By the time of Bale’s pulse-quickening introduction with 20 minutes remaining, Spurs were in cruise control and heading for second in the league table after a devastating opening 16 minutes, in which Harry Kane scored twice after assisting Heung-min Son‘s opener.
The Welshman formed a front three with Kane and Son on his second debut for the club and, briefly, it looked set to cap a perfect afternoon for Spurs, who beat Manchester United 6-1 before the international break and were on course for another resounding victory.
But Manuel Lanzini scored a breathtaking goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time, as Spurs squandered the three points at the death for a second consecutive home match, leaving them without a league win in north London in three league outings this season.
Fabian Balbuena had pulled one back after 82 minutes with a header from Aaron Cresswell’s free-kick before Davinson Sanchez headed into his own net as Spurs collapsed.
It might have been different, had Bale not fired wide from 12 yards at 3-2 just over a minute before Lanzini found the top corner from distance.
If the 31-year-old gets back to near his best, Spurs will have a devastating front line to match any side in Europe but their hopes of shaking up this most unpredictable of seasons will hinge of improving defensively – and mentally – after a wretched collapse that will alarm manager Jose Mourinho. They ended the evening in seventh place.
For West Ham, this was another hugely encouraging result after big wins over Wolves and Leicester. David Moyes, back on the touchline after a spell of self-isolation, evoked Mourinho by charging up the touchline after Lanzini’s 30-yard screamer had ricocheted off the underside off the crossbar and over the line.
All the build-up had predictably been dominated by Bale, who is now match-fit having not featured for Real Madrid in pre-season before his return to Spurs on a season-long loan.
As expected, he was named among the substitutes but it took Spurs just 45 seconds to make the breakthrough without him.
Picking up the ball halfway inside his own half, Kane released Son with a now-trademark ball over the top. Faced with a hesitant Balbuena, Son cut inside on his right foot and curled into the bottom corner. It was Kane’s ninth assist of the season and seventh in the Premier League, and Son’s eighth goal of the campaign.
Kane’s pass was magnificently disguised, with Steven Bergwijn initially looking the likelier target, and the two-footed Son is so hard to defend against in one-on-one situations. Still, West Ham were naive to allow the opening given how frequently the pair have combined already this season.
The Hammers nearly responded immediately through Cresswell’s free-kick but within eight minutes Kane had doubled the lead with another sublime moment. Son returned the favour with a short pass into Kane, who ignored a crowd of bodies to nutmeg Declan Rice and fire low past Lukazk Fabianski.
It was the ninth time they have combined for a goal this season.
Spurs were purring and after 16 minutes the derby looked as good as over as a contest when Kane bagged his second. Another simple Spurs move through the lines resulted in Sergio Reguilon curling the perfect cross to the back post where the England captain – who was a fitness doubt midweek – thump a header across Fabianski.
Kane’s two goals and assist means no player in Premier League history has directly contributed to more goals in the first five matches of a campaign, beating Thierry Henry’s previous record of 11.
All three were sublime goals and West Ham, who had kept clean sheets in impressive wins over Wolves and Leicester, looked shellshocked by the quality of Tottenham’s attacking.
To their credit, the Hammers kept fighting and Kane finished the first half with Spurs’ most important defensive contribution, flinging himself in front of Vladimír Coufal’s shot to deny the defender’s goal-bound effort.
The Hammers continued to rally in the second half and Fornals should have pulled one back immediately, directing a header over the bar from point-blank range, only for the offside flag to belatedly raise.
As Spurs held firm, the contest became dominated by the question of when – or if – Bale would appear. With 20 minutes remaining, the time came, with Mourinho calling for his new No.9 and Harry Winks in place of Bergwin and the impressive Tanguy Ndombele.
More than ever, you wished the cavernous stadium was full for such a poignant moment but by the end Spurs were glad there were no fans in place to witness their collapse.
After Bale had tested Fabianski with a tame free-kick, Balbuena struck the first blow, rising above Moussa Sissoko to head home. Spurs suddenly looked nervous, evoking memories of their first few months under Mourinho when they shipped goals too easily.
Sanchez, who looked the weak link for the hosts throughout, headed past Hugo Lloris from Coufal’s cross after impressive work from substitute Andriy Yarmolenko, who ultimately did more for his side from the bench than Bale.
Spurs hearts were in mouths when Cresswell stood over another free-kick in stoppage-time and after it was only half-cleared by Winks, Lanzini struck.