Perception, Not Performance, Is The Problem: A Close Examination Of The Curious Case Of Tanguy Ndombele

Editor's note -- Great work and an impassioned entry into the Tanguy Ndiscourse. Thanks, Ray_of_Sonshine!

As the dust settles on Tottenham Hotspur’s rather nervy 3-1 win over Morecambe FC in the FA Cup, what should be a discussion on the performances of the players involved has been overtaken by a new but all too familiar narrative regarding the performance of one player and where his Tottenham career goes from here. The situation surrounding Tanguy Ndombele and his time at the club has reached a possibly untenable point after yesterday’s match that saw him being booed off the pitch by his own fans when being substituted during the game as his teammates urged him to speed up his slow walk off the pitch with the team 1-0 down to Morecambe. It felt like a moment that was the culmination of unspoken tension between the player and the fanbase that has been brewing for the majority of his time at the club with several factors playing a role in getting us to where we are now.

Tanguy’s time before transferring to Spurs has been rehashed again and again but to give a recap for anybody unaware, Tanguy Ndombele has never been considered the most conventional footballer, especially in his preferred position of midfield. During his time in Guingamp’s youth academy, there had always been questions over his commitment to football as a career and that eventually led to his release from the academy at the age of 17 in 2014. However, this wasn’t to be the end for the young midfielder, and he was eventually given a second chance at Amiens, where he knuckled down before earning a transfer to Lyon in 2018 where he then went on to establish himself in their first team and Europe via a series of world-class performances in the league and the Champion’s League. The rest is, as they say, history but it does offer some insight into how we’ve gotten to this point where Tottenham’s record signing and a player that so many fans and members of the club had pinned their hopes on for being the iconic Mousa Dembele’s successor in the centre of the park for years to come.

As both Tottenham’s record signing at £55 million and the long-awaited and heralded successor to Dembele in the midfield, there has always been a cloud of expectation that has hung over Tanguy’s head during his time at Spurs. In Tanguy’s case, there was probably more expectation because he was a big-money signing with world-class potential arriving at the club in a position we desperately needed to fill. To anyone looking from outside of the club, all the pieces were there for a player like him to excel under Mauricio Pochiettino’s system at Spurs if everything went to plan…except things, as is so often the case, didn’t go according to plan. Poch was sacked by the club in mid-November 2019 after a series of poor results found Spurs in 14th place. Even before being sacked, Poch had come out to the media and encouraged patience and tempering of expectations with the new signing as he adjusted to the Premier League.

Tanguy, for his part, had started off rather brightly and had even scored in his debut against Aston Villa. Then came the injuries. By the time Poch was sacked Tanguy along with his fellow summer signing Giovanni Los Celso had missed several important matches. With football fans being football fans, it seems that with Jose Mourinho taking the helm at the club, expectations further increased for the young midfielder to come back from injury and to play a role in saving the season alongside the likes of Son and Kane. This is the point where the cracks could be seen as starting to appear and the moment when the overarching narrative surrounding Tanguy’s tenure at Spurs among supporters began to form.

After a string of disappointing performances upon his return for injury, Tanguy Ndombele ended up being singled out by Jose Mourinho for criticism after Spurs drew 1-1 with Burnley. Mourinho was notorious for having one or two players at each of his clubs who would end up in his proverbial doghouse at some point during his tenure with said club. Unfortunately for Tanguy, it was his turn to become that player, much to the chagrin of anyone who was hoping that we’d be able to make it through Mourinho’s reign at Spurs without this occurring. It was after this public reprimand from his manager that the first critiques of Tanguy’s game began to appear among the fanbase and pundits alike.

At the time the more sinister elements of the criticism regarding Tanguy’s performance weren’t really there to be found, and a case could be made for how disappointing his performances were. However that all began to change by the time the 2019/20 season came to a close. At that point, comments about his gait or supposed nonchalance during matches became more and more commonplace, and it was even accepted to straight-up call him a "lazy player" who wasn’t committed enough to football.

o anybody who wasn’t aware of the more problematic undertones to these statements, they seemed innocuous enough and may have appeared like honest observations of an underperforming player. However, within sports, there have always been certain stereotypes surrounding how black athletes are viewed by fans and talked about within the media. In the case of black footballers, much is usually made about their "natural talent" and whether they are willing or unwilling to fulfil that potential. In Tanguy’s case that has become the recurring narrative surrounding him even during the times when he has had a consistent run of good form, like during an almost 3 month stretch during the 2020/21 Premier League season when he was arguably one of Tottenham’s most consistent performers in terms of both defensive and offensive output.

The idea that he never contributed with defensive actions remained a predominant viewpoint in the fanbase in spite of the stats proving that he was average to good in that regard. In fact, according to FBref, Tanguy ranked 3rd within the squad for tackles that helped the team win the ball back with most of those actions coming in the centre of the pitch. In terms of successful pressures, Tanguy ranked only behind Pierre Emile Højbjerg for the 2020/21 Premier League season. These statistics, while they may not exactly be outstanding in the grand scheme of the entire Premier League season, are often overlooked in most discussions regarding Tanguy’s place in an underperforming Spurs team in favour of discussing the same aforementioned topics about Tanguy’s nonchalance and supposed commitment issues to being a footballer.

At this point in the article, I would like to emphasize I do not believe that Tanguy is the perfect player who can do no wrong. I do believe that he also bears a bit of responsibility for how his Tottenham career has turned out but I also believe that we should mindful that none of this has occurred within a vacuum. The majority of Tanguy’s time at Spurs has coincided with our most turbulent time as a club in recent years, including multiple managerial changes while being set against the backdrop of a global pandemic. As if that already wasn’t enough to take a toll on any player, there has also been outside factors such as adjusting to a new country and language while being far from home that has also affected his time at Spurs. It is clear to see why it would be hard for anybody to fully adjust to life in that type of environment or might even want to return home or transfer to another club as has happened in Tanguy’s place. I know that the usual argument is that "Well they’re millionaires paid hundreds of thousands of dollars/pounds per week to do their job! Why should I feel bad for him?" and to that, I say try to use basic empathy instead of falling into believing a narrative built off of harmful stereotypes.

People have every right to be disappointed in some of Tanguy's performances on the pitch or the fact that it may seem like multiple managers have written him off in their time with Spurs because of his so called "lack of commitment" or "laziness". However, in regards to the latter that hasn’t been the case when looking at the numbers surrounding his 2.5 seasons at Spurs while fit. The fact that Jose Mourinho, the same manager who publically lambasted him in the media just a few months before, had Tanguy playing some of his best football as a number 10 during his Tottenham for a solid 3 month stretch from October 2020 to January 2021 serves as a clear indication of the asset Tanguy can be to the team when he’s allowed to get a consistent run of games while fit.

After yesterday’s match, I’m not sure what the future holds for the rest of Tanguy Ndombele’s time at Spurs. It seems that a breaking point has been reached between the player and the fanbase and something will have to give sooner rather than later. I can only hope that he gets the chance to flourish as a footballer whether it is at Tottenham Hotspur or another club. All I can ask of us as fans are to be more empathetic of the plight of some players and understand that they are human too in addition to understanding the role that our own unconscious biases may play in our perception of football. Understandably, a lot of people may not realize how coded the fandom rhetoric surrounding Tanguy as a player has become. In the moment, some of these comments may not seem like they hold much weight but just beneath the surface those words are rooted in some pretty harmful stereotypes. Our words have weight and we need to be more careful and understanding in how we use them.

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