If it is going to be the season that Tottenham finally live up to the lofty expectations of their long-suffering supporters then this was some way to start. A superb comeback instigated by the dazzling feet of Dejan Kulusevski ensured that Antonio Conte’s side recovered from the shock of falling behind to an early strike from James Ward-Prowse to record a convincing opening day victory.
Goals from defenders Ryan Sessegnon and Eric Dier steadied Spurs by the break before a comical own goal from Mohammed Salisu and a fourth from the outstanding Kulusevski rounded off a perfect afternoon for the hosts.
“It was really important to have this reaction from my team,” said Conte. “We kept calm and continued to play in the way that we know. For sure, we saw today that this team has seven months’ work on its back. For me that is very important because we can take another step to try and be stronger.”
There has been plenty of anticipation in this part of north London in recent weeks after a summer of early acquisitions, although Conte opted to leave five of his signings – Ivan Perisic, Yves Bissouma, Clement Lenglet, Fraser Forster and Djed Spence – on the bench .
The first three were only introduced after Kulusevki had put the result beyond any doubt midway through the second half as Spurs repeatedly carved their way through a porous Southampton defense but their arrival should mean Conte has a squad capable of mixing it with the very best. But whereas Tottenham are still riding the wave of euphoria that rounded off last season after qualifying for the Champions League in dramatic fashion, a solitary point from their last six matches in the previous campaign meant there has not been so much positivity among Southampton fans.
Ralph Hassenhüttl included three new faces – goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu, teenager Romeo Lavia and forward Joe Aribo – in his starting lineup but was disappointed by familiar failings after going ahead. “It felt a little bit like our opponents went into the next gear after 20 minutes and we couldn’t follow,” said Hassenhüttl. “It was frustrating to see how big the gap is between the two teams.”
While a bronzed and relaxed-looking Conte opted for a polo shirt on a steamy day, his Austrian counterpart went for the waistcoat, tie and trainers-with-no-socks look. A nervous moment in the opening exchanges when Bazunu – a 20-year-old Republic of Ireland international who spent last season on a loan at Portsmouth from Manchester City – was almost caught out by Jan Bednarek’s back pass will not have done much to settle his nervous.
Yet it was Ward-Prowse who silenced the majority of the 60,000 plus spectators after a clever cross from Moussa Djenepo picked out the England midfielder, who hammered his volley into the ground to leave Hugo Lloris grasping at thin air. A few murmurs of discontent from a section of home fans were just about audible but their mood was lifted within just eight minutes as Sessegnon powered past Kyle Walker-Peters to head home Kulusevski’s cross and his first Premier League goal for Spurs.
Tottenham visibly grew in confidence immediately and Bazunu could do nothing to stop Dier’s deft header to entertain Son Heung-min’s cross. It could have been even worse for Southampton had their goalkeeper not reacted quickly to deny Ben Davies and then Harry Kane from close range, while Son was uncharacteristically wasteful on the stroke of half-time following a mistake from Yan Valery.
A second goal from Sessegnon within 60 seconds of the restart was correctly chalked off for offside goal – with Kane and Kulusevki continuing to find space at will – it seemed like only a matter of time before Tottenham extended their lead.
The goal eventually arrived via an unexpected source when Emerson Royal’s weak effort was inexplicably passed into his own net by the unfortunate Salisu. Barely a minute had passed before Royal notched another assist, cutting the ball back for the outstanding Kulusevki to slam past Bazunu and put Tottenham out of sight.
Sessegnon left the pitch to a standing ovation to be replaced by Perisic, with the Croat among those protesting for a penalty against Jack Stephens when the ball appeared to strike him on the arm late on. But while that call may have gone against his side, there remain plenty of reasons for Conte and Spurs to be optimistic.