“I know that the Premier League is very difficult and for some players it takes time. Some players it takes a long time to adapt to a different league, but a player with his potential and responsibility has to give us more than he is giving us,” Jose Mourinho scathed following Tottenham’s drab 1-1 draw with Burnley back in March.
That player was the club’s record signing the previous summer, who’d earned plaudits – mostly from teenagers on Twitter – for his displays against elite opposition in the Champions League with Lyon. He was Tanguy Ndombele – the ‘YouTube footballer’, as Jamie Carragher assessed in his analysis of the Frenchman’s display at Turf Moor.
Ndombele’s showing against Sean Dyche’s Clarets earlier this year served as a microcosm for his debut campaign in north London. Partnered alongside Oliver Skipp in the middle of the park, sequences of overwhelming technical quality were overshadowed by a distinct lack of effort in the defensive phase, as depicted by Carragher.
A miserable evening for the 24-year-old was cut short at the break, with Giovani Lo Celso – amid his Spurs carry-job – replacing Ndombele for the second half and helping the Lilywhites rescue a point.
But as Spurs headed into matchday six of the 2020/21 Premier League campaign, Ndombele arrived off the back of his own renaissance. This was/is simply a new man.
After earning a mere 64 minutes of league action following that Turf Moor nightmare in 2019/20, the Frenchman had already notched 214 Premier League minutes this term before adding another 79 to the tank on Monday night.
He’s now rightly one of the first names on Mourinho’s team sheet, with Spurs’ hectic September schedule proving the ultimate blessing in disguise for the innovative midfielder. From a game-altering cameo against Lokomotiv Plovdiv, the Marseille turn on the English south coast, to a complete, controlling performance against North Macedonian monsters Shkëndija, September was a watershed period in Ndombele’s evolution at Tottenham.
From there, the Frenchman churned out a superb display in the 6-1 win over Manchester United, in which he scored his first Premier League goal in 12 months, before his departure against West Ham proved a factor in Spurs’ unthinkable demise, as they lost control of the contest without their rejuvenated midfielder.
Alas, Monday night at Turf Moor was the ultimate ‘full circle’ moment in his resurgent journey.
It was the perfect opportunity for Ndombele to exorcise the demons on the very ground where he’d slumped to his lowest point amid a mightily frustrating debut campaign at Tottenham.
For some, it might have taken a while to settle down against an aggressive side who you don’t exactly have fond memories of. Nope, not Ndombele. Within a minute he’d already drawn a cynical challenge from Josh Brownhill after bursting past Ashley Westwood down the left flank, before bypassing Kevin Long with the most effortless of nutmegs. Seriously, the ease at which this guy plays the game is ridiculous.
Nevertheless, that opening sequence was the start of a fine outing. Amid the most archetypal of Burnley performances, Ndombele was the visitors’ brightest spark as he completed more dribbles (five) than the rest of the Spurs side (four) while functioning in a slightly more advanced role – ahead of Hojbjerg and Moussa Sissoko in a 4-3-3 – compared to last season.
It’s clear to see that it’s a position that comes unnatural to him, highlighted by Spurs’ distinct no-show between the Clarets’ compact lines, but he’s continued to perform the function admirably. On one of the few occasions where Ndombele was able to gain positional superiority over Burnley’s midfield, he should’ve had an assist for Son Heung-min after receiving between the lines before weighting his ball perfectly in behind for the South Korean to latch on to.
Throughout the contest, it was the Frenchman who was often solely responsible for changing the tempo of his’s side’s one-paced and predictable attacks. Through his ability to discover non-existent passing angles, combine off one-touch efficiently and persistently play vertically, it was Ndombele alone who was able to manipulate and penetrate the hosts’ rigid block before Spurs eventually found a way through late on.
But then there was the hard-work, the graft, the new-found grittiness which have morphed Ndombele from ‘YouTube footballer’ into dependable all-rounder. He was pressing from his advanced role in midfield right up until his late substitution, with Jose Mourinho embracing the Frenchman as Lo Celso trotted onto the field in his place, just like he did on the same ground seven months ago.
But the circumstances this time around couldn’t have been more contrasting. Sure, Monday night was no Diego Maradona vs England ’86 or Zinedine Zidane vs Brazil ’06 level of performance, not even close, but the difference between 27 October Tanguy and 7 March Tanguy is nonetheless indicative of his impressive renaissance, and the ultimate ‘full circle’ moment.
Ndombele deserves huge credit for enacting a turnaround that only a few foresaw, and it’s frightening that there’s still a lingering feeling that he has so much more to give.