An away defeat at this stage of the Europa League is not catastrophic, particularly given this is Tottenham’s toughest group game on paper, but their performance in Belgium will put a dampener on expectations which were soaring given the options at Mourinho’s disposal.
The Spurs manager made four half-time changes and a fifth before the hour as Lior Refaelov’s first-half strike condemned them to a first away defeat of the season.
After a flat and uninspiring opening 45 minutes, Mourinho called for the cavalry far earlier than he would have wanted or expected, introducing Heung-min Son, Lucas Moura, Erik Lamela and Giovani Lo Celso – with Gareth Bale the only member of his initial front four to survive the interval.
The Welshman was soon replaced by Harry Kane but the substitutes were little more effective than the starters, and home goalkeeper Jean Butez finished the night without a making a save.
Mourinho made nine changes from the win at Burnley on Monday, with only goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and Ben Davies, who switched from left-back to centre-half, keeping their places.
Perhaps it should have therefore come as no surprise that Spurs were short of synergy against the Belgium league leaders.
A new-look front four of Dele Alli, Steven Bergwijn, Carlos Vinicius and Bale were short of understanding, often finding good pockets of space but squandering the openings with the wrong pass or by taking too many touches.
Antwerp were well-organised and committed, while posing plenty of threat in the front two of Refaelov and Dieumerci Mbokani. The latter capitalised on a dreadful mistake from Davies to square to his Refaelov for the only goal after half-an-hour.
Spurs briefly improved in the second half, with Son seeing two efforts brilliantly blocked by Leicester title-winner Ritchie De Laet and Lamela failing to connect with a free header.
For Mourinho, the performance will raise questions about a number of his fringe players and, at least temporarily, reduce the gushing over the strength of the Portuguese’s squad.
Bale was among the biggest disappointments. After warning Antwerp on the eve of the game that the 31-year-old was nearly back to peak condition, Mourinho will surely be concerned by his performance.
The Welshman flashed a couple of speculative efforts over the bar early on but largely played with his back to goal, and still looks a long way from match fitness and the player who dazzled at Real Madrid and during his first spell for Spurs.
Dele and Bergwijn fail to make an impression
Mourinho had challenged Alli and Bergwijn – the two players who did not even travel to Burnley for Monday’s game – to grasp the opportunity “with both hands”.
After an underwhelming first half from all 11 players in white, the pair were among four players withdrawn at half-time by Mourinho – along with Vinicius and Giovani Lo Celso – presumably having not taken their chance in the way the manager wanted.
For Dele, in particular, the circumstances of Mourinho’s challenge feel unfair. The 24-year-old has consistently been told to prove he is worth a place in the team but on his three starts this season, he has now been withdrawn twice at half-time and once after an hour.
It is not easy for any player to build fitness, momentum and confidence in such fleeting opportunities, particularly when under extra scrutiny from the manager.
Dele did not impress in his 45 minutes in Belgium but he was far from alone, and his clever ball for Vinicius created one of the best chances of the first half.
The evening felt like another low for Dele, perhaps even another step towards the end of his time at Spurs, but he is being dealt a difficult hand.
Davies mistake may discourage centre-half experiment
Davies’ part in Antwerp’s goal was indicative of Tottenham’s performance. Facing his own goal, the Welshman dithered and was easily dispossessed by Mbokani, who surged forward and squared to Refaelov.
Davies was indecisive and not strong enough and it was a bad moment for the Welshman, just when he was beginning to look an intriguing option at centre-half, where as a natural left-footer he offers balance.
After a solid display in the middle against LASK last week, Davies made two timely interventions in the opening half an hour in Belgium but his error could discourage Mourinho from continuing to play him centrally.
Davinson Sanchez, who partnered Davies at centre-half, was left stranded for the goal and produced another erratic showing, despite recovering from a mistake to deny Mbokani with a last-ditch challenge.
As it stands, Toby Alderweireld, an unused sub in his hometown, and Eric Dier look very much Tottenham’s first-choice pairing at the back.
Lloris 6; Aurier 4, Sanchez 4, Davies 4, Reguilon 5; Lo Celso 4, Winks 5, Dele 5 (Lamela 45′ 5); Bale 4 (Kane 58′ 5), Bergwijn 5 (Lucas 45′ 5), Carlos Vinicius 5 (Son 45′ 6).
Star man: Son. There was no star but the South Korean at least came closest to testing the goalkeeper, seeing two shots well blocked by De Laet.
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