In a season unsuited for grand statements on a team’s worth or destiny, there will be a temptation to keep conclusions at arm’s length when assessing West Ham’s 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur. After all, it was here at the London Stadium that Jose Mourinho got his Spurs tenure up-and-running in 2019 with a convincing performance in a 3-2 win that suggested promising times ahead.
But as Mourinho suffered defeat his 15th defeat in his 50th Premier League match in charge, a defeat inflicted upon him by David Moyes for the first time in 16 meetings, perhaps it was worth delving deeper into this. Not just of another Spurs performance devoid of dynamism and the kind of snap passing that made them such a tantalising shout for unlikely champions a few months ago. But of West Ham’s emergence as a club shaking off their basket case ways, if only for the moment.
Goals from Michail Antonio and Jesse Lingard gave them a much-deserved win to take them into the top four, as their unlikely Champions League qualifying odyssey moves that little bit further along. Lucas Moura’s header threatened to be the start of a comeback that never materialised, thanks to some dogged resistance to hold onto this 12th victory of the campaign. Spurs, meanwhile, remain marooned on 36 points in ninth, wondering whether to stick or twist on a man who promised them results if nothing else but has now returned five league defeats in the last six.
Both teams had question marks over their premier centre-forwards, though there was no surprise to see Antonio and Harry Kane leading their respective starting XIs. The hint of “will they, won’t they” in the week just kept the content wheel turning. But it took just five minutes for something worthwhile involving one of these two.
With Spurs on their heels, West Ham’s directness got them on the scoresheet with the game’s first attack of note. And in a second phase that saw the returning Sergio Reguilon body-checked to the floor by Tomas Soucek, Jarrod Bowen had space in the opposition’s left-back position to arc in a cross that Antonio stretched to meet. A flick changed the direction towards Hugo Lloris, who reacted with a save, albeit one that returned the ball Antonio’s way to hammer in from just a few yards out.
Is there a moment that sums up Antonio more than getting onto the end of his own rebound? Well, arguably what happened five minutes later when the 30-year-old was stronger in a tackle with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, winning possession and driving forward with the urgency of a man trying to catch the last train out of Stratford. An offload to Lingard was a favour the Manchester United loanee tried and failed to reciprocate with the outside of his right foot when a shot with his left was the better option.
Such was the away side’s lethargy, it took a cut above Soucek’s left eye to bring them into the contest. A bump of heads with Davinson Sanchez covered the Czech midfielder with his own blood. In the seven or so minutes he was off the field receiving treatment, Spurs’ man advantage meant they were no longer rushed in midfield and began stitching together some moves of their own volition. Though it would only be in the final few minutes of the first half that they registered their first two shots on target, courtesy of Erik Lamela and Kane, and there was a sense an equaliser was near.
A proactive switch of Gareth Bale and Matt Doherty for Lamela and Japhet Tanganga came at the start of the second half. However, the pair were merely ring-side observers on their right flank as West Ham doubled their lead with a slick move down their side.
With Antonio and Pablo Fornals near the touchline, Lingard made a run through the middle. Found by the Spaniard, a mis-control off his thigh and onto the knee of Sanchez took the ball into the box. Fornals, lurking for the return pass, cleared the way, allowing Lingard to thrash the loose ball into the far corner beyond the dive of Lloris. A VAR check for offside merely provided a second crack at the celebration.
As demoralising a start as it was for Spurs, and Mourinho given it was the first time a side under his care have conceded in the opening five minutes of both halves in the Premier League, it did mean there was most of the half to make amends. And when Lucas headed in at the near post from a Bale corner, a healthy 26 minutes remained to try and draw level.
Kane puffed out his chest and began to assert himself. He almost produced the second of his own accord, finding space on the edge of the box but sending a left-foot shot wide of the far post. And it look for all the world that he had put in the equaliser with a cross from the right to two seemingly free team-mates in the middle.
One of those was Dele Alli, thrown up by Mourinho with 13 to go, sliding in to tap home. Declan Rice, though, had other ideas, matching Alli’s stride and getting in ahead of him to clear. The ball made it back to the Spurs striker, who played a neat pass to the edge of the box for Bale, whose tremendous volley skimmed the top of the bar.
Somehow, the claret and blue rear-guard held firm, even as relentless pressure threatened to breakdown the doors for a second time. All 11 of West Ham were within spitting distance of their goal as the fourth official raised his board to show five minutes of added time. And all bar one were left motionless as Vladimir Coufal’s attempted clearance rebounded off Son and floated tantalisingly over the despairing goalkeeper and off the far post.
It was then, perhaps, that West Ham knew. Those breaks of the ball are usually the kind that go against them in this situation. The punchline that usually arrives late and at their expense. Well, not here. Not now. And maybe not for the rest of the season as they wrestle with the unfamiliar feeling of sitting pretty in fourth.