There are times when you feel Tottenham have missed a trick by paying £15m a year to a superstar manager when they could have spent just a fraction of that sum putting Sean Dyche in a white wig.
In teeming, swirling rain, Spurs played like the smaller team and were ground down like a smaller team: besieged, beset and breached by the relentless class of Crystal Palace and the irresistible force of Jeffrey Schlupp.
His late equaliser was no more than the home side and their 2,000 cold but euphoric fans deserved for a mature, spirited performance.
After going behind to Harry Kane’s long-range effort and a poor error from Vicente Guaita, they kept their heads, seized control of the game and forced the tightest defence in the Premier League to crack under the pressure. Eberechi Eze and Wilfried Zaha wove Tottenham to distraction, while Guaita redeemed himself late on with two superb saves.
“An important point,” Roy Hodgson said. “Spurs have a very strong defence, so if you’re going to score you have to make a sustained effort. In the second half the physical effort, aggression and determination to sustain attacks was vitally important, and it led to the equaliser.”
Due credit to Palace, then. And yet for much of this game you could scarcely tell which of these sides were challenging for the title and which steeling themselves for another season of survival.
The irony was that Tottenham looked at their most dangerous when they attacked Palace, in the first half-hour and then again late on as they pushed for the win. They should probably have tried it more often.
For as Spurs willingly gave up control of the game in the second half, we were reminded how so many of their strengths can also be weaknesses.
José Mourinho has led Tottenham to the summit of the Premier League on the back of a strong defence, a hardened mentality and devastating counterattack. Against the big clubs, it has worked a treat. But a 1-0 lead over Crystal Palace was scarcely the time for a defensive rearguard.
Time and again, Tottenham have struggled against weaker teams when required to dictate. Instead, they retreat to the safe embrace of their own 18-yard line, starve their best players of the ball and look to pick opponents off on the break. Between the 35th and 65th minutes Kane and Son Heung‑min had a total of 13 touches between them. The team failed to register a single shot. And though results are still going their way, Spurs fans are entitled to demand a little more intent.
Mourinho said the second-half siege was a product of circumstances rather than design. “We have to blame ourselves for not being able to do what we did in the first half,” he said. “This is the kind of game where you need the ball.
“There are opponents when you can have a low block for three hours and they don’t hurt you. Crystal Palace put the giants in the box, they look for pressure, they look for second balls, they look for rebounds, they look for corners, they look for lateral free-kicks.”
It was just a such a free-kick, delivered by Eze from the left and fumbled by Hugo Lloris, from which Schlupp bundled home the equaliser.
Yet any assessment of Lloris should also account for his brilliant reaction stop from Zaha earlier in the game. Likewise, Guaita easily atoned for his failure to save Kane’s 30-yard swerving shot in the first half with a pair of superb saves from Eric Dier and Kane in the dying minutes.
Tottenham were at their best in that opening quarter, patient and yet insistent in their buildup, Tanguy Ndombele deft and elusive in midfield.
But Palace are a more rounded team these days: no longer as reliant on the quick feet of Zaha and with multiple options for hurting you in the final third. Patrick van Aanholt and Nathaniel Clyne were particularly good on the flanks, Christian Benteke punctured holes, and ultimately Spurs’ creaking edifice gave way.
Perhaps this was just a bump in the road, a lesson that Tottenham will take in their stride. But if they have genuine ambitions of challenging for the title, they need to find a way of managing games like this, of growing rather than shrinking into themselves. And if things are tight in May, they may come to look back at this game as a painful missed opportunity.