“I think that’s the way a team has to play football,” said Jose Mourinho on Sunday following Tottenham Hotspur’s 3-2 defeat to Wolves. “They had the correct mentality.” 

No one in room was under any illusions. This was your typical Mourinho compliment: double-edged, razor tongue in cheek, throwing shade at the opposition’s glow. The 57-year old is absolutely the type to congratulate you on getting married because he didn’t think you’d ever find anyone. The neggiest of negs from Neg Flanders himself. 

His “lauding” of Wolves stemmed from a moment in the fourth minute of the match. As Lucas Moura set off for a break into the opposition half, Ruben Neves intervened to halt the move illegally. 

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Referee Stuart Atwell thought nothing of the tackle beyond a foul, which was the crux of Mourinho’s gripe. The Spurs manager felt a yellow card was deserved and believed the reason it was not forthcoming was that it took place so early. To prove his point, he referenced a similar incident five minutes into injury time when second-half substitute Leander Dendoncker was cautioned immediately for a similar indiscretion. 

Mourinho was not wrong, though, of the need to referee the first minutes just as you would the last, or indeed that Wolves had the correct mentality. Because you do not get to March 1 having already played 46 competitive matches and find yourself in Wolves’ position without it. 

A season that started in July traipsing the backwaters of Europa League qualification and saw them 19th after six matches is now stacking up as one of the best in the club’s modern history. 

They are in the last 16 against an Olympiacos side they are capable of besting over two legs and have jumped from eighth to sixth with this win. They have suffered just four defeats in their last 22 league matches and are level on points with Manchester United who occupy fifth – the proxy Champions League position if Uefa’s lawyers get their way. 

That sixth Premier League match, away to Crystal Palace way back in September, holds great significance. Wolves had lost to Braga and questions were being asked of Nuno Espirito Santo’s future. Not so much if he was still good enough to lead this club, but whether he would stick around. The question, at its most English, was simply – did he fancy it? 

Despite facing the prospect of losing four matches in a row for the first time, he vowed to never abandon his players. Moreover, he urged steadfast belief from all at the club. “They cannot have any doubts, the way we worked and the way we played is what got us here. This is what got us here from the Championship to the Europa League. No doubts, the way is clear.”

Believe they did, escaping Selhurst Park with a point thanks to a 95th minute equaliser from Diogo Jota. With total confidence – and dollops of hindsight – we can mark this down as a turning point. 

Six months on, it was Jota again who helped flip this particular script. His exchange on the left created the opening for the first equaliser before netting the second and then turning defence to attack on his own to assist Raul Jimenez for the unanswered third. Yet he was merely the frontman for the unwavering confidence evident at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium from those in old gold shirts. 

In a match of just 34.6 per-cent possession and four shots on target, Wolves made the most of what they had without scrimping on bravery – they played more key passes than Spurs (10 v 9) with an inferior pass accuracy of 73.9 percent that suggests they attempted many more – or the ruthlessness in front of goal. 

“We are relentless,” said Espirito Santo moments before Mourinho said his piece. “We believe the game is still to be played.”

Indeed, you can take this season as a microcosm of a match – maybe even this one. Certainly the way it is being talked of behind the scenes at Molineux. 

When the squad got together for preseason they talked of embracing the challenge of entering into a “full year” campaign. So while it seemed from the outside that European football would be a hindrance, and those first rounds of the season seemed to prove, the slumps had been accounted for. 

Granted, it was sooner than anticipated – they had expected to catch other league teams cold given their three competitive fixtures before the start of the 2019/20 campaign – and the dip more pronounced. But not only are they unscathed, they appear to have emerged, like Mario jumping through a drain pipe, at a completely different level. 

Part of that has been embracing the awkwardness of playing on Thursdays between league commitments. As Espirito Santo says of the circumstances and the work necessary to keep them fighting fit, “they respect them and they believe [in] the way that we do things”. 

The upside is that they win games like this. Because they were not that good. 

They did look leggy and, at times, disorganised. Joao Moutinho, one of the classiest operators over the last two years, misplaced 11 of his 31 attempted passes. Had Dele Alli’s near-post run and flick-on from a deep Ben Davies cross found the far corner, Spurs would have led 3-1. 

But Wolves knew they needed to dig deep because their natural verve had deserted them. And when openings were fashioned by individual flourishes, such as Adama Traore’s persistence for their second goal and Jota’s ball-carrying ingenuity for the winner, they were seized. Their success was built simply on “good movements that achieved beautiful goals”, as the younger, more charismatic Portuguese manager put it. 

Now begins a break, in the loosest sense. There are no midweek commitments this week but Wolves’ next fixture on Saturday starts off a sequence of five in 15 days. However, the three league meetings in that period are against relegation battlers Brighton, West Ham and Bournemouth. Games they should pick up no less than seven points in to move them further into Champions League contention. Based on this display, they do not necessarily need to be at their best to do so. 

When Mourinho signed off his press conference with the cold, hard assertion that Wolves “did not deserve to win”, again, he was not wrong. The thing is, Wolves are now operating at a level where they can win top-flight matches when they don’t deserve to. That, truly, is a sign of how far they have progressed.

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