Jose Mourinho finally broke his silence about his relationship with, and the future of, Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Tanguy Ndombele. In embargoed comments to the press that were released late Wednesday evening in the UK, Mourinho tried to downplay that there’s a rift between himself and the player, and even compared him to a Tottenham fan favorite and another world-class midfield talent — former player Luka Modric.
“Of course I believe [Ndombele can be a success]. I think as I started my answer to you - if you have no talent, there is nothing to do. With talent there is a lot to do. If you don’t have talent, you have no chance. If you have talent you have a chance. Football is full of players who have made difficult starts and then ended well.
“When Luka Modric arrived at Real Madrid after six months he was labelled the worst signing in their history by the fans and the press. A few months later he was a champion, then a few months later he was European champion and then a few months later he was voted the best player in the world.
“So when the talent is there many things can happen with adaptation and if the talent is there anything good can happen.”
Mourinho has a point. It’s easy to forget, when Luka Modric first moved to Real Madrid, he was not universally accepted by the fans. He had a rough first season at the Bernabeau, but overcame that obstacle to become a beloved fixture in Madrid’s midfield and one of the best players in the world.
And you don’t have to look outside of Tottenham to find another example of a player who underachieved in his first year before working his way into becoming a critically important member of the squad. Son Heung-Min wanted to leave Spurs after a difficult season when he signed from Bayer Leverkusen, but was convinced to stay by Mauricio Pochettino. Now, it’s hard to imagine this Spurs team without Sonny. Maybe we’ll think the same about Tanguy.
“When a player has no talent, nothing happens. You are born without potential, you die without potential. When you have talent, lots of things can change and lots of things can happen. If you have talent, you have a chance.
“It’s one year since [Ndombele] arrived but six months since I arrived and, maybe I am not the guy to go through what happened in the first six months which I think is very, very important.
“When a player arrives from a different club, a different country, from a different football culture, what happened during the first six months I don’t know.
“I know when I arrived there were problems. Injuries, small injuries, physical condition and that broke that initial impact when a player starts working with the manager and it broke the immediate impact you can have with other players.
“Now it’s a situation where everyone has to adapt to it, I want everyone to adapt to it and the club wants - when I say the club I mean the structure - wants everyone to adapt to it. Which is the facts that we are a big club and we want to be a bigger club.”
I’ve been a very harsh critic of Jose Mourinho and the way he has dealt with Ndombele. I don’t apologize for that. I’m still of the opinion that the club would be better off with someone else — anybody else, really — in charge.
But I also have to admit that his words are, considering Mourinho’s temperament and history, perhaps about as good as we can expect given the circumstances. He acknowledges that Ndombele struggled with injuries this season and that because of that when Mourinho arrived he didn’t get a good idea of what he could do or add to the team. He also acknowledges that Ndombele is a talented player. (There also seems to be a mild dig at Mauricio Pochettino’s handling of Tanguy in the first few months of this season, but nothing too egregious, and if you were to ask him about that, I’m sure Mou would deny that this was his intent.)
Mourinho is never going to be the kind of manager who’s going to be a super-positive, arm-around-the-shoulder type. Here, at least, he appears to be trying to let Spurs supporters know that he hasn’t given up on Ndombele... but that he has to earn his place.
“When you are a big club and you want to be a bigger club, you have lots of good players, you don’t have five or six, 10 or 11, you have lots of very good players. When you have lots of good players, you have lots of options.
“You can face the season, you can face all the competitions and then the players, the fans, you the press, everyone has to understand that when you have lots of good players, you can only start matches with 11.
“In many other clubs, it looks like it’s normal to have great players on the bench. You go to United, you go to Liverpool, City, you go to Real Madrid, you go to Barcelona. Bayern Munich and lots of top players on the bench. That is normal.
“In Tottenham, what I feel is every time a top player is on the bench it’s a drama and the players have to understand that it’s not a drama. You have to understand it’s not a drama and everybody has to understand it’s not a drama.”
“I hope that next season that we have even more top players on the bench because it means that we want to be bigger than where we are now so when a top player is on the bench it doesn’t mean there’s a story behind it. It means that there’s lots of other options.
That’s true, but Mourinho’s comments don’t take into consideration that Ndombele himself might think it’s a drama. Professional footballers want to play football. Ndombele came into Tottenham with the reputation of one of the best central midfielders in Europe. He was Spurs’ all-time record transfer. And what’s also clear is that these two personalities aren’t meshing well — Mourinho is an in-your-face kind of guy, and Ndombele is by all accounts reserved and quiet, which may give the impression that he’s not putting forth the effort that Mourinho requires.
Mourinho’s not wrong when he says that he wants to get Tottenham to the point where very good players are left on the bench. But Spurs aren’t there yet, and it still feels weird that a player like Ndombele, who had an enormous reputation coming into the club, still isn’t getting minutes in this post-COVID time.
Even so, Mourinho gave some hope to Ndombele fans who are desperate to see him get a chance against a very good Sheffield United team at Bramall Lane, indicating that “probably” Tanguy will feature against the Blades.
“The other day, when I played Sissoko and Lo Celso in midfield, there is no drama that Winks is not playing, no drama that Ndombele is not playing, no drama that Lamela is not playing. That’s the life in big clubs. [There’s] no problem with Tanguy, no problem with Tanguy. He’s in a big club where he has to compete with other guys.
“He’s an option for me, a very good player who will probably be playing tomorrow, will probably be playing the next match. There is no problem, there is no story. We are a big club with a squad full of very talented players.”
To summarize, Mourinho wants Tottenham to be a place where there are super talented players on the bench that must work even harder to earn a place on the team. He thinks Ndombele is one of those super talented players who, right now, is on the bench because he needs to earn his place. He also expects Ndombele has the talent to deliver, though it may take some time.
These are all good things. It’s not the full throated supportive statement that we all wanted, but it’s probably as close as we’re going to get from Jose Mourinho. For now, I’ll take it. But ask me again after the Sheffield United match — if Tanguy remains on the bench for the third consecutive game, it won’t take a whole lot for me, and many others, to dismiss Mourinho’s comments as hollow platitudes.