Watching Tanguy Ndombele in a Tottenham shirt is a fascinating endeavour. To watch him under a manager of Jose Mourinho’s versed tactical philosophy is even more intriguing.
There are expectations of what football players are expected to do in their position. A central midfielder is typically required to be safe in possession, positionally disciplined, and provide central structure to the team.
Ndombele kicks these stereotypes in the face. He demonstrates that amongst football’s increasing need to define and pigeon hole, there is still room for the maverick. His quality is obscene, whilst possessing an aesthetic that keeps the eye trained upon it.
This is the story of the Frenchman’s arrival in London, suffering subsequent hardship, before rising back again. The Athletic’s Tottenham correspondent Charlie Eccleshare talked to First Time Finish about this rarest ilk of midfielder.
A Brief History of Ndombele
The foundations of Ndombele’s career are not one of steady ascension. They describe difficulty and personal reparation to steer one’s career on course.
Born in the suburbs of Paris, Ndombele would play for youth teams in the local area until the age of fourteen. He would then move to the storied Guingamp academy in Northern France. Yet after three years at the academy, no contract offer would arrive.
Amiens of Ligue 2 would call for the teenager’s service and offer him a deal. This would turn sour when Ndombele would offer himself to other clubs and academies, says Jack Pitt-Brooke of The Athletic. This came at at time when Ndombele was overweight and lacking the focus required to elevate himself.
Amiens would cut ties, before recalling him later that year. This blip on his character could be interpreted as youthful ambition, or naïve ignorance. Either way, the club were so taken by Ndombele’s burgeoning talent that they could not deny his place in the side.
His time at Amiens would see him play in the third tier of French football for two seasons, not making his first start until September 2015 with Amiens B. Promotion to Ligue 2 in 2016 would see the young Frenchman moved to the first team. A tight title race would see Amiens climb and finish second, winning further promotion to Ligue 1.
Ndombele would score twice that season and prove integral to their success. Not only were the club back in the top division, but Ndombele was now public attention.
When you least expect it…
For all his brilliance in promoting Amiens, few would have imagined Lyon would loan him for the 2017-18 season. Rarely is it seen for a club the size of Lyon to loan a player from a promoted side. When this club won seven league titles in the previous decade, it takes the breath even further.
Lyon had assembled a fascinating young team to challenge the Paris Saint Germain league hegemony. Ndombele would join Ferland Mendy, Marcal, Kenny Tete, Houssem Aouar, Memphis Depay, and Nabil Fekir. A frightening collection of young, mercurial talent.
This young squad would finish third in the league. Scoring more and conceding fewer than second placed Monaco, it is arguable that they should have gone one better. Sitting in a double pivot with Lucas Tousart, Ndombele would start twenty eight league games. He would make more passes into the final third than any other squad player, complete 3.96 Shot Creating Actions, and only Tousart would make more tackles across the season.
Lyon would buy Ndombele permanently ahead of the next campaign. Again they would finish third, but Ndombele would move up a further gear. His fifty three tackles were a squad high. Seven league assists were up form the previous year’s three. He and Aouar would lead the squad for progressive passes, and Ndombele’s 216 passes into the final third would again top Lyon’s metrics.
The Champions League would be Ndombele’s playground. Lyon would play Manchester City twice in the group stages, winning on aggregate 4-3. In both games Ndombele would break the lines from deep with powerful dribbles, and incisive through balls to Depay and Fekir. Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho were shown the next great of their position in unforgiving circumstances. Time ad again both were spun and left in the Frenchman’s wake.
Tanguy Ndombele: Record Signing
The 2019 Summer transfer window had most of Europe scrabbling for central midfielders. Manchester United continued their never ending pursuit for a partner to Paul Pogba. City were preparing for life after Fernandinho and David Silva. Juventus sought to regenerate their aged middle third.
Ndombele’s impressive Champions League performances out him at the head of the wish lists for these behemoths. Yet it would be Tottenham Hotspur who would capture the Paris born midfielder.
Spurs had built an impressive young squad under Mauricio Pochettino, finishing as the runners up in the Champions League the previous year. In truth, the team had passed its’ peak of a couple years previous. For that Champions League final, Pochettino was left with only two central midfielders in Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko. It was time to inject young quality into this area of the pitch.
‘After the Champions League final defeat, Pochettino gave the request to Daniel Levy that he wanted Ndombele. They hadn’t signed anyone since Lucas Moura (in January 2018), so there was scepticism about whether they would get the transfer done.’ says Charlie.
The fee would amount to a club record £54 million, with Ndombele becoming the club’s second highest earner behind Harry Kane. Not only were Tottenham reinforcing their midfield options, they were adding a superstar quality.
‘He was seen as a replacement for Mousa Dembele. Giovani Lo Celso would arrive also that summer, and was seen as a replacement for when Christian Eriksen would leave.’
Ndombele and Lo Celso were the transformative elements to take Spurs fans into their new era. Supposedly.
Ndombele would impress on pre-season duty for the club before making his league debut in the opening fixture against Aston Villa. With Spurs one nil down, Ndombele stroked home a gorgeous equalizer from outside the box. In their new stadium, Tottenham would welcome the new season with a 3-1 won. Ndombele’s goal was undoubtedly the catalyst.
This would be the high water mark for him in his first months in London. Lo Celso, having arrived on loan on deadline day, was suffering with injuries. Ndombele too would feature intermittently. Pochettino would state that time was up to two seasons were needed for Ndombele to adapt to his demands.
