When Tottenham beat Manchester City in November with their only two shots on target and 34% of the ball, it was seen as an incredibly effective counterattack.
The ensuing stalemate at Chelsea was seen as an acceptable point. The victory over Arsenal, in which Spurs had no shots in the second half and just 23% possession, was seen as an exercise illustrating the helplessness of their rivals in north London.
Seven points from those three games more than justified the approach and bringing Jose Mourinho’s side to the top of the Premier League table has sparked some heady discussions about the title.
Four games without a win since then have quickly ended those hopes – Spurs are now seventh if the teams below them manage to draw let alone win their games in hand.
But perhaps even more important than that, recent results have undermined the idea that this team was simply adjusting to circumstances by knocking out rivals at the break.
Prudence may have been the model for these earlier successes, but it also cost them points. The 1-1 draw against Crystal Palace in mid-December, in which Spurs led for an hour but barely appeared to chase the second goal, should have been a warning.
Instead, there was an even more dramatic example against Wolves at Molineux on Sunday night as Tottenham had to settle for one point in a game they had led for 85 minutes.
Again, if they had held up, some would have generously described this as a defensive master class, but the lack of ambition against an out-of-form opponent was striking.
Tanguy Ndombele’s goal in the first minute, after Heung-Min Son ran behind defense within 30 seconds of kick-off, should have been the perfect platform.
Not for the first time, this Tottenham side took it as a signal to step back and protect the head. The Wolves’ defense, their confidence presumably shattered after recently falling to full four, has barely been tested again. They have been released. Invited to attack.
Wolves had more balls but it wasn’t just that. When Tottenham got it, there was sterility in their approach game. There were times when Matt Doherty had room to run to his full-back and the freedom to do so in his role as preferred winger.
Harry Kane fell deeper and deeper, seemingly embracing this ability to enter midfield a little too hastily. The service at Son has evaporated. The overlapping races were absent.
Spurs entered containment mode from the middle of the first half and never really got out. Their last shot on target came in the 21st minute. The only attempt in the second half was a free kick from Eric Dier. If Wolves’ teenage forward Fabio Silva hadn’t timed his head of downtime at close range, they would have lost.
If these previous victories have shown the merits of a counterattack game under the right circumstances, these recent struggles have damned it. Sometimes it works. Often not. Tottenham have now lost nine points in the last 10 minutes of games.
They have also given up the best chances in six of their seven games since the November international break. Of course, that owes a lot to the state of play – Mourinho’s men have been in the lead for a large part of the time in the majority of them. But if you play like you’re waiting for the opponent to score, sometimes they will.
As a result, Kane and Son – still, statistically, the most powerful attacking combination in the Premier League – now seem a bit deprived of opportunities. This same data on expected goals shows that since mid-November, only West Brom has created fewer chances.
All of this raises the question of who is responsible for the team’s state of mind. Logic would suggest that this is an instruction introduced into the players by their manager Mourinho.
After all, his disdain for possession football and his reputation for winning games without the ball precedes him. But he insisted afterwards that it was not his directive.
“Our problem was that we scored from the first minute and we had 89 minutes to score more goals and we didn’t,” he said. “For me that was the problem.”
When Mourinho has a message to convey, subtlety is not his style. On five occasions during his post-game press conference, he mentioned this line about having 89 minutes to score the second goal. He saw it more as an offensive than a defensive failure.
“It wasn’t just about not scoring goals, it was about not being dangerous, not being ambitious. Of course we can go around the corner and say that at Liverpool we should have won but we lost with a corner, here we should have won but drew with a corner, we can say that at Palace we should have won but we drew with a side free kick.
“I could even go to previous matches. But I don’t think it’s very obvious to go in that direction and not go in other directions as well. For me, if you score in the first minute, you have 89 minutes to score more goals and we didn’t. “
The fact that Mourinho brought in Steven Bergwijn to replace Sergio Reguilon just past the hour was evidence to support his claim that this negativity was not coming from the bench. It was a positive change at a time when Wolves dominated the game.
Indeed, he even hinted afterwards that he had warned his players of the consequences of a return to their lead at half-time. It seems likely he would have reminded them of what happened at Palace and urged his players to avoid a repeat.
Could it be that the message and the positive experiences in excluding Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal have led to misplaced confidence in their ability to lean on clean sheets?
Or was it more of a tactical failure by Mourinho, the move to five at the back depriving Kane and Son of more bodies to support them in the attacking phase of the game?
What is clear is that a fortnight after leading the Premier League table, four games without a win – after relinquishing leaders twice late – changed the mood. Tottenham’s negativity must end if they are to change momentum again.