Tottenham Hotspur return to Premier League action this Sunday, hosting Leeds United in what looks on paper to be the start of a more manageable run of fixtures as we head into the congested holiday period. Spurs’ midfield is a big question at the moment — Oliver Skipp is suspended for this match after picking up a fifth yellow card of the season against Everton two weeks ago, and there are some questions about Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg after he missed a couple of matches over the international break with Denmark with a knock.
That shifts the focus onto the other central midfielders at the club, and there probably isn’t a midfielder that casts a larger shadow right now than Tanguy Ndombele. Tottenham’s record signing, he has been a divisive player among Spurs fans who has clearly underperformed his potential, but with about half the fanbase arguing that poor management and injuries are the chief culprit and the other half blaming the player for perceived issues with attitude and effort.
This morning we have quotes from new head coach Antonio Conte that directly talk about Ndombele and what he can bring to the team. Conte has had the chance to work with Ndombele and other players who were not called up for international duty over the past two weeks, his first real look at some of these players who did not initially feature in the Spurs squad. Conte’s comments on Tanguy were measured and fair, but certainly not glowing.
“I have seen that many managers struggled about [Tanguy’s] position. For sure, [he] has the quality but at the same time he has to understand that there is a team and he has to play into the team. It means that it’s important to keep order and to do what the position is asking you to do. We are working very hard with Tanguy – he has to work much more than the others because he has some talent but he has to put this talent into the team, for the best of the team, not for the single player.”
“In my football I have an idea and in the idea there are tasks for the players. Every single player has to know what he has to do. Otherwise if every single player has to go and run around the pitch I think it would be a mess.”
I realize that writing this article is almost certainly going to once again inflame the Tanguy Ndiscourse that seems to rear its ugly head every time his name pops up on the media. And like everything else in the Ndiscourse, how you interpret it says a lot about how you view Tottenham fandom in general, as well as your already preconceived opinions about the kind of player Ndombele is.
Personally, I find Conte’s comments to be clarifying, and not as negative as some have interpreted them. But it does suggest that maybe the way Tanguy plays means he’s not an automatic and perfect fit to Conte’s tactics as we might have assumed. What we know about Conte’s tactics is that his teams are well practiced — there are specific plays and patterns that he drills into his squads relentlessly. It’s an undoubtedly effective, but much more regimented, style of play.
Now compare that to Tanguy, who is an all-vibes kind of player who thrives on individual brilliance and a free-flowing creative style. It’s not hard to imagine that Tanguy is more likely to go “off-script” and that it could rankle Conte a bit. It’s not that Conte plays a sterile form of football, but he wants his players to make sure they are in the right positions to receive and pass the football, especially in midfield. If one cog in the machine has slipped into a different position, the gears can grind to a halt.
However, it’s also impossible to ignore that Conte seems to be suggesting that Ndombele may not be the hardest working player at the club in training. That would certainly seem to fit with some of the criticism that has dogged Tanguy over the course of his career, even at other clubs. The talent is there, Conte seems to be saying, but he’s going to have to really up his game with an extremely demanding manager if he’s going to thrive. It’s not entirely a surprise.
That’s how I interpret Conte’s comments. It’s not negative, not really. Some will probably use the second part as a means to confirm their priors that Ndombele is “lazy” but I don’t see it that way. We know Conte is a demanding coach. We know he wants to play football a certain way. What Conte’s comments suggest, at least to me, is that Ndombele might be a player with some squareish corners that Conte needs to file down before he can perfectly fit into the round hole in his central midfield.
Conte went on to say that he’s going to need time to get his ideas across, and that fans are going to need to have patience.
“We have to improve. My ideas have to go into the minds of my players, offensively and defensively. To arrive in a club in the middle of a season is never easy – honestly I don’t like to do this. But the opportunity to be the Tottenham coach has changed a bit my plan.
“I can tell you that now I’m happy. But we need a bit of time. We are working very hard to improve this process as quickly as possible but we need a bit of time and a bit of patience. But I’m happy because I’m seeing great ability from the players and this is very important to reduce the time for them to understand the ideas.”
Conte was talking about the team as a whole, of course. But you don’t have to read too far between the lines to see that he’s also speaking directly about Ndombele. Spurs fans have been extremely patient with him for what feels like a long time and under some big extenuating circumstances. Looks like we might need a little more.