The Argentine would last until November, when with Spurs fourteenth in the league, he would be dismissed. It was uncertain what impact this would have for the record signing, with the outgoing coach reticent to praise the Frenchman on his performances.
The arrival of one Jose Mourinho would add further doubt to the landscpae. Those that have seen the Amazon documentary will know the aura Mourinho arrives at a club. Spurs had previously fished in very different ponds, recruiting younger, developing coaches to carry forward a youthful ethos.
Mourinho is the antithesis to this. To many Spurs fans, it was doing the deal with the devil. A ruthless, winning mentality, at the expense of the long term. As a young player adapting to the culture, Ndombele was thrust into simialr uncertain climbs.
‘It is always tricky for young players to adjust the Premier League. He had some injuries under Pochettino and in the first months of Mourinho’s time. Also his style is quite languid, and it seemed like a culture shock to him.’
‘Coming to a new country, didn’t speak the language. We sometimes forget about these things affecting a young player.’
Flight or fight for Ndombele
An even trickier rest of the season would follow. Lo Celso would develop quicker, and Mourinho would favour the tenacity of the Argentine over Ndombele. The Frenchman appeared unfit and unhappy. In a 1-1 draw with Burnley in March, Mourinho would single Ndombele out as being “disappointing”.
‘It was always in Mourinho’s best interests to get Tanguy Ndombele playing to his full potential. He believed the best way was to demand more from him.
It was divisive, especially the Burnley incident. He thought that was required, and it was an uneasy relationship. ‘
The season would end late due to the coronavirus pandemic, with Lo Celso firmly implanted as a manager and fan favourite. Ndombele seemed to be the latest in a line of players shunned by the Portuguese.
‘It looked like he would leave. The relationship looked beyond the point of no return. Since then he has made the best of it.’
Kevin De Bruyne and Paul Pogba are just two players to have been outcasted by Mourinho. Both had to either leave or wait out Mourinho’s departure to see their deserved recognition. Ndombele however would stay and fight, in a way he has throughout his career.
‘Over summer he really knuckled down. He started responding to Mourinho, and the two developed a much better understanding. He deserves a lot of credit for his turnaround at the club. It is a positive cycle, playing more means he has more confidence and he feels respected.’
The 2020/21 Ndombele
In Mourinho’s system, Tottenham attack in a 4-3-3 that merges into a 4-2-3-1. Ndombele starts as the left sided central midfielder, drifting into the creative ‘ten’ space to penetrate defensive lines. This positioning allows him to express himself on the ball from deep, whilst protecting him with solid defensive structure. In Sissoko and Pierre- Emile Hojbjerg, Ndombele has two covering protectors to allow him to surge forward.
In the 5-2 win at Southampton, Ndombele was at his explosive best. The home side execute a drilled, collective team press aiming to win the ball high. The Frenchman collects the ball inside his own half, facing his own defence. Harry Winks and Hojbjerg are covering, but with Oriel Romeu pressing him it is a precarious position.
Ndombele then executes his trademark. Stooping low, he wriggles free of Romeu and another presser. There are three Saints pressers harrassing him, but Ndombele pirouettes past them in a flash. Son Heung-min spots this and begins his forward charge.
The positioning of Hojbjerg (circled) and Winks allows him to execute this move. Even if he loses the ball, Spurs have men behind the ball to protect against the transition. The skill required however is astonishing. Ndombele bursts forward with Southampton’s midfield in disarray, and with all three attackers arrowing forward. He passes wide to Kane, who crosses for Son to score.
The explosive attack of Son and Kane has carried Spurs so far. Mourinho has allowed his team to sit incredibly deep and soak pressure. Winning the ball, however deep, brings the forwards into play with just one pass. With a midfielder as press resistant as Ndombele, opposition know that their entire midfield can be bypassed with one roll of the shoulder. It is a weapon few players possess, and means teams either have to double (or triple) up on him.
The record transfer coming good
For all the veiled criticisms by his managers last year, Ndombele is thriving under the current coach.
‘Playing as an eight is his best role. He is so good at beating the press, so he’s really effective deep. He is also a brilliant passer, with a brilliant range. In this role he can really express himself.’
Both Ndombele and Lo Celso represent the present and future of the club’s midfield. Mourinho has shown reluctance to field the two together thus far however.
‘In time I think they will play together, even with Lo Celso playing wide right. Both of them playing in a midfield three in a 4-3-3 is what most fans want.’
It will have been a relief to the club that he has found his place in the team as he has. No matter what the magnitude of bid that may have arrived, selling Ndombele would have been a tragedy.
The record signing, but also a player of such rare ability. The fear of seeing him thrive elsewhere would have been intolerable, and make his success currently all the sweeter.
Every swoop of his left shoulder, every burst through enemy lines, will delight every fan that thought they might not see another Mousa Dembele. Moments like a rabona pass out to the left wing against Crystal Palace show that Ndombele is far more than that.
It cannot be overstated how unique the Ndombele style is. Few will set the heart pounding from central midfield as he does. Still just twenty- four, Ndombele is carving a reputation amongst fans. There is a sense of despondency when is name is not on the team sheet. How long ago 2019/20 seems now.
‘He is just such a talented player’ exclaims Charlie.
He’s right. Sublimely talented, with a backstory to match. Don’t take your eyes of these next chapters. Ask anyone who has marked him. He’ll be past you in a flash.