Nigel Adkins's side made Tottenham suffer here but only after shooting themselves in the foot and a second-half fightback was not enough to wrestle any points from the visitors, who climbed into the top four for the first time this season, while Saints remain stranded in the relegation zone.
Adkins, aware of the mounting concern among the club's fans about his team's erratic start to the season and the resultant implications to his own job security, previewed this game by repeating Abraham Lincoln's warning about the precariousness of a house divided, but a divided defence is just as ruinous and Southampton were again in disarray in that department.
That was obvious as early as the third minute when a weak header by Maya Yoshida gifted an opportunity to Aaron Lennon. Under pressure from the goalkeeper Artur Boruc, however, Lennon prodded narrowly wide from close range.
The defence got scant protection from midfield, where Southampton were outnumbered and Tom Huddlestone enjoyed the freedom to do as he pleased. Jermain Defoe should have scored in the 14th minute but fired fractionally wide after fine work down the right by Lennon and Kyle Walker.
Southampton's reprieve was short-lived, as one minute later Huddlestone, again unattended, clipped the ball to the back post, where Gareth Bale, returning from paternity leave to torment the club that nurtured him until he left for Tottenham as a teenager in 2007, sent a header into the bottom corner.
Bale went close with another header from a Huddlestone corner in the 25th minute before Southampton performed one of their most embarrassing defensive disintegrations of a season that has already featured several farces at the back.
Lennon was allowed to run forward 50 yards from inside his own half before slipping the ball through to Defoe, who guided it past the outrushing Boruc. The backtracking José Fonte dawdled before attempting to clear the shot and then slipped, meaning he succeeded only in tapping the ball into the path of Clint Dempsey, who smashed into the net from three yards.
That prompted furious jeers from the locals and Boruc, making his home debut, exchanged angry words with some of his side's fans. Adkins said he would look into claims on Twitter that a bottle was thrown by his goalkeeper during the dispute.
It was starting to look like the only thing stopping Southampton from keeping up their average of conceding four goals per game so far this season was the poor finishing of Spurs, especially Defoe. Then suddenly Southampton improved. Substitutions have tended to backfire on Adkins this season but his replacement of Jason Puncheon with Emmanuel Mayuka in the 58th minute, coupled with a formation adjustment to give the hosts a foothold in central midfield, triggered an immediate upswing.
Yoshida came close to scoring but his header was cleared off the line. From the resultant corner Fonte produced a foxy flick that Brad Friedel batted away desperately before Jay Rodriguez slammed the rebound into the net.
Tottenham, hitherto so dominant, found themselves clinging on just as they had done when prevailing 3-2 at Manchester United last month, with Sandro, William Gallas and Steven Caulker making important blocks late on. "We were extremely good in the first half," said André Villas-Boas, the Tottenham manager. "Then suddenly in the second half it was like the match at Old Trafford and we showed desire to fight for the result."
Adkins, meanwhile, insisted his job was not in jeopardy. "Yes," he boomed emphatically when asked whether he was confident he would be given time to turn things around. "We are all working together. I said before the season that we've had plain sailing for the last two years but in the Premier League there would be some choppy waters and we would have to ride it out."
Man of the match Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur)
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image: © Matt Boulton