Tottenham will never be the same team without Harry Kane but all they can do is find a way to win until he gets back. That is what they did here, grinding out a 2-1 over Southampton in which they did not dazzle, but did enough.
All that matters is those three points, moving Spurs up to 59, seven ahead of fifth-placed Manchester United, although they have played one more game than them. Spurs only have another 10 left in the league this year and if anything can keep them out of next season’s Champions League, it is the damage that losing Kane will do to Spurs.
This was Spurs’ first game since Kane rolled his ankle here against Millwall last Sunday, their first league game without their main man since last October. Mauricio Pochettino picked Heung-Min Son who worked hard without ever looking like a potential 30-goal man. But it did not matter. Christian Eriksen scored from distance, Dele Alli from the penalty spot and Spurs had a 2-0 lead they clung onto for the rest of the afternoon.
It was never an easy game for Spurs against a Southampton side who were well-organised, clever and dangerous. Saints were always a threat on the break and even after losing Manolo Gabbiadini to a first-half injury they had the endless energy of Shane Long up front instead. James Ward-Prowse equalised early in the second half and there were moments when White Hart Lane felt more nervous than it has done in months.
But despite that Spurs hang on and so what might look like a low-key win in fact felt like a real achievement. This was their 13th in a row at White Hart Lane, a remarkable record, and testament to these players’ willingness to make history in their last season now. They have put four past West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City recently but it will not be like that every week, especially with their best player out injured.
Kane is a great shoulderer of responsibility, embracing his job to turn Spurs’ possession and pressure into chances and goals. Without him Spurs can look desperately blunt, so it was the job of Son, Eriksen and Alli, the front three, to do that in his absence here. There were early positive signs when Son raced onto an Eriksen pass, forcing a save from Fraser Forster, just two minutes in.
Eriksen has been criticised at times for not seizing the big moments but here he did exactly that, driving Spurs into the lead after 14 minutes. Moussa Dembele played a forward pass to Eriksen, who took it in his stride running forward. His first touch was perfect and with his second, he struck it left-footed from 25 yards into the bottom corner. Fraser Forster, whose reactions have not been the sharpest recently, could not reach the ball.
Spurs were not creating much but they did not need to. The next time Saints made a mistake Spurs punished them again. When Cedric Soares and Oriol Romeu collided in the box, a panicked clearance ended up with Dele Alli. He tried to burst forward but was tripped by Steven Davis. Despite Forster’s attempts to put him off, Alli sent him the wrong way, rolling his penalty in. That was his 14th Premier League goal of the season, not bad for a 20-year-old midfielder in his second season at this level.
The challenge for Spurs was to keep up the intensity, keep attacking and put the game away. They could not do that, they dropped off, and the second half was not a comfortable place for them. Early in the second half Spurs took their eyes off the ball and it cost them. Ryan Bertrand got in behind Kyle Walker down Saints’ left. He whipped in a cross which Toby Alderweireld, at the near post, uncharacteristically missed. It flew past Eric Dier and through to James Ward-Prowse, at the far post, who bundled it in.
Suddenly the atmosphere changed at White Hart Lane. After 12 straight wins here this ground has felt unbreachable recently. But now, for the first time since the autumn, it felt nervous. Drawing this game would have been a defeat for Tottenham, a gift to everyone else hunting for the top four, and the worst way to go into the international break. Saints substitute Sofiane Boufal tested Hugo Lloris with a shot to the near post.
The momentum briefly felt against Spurs and they needed something different. Son came off for Harry Winks, to provide an extra body in midfield and a bit more control. Kieran Trippier came on and so did Vincent Janssen. The Dutch striker did not look like adding a second open play goal to his collection but he did provide a reference up front, which is what Spurs were lacking.
In the final minutes Janssen kept getting on the ball, drawing a challenge, going down and winning a free-kick. It was exactly what Spurs needed him to do. Sometimes you just have to win ugly.
Tottenham (3-4-1-2) Lloris; Dier; Alderweireld, Vertonghen; Walker, Dembele, Wanyama, Davies; Eriksen; Son, Alli
Southampton (4-2-3-1) Forster; Cedric, Stephens, Yoshida, Bertrand; Romeu, Davis; Ward-Prowse, Tadic (Boufal, 69), Redmond (Rodriguez, 80); Gabbiadini (Long, 30)
Match rating: 4