In the midst of another suffocating week with three games on the agenda, Tottenham hoped the trip to Antwerp would demonstrate the effectiveness of their vast squad depth they are counting on to define their season. Instead, Tottenham finished with the worst possible outcome. Key players were forced off the bench and were still outplayed by Antwerp, who moved top of Group J with a 1-0 win.
Before the match, José Mourinho spoke expansively about the number of options at his disposal in most positions, talent so plentiful that he says it “hurts” to leave out quality players. He made nine changes from their win at Burnley.
However, spending hours on the bench is not always conducive to flowing, confident football. Steven Bergwijn, Dele Alli and Gareth Bale lining up behind Carlos Vinícius seemed a strong second-string attack on paper but it was their lack of minutes and time together that showed.
The disjointedness throughout the first hour was personified by Alli, who pressed well and easily found space but continually struggled to pick the correct pass in the final third. Mourinho had predicted Bale would fly, but the only thing that flew were his numerous, pointless long range pot-shots high up into the empty stands. He remained on the periphery for much of his shift, reduced to playing simple passes with his back to goal.
Antwerp had no such problems. They arrived with five consecutive wins in all competitions, sitting top of the Jupiler League after 10 games. They made Tottenham pay for their incoherence, generating many of the early key chances.
After blazing his first clear chance over the bar, Lior Refaelov would not make the same mistake twice. After half an hour, Ben Davis dwelled too long on the ball in defence and he was caught in possession by Dieumerci Mbokani. Mbokani floated towards a stranded Davinson Sánchez, the last defender, before feeding Refaelov who thundered an excellent finish into the net.
The response after such a poor first half was immediate. Mourinho opened the second with four substitutions at once, hauling off Giovani Lo Celso, Alli, Bergwijn and Vinícius in favour of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Érik Lamela, Lucas Moura and Son Heung-min. If Alli’s occasional omission from the squad has been painful for him, he surely left the Bosuilstadion feeling even worse.
Still, not much changed as Antwerp continued to advance in waves. The home side had two opportunities to double their lead before the hour mark, Refaelov failing to take advantage of a misplaced pass by Winks in the opening minutes of the half before the skilful Koji Miyoshi fed Mbokani with a beautiful cross. From three yards out, Mbokani’s finish flew well over the bar.
Finally, Mourinho replaced Bale with Harry Kane, a substitution that could hardly be more symbolic. The balance of the game slowly began to shift, with Tottenham moving on the attack, but it left them extremely vulnerable at the back as Antwerp generated significant chances before squandering them.
In the end, it mattered little as Antwerp secured a significant win in their history. Former Leicester and Manchester United defender Ritchie De Laet was excellent in the final minutes, reducing Tottenham to a result that will be tough to take.
Mourinho’s side now return to London, but not to their own beds tonight. After a sleep at the training ground, preparations for Brighton on Sunday commence. The next challenge is already approaching.