destiny, there will be a temptation to keep conclusions at arm’s length when evaluating West Ham’s 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur. After all, it was here at London Stadium that José Mourinho kicked off his Spurs tenure in 2019 with a convincing performance in a 3-2 win that suggested promising times ahead.
But as Mourinho suffered defeat – his 15th loss in his 50th Premier League match in charge – a loss inflicted on him by David Moyes for the first time in 16 games – this was perhaps worth delving into. Not just another performance by the Spurs devoid of dynamism and the kind of quick passes that made them such a tantalizing cry to unlikely champions a few months ago. But the emergence of West Ham as a club shedding its basket ways, if only for the moment.
Goals from Michail Antonio and Jesse Lingard gave them a well-deserved victory that took them to the top four as their unlikely Champions League qualifying odyssey progresses a little further. Lucas Moura’s header threatened to be the start of a comeback that never materialized, thanks to a tenacious resistance to hold on to this twelfth victory of the campaign. Meanwhile, the Spurs remain stranded with 36 points in ninth place, wondering whether to follow or fire a man who promised them results at the very least but has now returned five league losses in the last six.
Both teams had question marks about their top center forwards, though it wasn’t a surprise to see Antonio and Harry Kane leading their respective starting XIs. The hint of “they will, they won’t” on the week kept the content wheel spinning. But it only took five minutes for something worthwhile involving one of these two.
With the Spurs hot on their heels, West Ham’s outspokenness put them on the scoreboard with the game’s first notable attack. And in a second phase in which Sergio Reguilón returned and threw to the ground for Tomas Soucek, Jarrod Bowen had space in the opponent’s left-back position to make a goal in a center that Antonio stretched to meet. A blow changed the direction towards Hugo Lloris, who reacted with a save, although he returned the ball to Antonio to finish off from just a few meters.
Is there a moment that summarizes Antonio other than reaching the end of his own rebound? Well, arguably what happened five minutes later when the 30-year-old was stronger in an inning with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, gaining possession and moving forward with the urgency of a man trying to catch the last train out of Stratford. A shock to Lingard was a favor that the Manchester United loan had attempted and failed to match the outside of his right foot when a left-footed shot was the best option.
Such was the lethargy of the visiting team, that it took a cut above Soucek’s left eye to take them to the competition. A head butt with Davinson Sánchez covered the Czech steering wheel in blood. In the seven minutes he was off the field receiving treatment, the Spurs’ lead meant they were no longer in a rush in midfield and began to pull together some moves of their own free will. Although it would only be in the closing minutes of the first half that they registered their first two shots on goal, courtesy of Erik Lamela and Kane, and there was a feeling that the tie was close.
A proactive trade from Gareth Bale and Matt Doherty for Lamela and Japhet Tanganga came early in the second half. However, the pair were merely ring-side observers on their right flank as West Ham doubled their lead with a deft move on their side.
With Antonio and Pablo Fornals close to the touch line, Lingard ran down the middle. Found by the Spaniard, a bad control in his thigh and Sanchez’s knee carried the ball into the area. Fornals, on the lookout for the return pass, cleared the way, allowing Lingard to hit the fumble in the corner furthest from Lloris’ dunk. A VAR check for offside simply provided a second chance at the celebration.
As demoralizing as it was a start for Spurs, and given that Mourinho was the first time a team under his care had fit in the first five minutes of both halves in the Premier League, it did mean there was most of the time to make amends. And when Lucas headed at the near post from a Bale corner, there were 26 healthy minutes left to try and tie.
Kane puffed out his chest and began to assert himself. He almost produced the second of his own free will, finding space at the edge of the box, but sending a shot with his left leg deflected from the far post. And look for everyone who had put in the tie with a center from the right to two apparently free teammates in the middle.
One of them was Dele Alli, thrown by Mourinho with 13 to go, sliding to touch the plate. Declan Rice, however, had other ideas, matching Alli’s pace and getting ahead of him to clear. The ball came back to the Spurs forward, who made a clean pass to the edge of the box for Bale, whose tremendous volley grazed the top of the crossbar.
Somehow, the claret and blue rear held their ground, even as the relentless pressure threatened to smash through the doors a second time. West Ham’s 11 were within walking distance of their goal when the fourth official lifted his scoreboard to show five minutes of extra time. And all bars one froze as Vladimir Coufal’s attempted punt bounced off Son and floated tantalizingly over the desperate goalkeeper and off the far post.
Maybe that’s when West Ham found out. Those ball breaks are usually the ones that go against them in this situation. The auction that usually comes late and at their expense. Well, not here. Not now. And maybe not for the rest of the season as they struggle with the strange feeling of being beautiful in fourth place.