José Mourinho has felt the Europa League defeat that his Tottenham team suffered away to Antwerp at the end of last month nag away at him. It was the night when he substituted four of his players at half-time. This victory represented a surer footed step and it tasted like redemption for two of those players; a timely injection of confidence for them.
It was Dele Alli’s first appearance since Antwerp and Carlos Vinícius’s third. They responded by driving Spurs into an unassailable 2-0 first-half lead; Alli supplying the assists, Vinícius the finishes. It was the latter’s first goals since his loan move from Benfica.
Pretty much everything went right for Spurs, with nothing doing so for Ludogorets, who were awfully poor. The differing fortunes of the teams were summed up when Harry Winks tried to pick out the run of Gareth Bale in the second-half from a position on the left, over 50 yards from goal. The pass was over-hit but the ball sailed over the goalkeeper, Plamen Iliev, and went in off the far post. Winks could not hide the laughter.
Vinícius was the creator for the fourth, taking an Alli cross and shifting the ball out to Lucas Moura, who curled into the corner. For Spurs, rather tougher tests lie ahead, beginning with Sunday’s Premier League visit to Chelsea.
Mourinho played Alli in the No10 role in a line-up that featured only two likely starters for the Chelsea game – Davinson Sánchez, who finds himself centre stage after Toby Alderweireld’s groin tear, and Tanguy Ndombele. It was Alli that sparked the early breakthrough, even if there was a slice of luck involved for him. He would surely argue it was overdue.
Finding space in between the lines, he accepted Ndombele’s pass and looked to slide in Gareth Bale ahead of him. Bale was in an offside position but the ball broke off Dragos Grigore for Vinícius, who took an assured first touch and strode through to finish.
Mourinho had wanted to see intensity, a co-ordinated press and it was noticeable how high Spurs squeezed at the outset. Ludogorets could not escape their half before the interval, with Mourinho keen for his players to win the ball in opposition territory. He roared his approval when they did so. Ludogorets gave them opportunities with their determination to play out from the back, starting with short passes from the goalkeeper, Iliev. They lived on the edge.
It was all Spurs in the first half, with Alli taking up nice positions, Ndombele enjoying himself in central midfield and the full-backs, Matt Doherty and Ben Davies, bombing on. Alli’s second assist was a beauty, the kind of instinctive move in which he specialises, and it followed a burst from Ndombele. It saw him leave a gaggle of Ludogorets players in his wake and shoot for the bottom corner, drawing a parry out of Iliev. Alli was there and it looked as though the shot was on for him for the near corner, which was unguarded. Instead, with lovely disguise, he cut back for Vinícius, who lashed into the empty net.
Spurs peppered Iliev’s goal before the break, only for the final action to elude them, at times. Bale wasted three free-kicks in the early stages and another effort flew off target; Alli sliced wide and Winks flashed a drive past the post. Alli also played in Davies, who rattled the outside of the near post, while Lucas Moura banged a good chance wide.
Ludogorets had endured a difficult build-up, with some players recovering from injuries and others returning from coronavirus quarantine. “Most of the them have trained just once,” the manager, Stanislav Genchev, said. It felt as though they were here in name only.
The second-half followed the same attack-versus-defence pattern and the question was whether Ludogorets, in their 5-4-1 shape, could limit the damage. It was not Bale’s night. His cushioned header was just in front of Vinícius while he was also denied one-on-one by Iliev.
But it was an occasion that will live long in the memories of Alfie Whiteman, Harvey White and the 16-year-old, Dane Scarlett, all of whom Mourinho got on for debuts. Scarlett, Spurs’ youngest ever player, was denied by Iliev, after taking a poor touch following Winks’ ball over the top and, from the rebound, White lashed inches wide.