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Tanguy Ndombele discusses tumultuous early tenure at Spurs in first UK interview

In his first major UK interview, Tottenham’s record signing opens up on injuries, nonchalance, and Jose Mourinho.

Tottenham Hotspur v West Ham United - Premier League Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

After a year and a half at Tottenham Hotspur, Tanguy Ndombele is finally opening up. In a wide-ranging interview published in a number of outlets including The Guardian and Football.London, Ndombele finally speaks in his own voice, almost certainly in French with help from a translator, discussing what has been a tumultuous year and a half in north London.

While the interview touches on a number of subjects including his upbringing, early career, and his silky skill set that made him one of the most sought-after midfielders in Europe a few years ago, the juicy bits are of course his difficulty establishing himself at Spurs, his relationship with the club, and in particular his relationship with Jose Mourinho which has been the subject of much discussion over the past few months.

Ndombele’s early struggles are well-documented. He famously struggled with injury in the early months, something that carried over from the Mauricio Pochettino tenure to that of Mourinho. What is new information from this interview, however, is Tanguy’s admission that he really struggled to adapt to Pochettino’s grueling preseason training, and that his body may have suffered for it, at least initially. Ndombele even said he was ready to return to France after just a few weeks under Pochettino, because the intensity was so different than what he experienced in Lyon.

“It was incredibly tough. I was even calling home to my friends in France saying I wanted to come back. Undoubtedly, it had a role to play in the injuries I got. My body needed to get used to that sort of work and it was the shock of it to begin with that had a role to play in the fitness problems I had.”

Pochettino was famously tough on his players in preseason, pushing them almost past their limits because his pressing tactics required an almost ludicrous amount of fitness to pull off. Ndombele’s comments imply that his early injuries may have come from Poch pushing him too hard, and his body just took time to adapt. But those early injuries didn’t endear him to a prickly Mourinho, who became frustrated with the little niggles that seemed to keep Tanguy out of the side in the early part of his tenure. Tanguy also had a positive COVID-19 diagnosis during lockdown that made the resumption of football even tougher, something which was hinted at in the media but never outright confirmed before now.

For what it’s worth, in this interview it’s hard to get a clear sense about what Ndombele really thinks about Jose Mourinho and their early relationship. Ndombele is a professional footballer and what comes through in these comments is that he’s had media training. He’s careful with his words and skirts around any definitive declarations on his feelings about the thorny relationship with Mou in those early days and months.

He does, however, make it clear that he had a rough time during the COVID-19 lockdown, starting with the Burnley match just before COVID stopped football where Mourinho publicly called him out to the media and continuing into the shutdown. Burnley certainly wasn’t a highlight, but it also wasn’t the lowest part of the past year: the isolation combined with his continued adjustment to life and England and the eventual Premier League restart and its crush of games took a toll.

Then came the notorious outdoor run with Jose who showed up at his door in the middle of the pandemic, one that got both player and manager rebuked by Premier League and club authorities for violating lockdown protocols.

“On a scale of one to 10, how surprised was I? Honestly? Ten. I asked why I should have to run and he said I just had to do it. So it was nothing, really. Afterwards he congratulated me and said that I’d run well.

“Was that the most important moment [in terms of Mourinho]? I don’t think so. It was right in the middle of the hardest time for me. The match against Burnley … it wasn’t a nice time. The coach came out and said what he had to say afterwards and it’s not nice to hear those things. But the hardest moment was the restart.

“If you know Mourinho then you understand how he behaves I wouldn’t call it confrontation. He’s just got a certain way of sending his messages and it all depends on how you receive those messages.

“How did his public criticisms make me feel? Quite simply, I needed to fight for myself. Of course, it’s never nice when you hear those things about you. But the most important thing is to work really hard, fight and turn the situation around. Thankfully, that’s something I’ve managed to do.

“For me, the hardest thing was getting used to my new life here – new language, new teammates, new league. The change of manager [from Pochettino to Mourinho] wasn’t the most challenging thing. The arrival of a new manager is hard at first, but over time we’ve gotten to know each other and now we have a good relationship.”

Ndombele also confirms that he really did want to leave Tottenham this summer, but Daniel Levy flat out refused to sell him, and in the process of that refusal and the subsequent discussions, Tanguy and the Spurs chairman forged a mutual respect for each other.

“Myself and Levy, we get on well. I am a player and he is the chairman. If we need to speak, we speak. There’s not much more to it than that, we both respect each other. Right from the start though he said he wasn’t going to let me leave. He didn’t want me to go. He looked me in the eyes and he said to me ‘The problem is you’re stubborn’.”

“I wouldn’t really say that I made errors, or particular errors. I think everybody has to take their own responsibility for what goes on in a season and there were things that went on at the club that people know about and things that went on at the club that people don’t know about. It’s always like that and now’s not the time to talk about those things. If people don’t know about what went on, then it’s because they shouldn’t know about those things that went on.

“I’m able now to look back and see what were the aspects of my contribution that I needed to work on and what’s great now is that everything’s moving in the right direction for the team, for the club and for everyone and that’s really satisfying.”

I don’t know if after reading these comments if I have any further clarity on what exactly happened between Ndombele and Mourinho when things looked at their lowest. I get the sense that Ndombele is being both realistic about his own culpability in their strained relationship and why he wasn’t getting on the pitch, perhaps more so than I and others were willing to grant at the time, but he’s also being quite charitable about Mourinho’s behavior. Tanguy comes across as a smart guy, savvy with his words, but also quite open about what his comments mean in the larger context of football and fandom.

We’re certainly not getting the whole story in this interview, and likely not a complete picture about how Tanguy really feels. And for the purposes of Tanguy’s continued career at Spurs and his desire on how much to rock the boat, it’s extremely well played. I’m impressed.

It does certainly provide a whole new layer of nuance to the fan-driven discussion as to whether Mourinho brought a “lazy,” “fat,” and “nonchalant” Tanguy Ndombele (all words unfairly used to describe him in the discourse) into the Spurs fold, or whether, as has also been suggested, Daniel Levy forced Mourinho to play nice with the club’s record signing. Maybe that discussion doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Ndombele is doing well, is getting along with his gaffer, and Spurs are the better for it.

I’d encourage everyone to give the full interviews in The Guardian (David Hytner) and Football.London (Alasdair Gold) a read. They both have slightly different quotes and takes on Tanguy’s answers, and they’re both fantastic reads.