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The curious case of Tanguy Ndombele

Tottenham’s record signing has struggled with injuries and fitness, but while his game needs a little tweaking it’d be foolish to give up on him quite yet.

Chelsea FC v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Editor’s note: it might seem like a strange time to onboard a new writer, but that’s what we’re doing. Please welcome Andres Ramirez, who will be focusing mostly on tactics and player analysis.

July 2nd, 2019 - Tottenham Hotspur confirm the signing of Tanguy Ndombele from Olympique Lyonnais for a fee of £55m. Spurs fans were not only shocked by the club’s atypical early movement in the transfer window, but excited too - here was a player that represented everything that Tottenham were missing since the departure of Moussa Dembele. A midfielder who could provide an engine for a stuttering midfield, raise the ‘technical ability’ bar beyond the like of Harry Winks, and, most importantly, could turn defensive action into attacking opportunity through deep midfield progressions.

Looking at stats from his last season in Lyon, Spurs fans had every reason to be excited about Ndombele joining the Lilywhite ranks - sure, a player that lost possession fairly often, but could make himself an asset in the progression of play beyond the middle third. His pressing numbers also bode well for life under Mauricio Pochettino given his famous, physically rigorous style of play.

It’s not July anymore however and the outlook for Tottenham Hotspur going into the 20/21 season has drastically changed - and the perception of Ndombele along with it. There’s little need to recap the bigger picture, but specifically for Ndombele the Frenchman has found life in North London particularly difficult. Struggling to find game time under Pochettino and picking up little knocks through the first half of the season, he was seen as a player that had quality but unlucky with injury. He’s suffered the same setbacks under Mourinho but the opinion of him being unlucky has largely given way to him not working hard enough. Mourinho had history of slating players publicly at his most recent charge in Manchester, and it looks like he’s using the same tactics at Tottenham, with Ndombele in his sights.

The million dollar question - is it warranted? It’s hard for anyone that isn’t involved in Tottenham’s first team training day in day out to understand the complete picture. All we really have to go off of is on-pitch performances, public comments, and frankly small things that we as fans judge players on (body language, etc).

Mourinho’s recent comments came after Tottenham’s draw away at Burnley, and Mou specifically honed in on Ndombele’s first half performance, saying that the player needs to do more to live up to everyone’s expectations of him.

No one can really argue against that, but comments like these have put a target on Ndombele’s back for the fans, garnering him derision for an apparent lack of fitness and effort. I decided to take a look at his performance against Burnley (upside of a quarantine I guess) and honestly... I think it’s all a bit overblown.

First, there’s absolutely no denying that the man is one of our better players on the ball. He averages 2 dribbles a game in the Premier League, compared to Winks’ .6 and Sissoko’s 1.2. He clearly has an eye for incisive forward passing and he demonstrated that in his half against Burnley.

Within the first 5 minutes of the match, Tanguy makes a one touch pass to find Dele in the half space. Both Dele and Lamela have the space to turn and attack defenders, putting Burnley’s defenders on the back foot.

Ndombele springs another counter, this time finding Bergwijn after a Burnley corner.

Only one corner comes off as a result of these attacks, but that has more to do with Tottenham’s current malaise in attack rather than anything to do with Ndombele. Barring Lo Celso, he’s been the player that can reliably move the ball forward to get Spurs attackers in dangerous situations against the opposition.

Where Ndombele can improve is his off the ball contribution. When Spurs are in possession of the ball in the defensive third, he’s slow to open up angles or react to his midfielder’s movement to create passing triangles. At one point in the first half, he was nowhere to be found (literally) when Spurs were trying to build from the back.

Skipp has checked towards the ball and there is plenty of space for a player to face the ball, receive a pass, and turn, but Ndombele is nowhere to be found.

For whatever reason, Ndombele was downward, offscreen, occupying the space by Vertonghen.

In defensive movements, Ndombele’s lackluster positioning can lead to potentially more dire consequences. In this example, he fails to read the play quickly enough to understand where he might be within one or two passes, but more unforgivingly he fails to run back fast enough when he’s realized he’s been caught out.

Cork reaches the space before Ndombele, and would have had a free chance to cause problems in the box for Spurs if he had received a pass. Worth noting that Ndombele tugged Cork back a bit when a cross came in, indicating he knew he was putting the team in trouble if Cork had been involved in play.
Rodriguez makes a run to occupy Dier and Alderweireld, and free up the 18 yard box for Cork to run into. Ndombele rushes to at least put Cork under pressure should he receive a pass.

It’s these lapses that can create a ton of problems for Mourinho and the team. With just three clean sheets in 17 prior to Burnley, Mourinho is struggling to implement his trademark defensive rigidity. A midfield that is defensively lacking (even when Dier is playing further forward) doesn’t help matters.

Another example of a free Burnley man free near the top of the 18. Vertonghen reads the danger and pinches in, opening up acres of space for a right sided player to bomb towards. At this point Ndombele is effectively taken out of the game.

Either Ndombele’s positioning has to improve or he needs to improve his fitness so that if he is caught out, he can catch his man (maybe Sanchez should be taking him under his wing.) Regardless, I struggle to understand why Mourinho is singling him out. Spurs are a mess all over the pitch, and there are players who have put in worse performances (Vertonghen, Dier, Dele to name a few) not just once but fairly consistently under Mourinho.

In thinking of how incomplete a picture us fans get regarding any situation with a player, it made me think of a Tifo podcast I heard last year - A Day in The Life Of: A Football Recuitment Analyst. In it, Nick Tyler-Hicks of Millwall FC states how our minds trick us into believing things that we think we see - for example, how a player looks like he runs affects our understanding of how they run. So much so that if we see someone run and we find it aesthetically pleasing, we tend to believe that person runs fast or works hard (for Spurs, Son would be a good example.) I do wonder if Ndombele’s lack of grace while running, and straight up deer on ice skates style of dribbling, hurts the perception of him more than he knows.

Regardless, Mou’s criticism comes from a place of sparking a fire under Tanguy, and not merely scapegoating as he did in Manchester United. At just 23, in his first season abroad, I would urge both Mourinho and the fans to have patience towards Tanguy. It will pay off next year.