Though it’s still early days, Nuno Espirito Santo’s start at Tottenham has been nothing short of sensational. Keeping hold of talisman Harry Kane, rallying a now-seemingly united squad, fixing a fragile defence and leading the Premier League after three wins from as many games – there is obvious cause for optimism in north London.
But for Tanguy Ndombele, it’s a rather different story. And for the second time in his short and highly turbulent Tottenham career, the French enigma must once again fight back from adversity.
The 24-year-old, who signed for a club-record £65million in the summer of 2019, is the only senior squad member yet to feature under the new manager – including pre-season – despite having played no international football his summer.
Tanguy Ndombele has been involved in training but is yet to feature under Nuno Espirito Santo
He remains the club’s record signing following his £65m move from Lyon in the summer of 2019
But after Tottenham failed in a last-minute attempt to offload the £200,000-a-week midfielder as the transfer window slammed shut, Ndombele will now be reintegrated into the squad and must force his way back into the team.
In good news for the talented midfielder, he has been included in Tottenham’s Europa Conference League group-stage squad and will likely get some minutes in the coming weeks.
But if Ndombele has ambitions to emerge from the fringes of the squad and lock down a regular starting role, he’ll have to get to work. Indeed, he’s done it before, but can he repeat the trick?
Currently ahead of him the pecking order is Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, who played every minute in the Premier League last season, alongside Dele Alli and Oliver Skipp.
Tottenham have won three from three Premier League matches in his absence, with the north London club sat top of the table
The latter starred while on loan at Norwich last season and has continued to impress under Nuno, offering a shield to centre-pack pairing Eric Dier and Davinson Sanchez, who are yet to concede in the Premier League this season.
Meanwhile, a resurgent Alli, though not providing as much of a goal threat as in his early years, has impressed with his sheer tenacity, covering more distance (11.06km) than any other player in Tottenham’s impressive 1-0 opening-day win over Manchester City.
But Ndombele, who became a father for the first time over the summer, has been entirely overlooked by Nuno, whose approach appears more akin to Jose Mourinho than Mauricio Pochettino.
Despite training the entire week beforehand, Ndombele was left out of Tottenham’s final pre-season encounter against Arsenal, with Nuno afterwards insisting it wasn’t the right moment for him to be considered for selection.
And after being left out of the squad to face Man City and for both Europa Conference League play-off legs against Pacos de Ferreira, Nuno insisted it wasn’t his job to convince Ndombele to play.
Oliver Skipp (centre right), Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (centre) and Dele Alli (centre left) have formed an impressive trio in midfield three games into the campaign
New manager Nuno Espirito Santo has enjoyed an impressive start to his life at Tottenham
‘What happened in the past I can’t even think about, I don’t mention out of respect,’ he said. ‘What I can tell you is that Tanguy is with us, he works but we have to speak honestly and to take the best out of Tanguy (it) has to come from himself.
‘It has to come from himself. I don’t want to go much further than that but it has to come from himself.
‘We already had a chance to talk but it must come from himself. I said it before, my job here is not to convince players to play for Tottenham Hotspur, it is to prepare players to play for Tottenham Hotspur.’
But while the Portuguese has evidently rallied his squad after a difficult couple of years, with the likes of now-Celtic goalkeeper Joe Hart revealing the manager’s ruthless side, there is a distinct lack of creativity in this Tottenham team.
They have scored just three goals in as many league games to date, two of which came from set pieces, with the other – being Son Heung-min’s strike against City – resulting from a mix-up between Ederson and Ruben Dias.
Of course, they were without Harry Kane for two of the three matches, but even on his return Tottenham struggled to break down a stubborn Watford at home.
Ndombele, likened to Ronaldinho by former team-mate Gareth Bale, could be the key to Nuno’s problems, having shown his ability to drive forward and deliver a defence-splitting pass on numerous occasions throughout his Tottenham career.
The midfielder is widely recognised as the most naturally gifted player within the Spurs squad, but it’s harnessing that ability over a 90-minute match that’s been the issue for Pochettino, Mourinho and interim boss Ryan Mason in the past.
But with Giovani Lo Celso set to miss their upcoming fixture against Crystal Palace at the very least, needing to quarantine having travelled – against the wishes of the club who will fine him – to Brazil with Argentina, and with Son a doubt having picked up an injury while away on international duty, it’s an issue Nuno may have to solve, and fast.
Giovani Lo Celso (centre) will have to quarantine before returning to Tottenham, having travelled to Brazil with team-mate Cristian Romero while on international duty with Argentina
Though Ndombele’s latest bump in the road has left Tottenham fans somewhat mystified, the Frenchman’s struggles in London can be traced right back to day one.
The midfielder experienced a meteoric rise from the fifth tier of French football to the Premier League in just a five-year spell, arriving at Tottenham aged only 22, carrying the tag of the club’s record signing and with the expectations of replacing previous midfield general Mousa Dembele in the long term.
But even under the guidance of a more sympathetic Pochettino, who made sure to play down the ever-building hype and insist Ndombele’s adaption – particularly in his physicality – would take time, the Frenchman wanted out, and quick.
The gruelling double-training sessions came as a bombshell to a largely nonchalant midfielder, who subsequently told Football.London that he was calling his friends back in France saying he wanted to return.
Ndombele introduced himself to the Tottenham faithful in style after battling through the summer, however, scoring the all-important equaliser as they came from behind to beat Aston Villa in the season-opener.
But Tottenham’s trajectory took a steep and sudden decline. And by November, Ndombele was answering to Jose Mourinho. That’s where the problems truly started.
Ndombele initially struggled under Jose Mourinho (right), who took his criticisms of the midfielder public
Mourinho slated the Frenchman’s lack of effort, insisting Ndombele had not shown the required adaption to the Premier League, despite having adequate time to do so
Starting just six games throughout the remainder of the season, and none after the return to action following the three-month coronavirus lockdown, Ndombele’s future seemed bleak under the Portuguese.
Lambasted for his lack of effort, both on and off the pitch, Mourinho took his criticisms of the youngster public. And importantly, it wasn’t just the manager slating Ndombele, with fans and pundits alike slamming the Frenchman for being unfit and out of shape.
Mourinho’s public attacks started on Boxing Day, when he insisted it was Ndombele’s decision – not his – to sit out of the clash against Brighton. And he was later brought to laughter following the Frenchman’s rather lackadaisical defending in a 17-minute cameo as Tottenham fell to a 3-2 defeat to Wolves.
But most memorable was his astonishing outburst after dragging Ndombele off with Tottenham 1-0 down to Burnley at half-time, before the north London club went on to rescue a point.
Ndombele was dragged off at half-time against Burnley, with Tottenham 1-0 down
‘We didn’t have a midfield in the first half,’ Mourinho said. ‘I think more important than the tactics is to have midfield players who want the ball, to connect the game, to have them press and recover the ball. To have midfield players to win duels. We didn’t have it
‘Of course I am not speaking about (Oliver) Skipp, he is a kid of 19 who played two hours of football a few days ago. I am not critical with Skipp at all.
‘I am not going to run away. I have to say Tanguy has had enough time to come to a different level. I know the Premier League is very difficult, I know that some players take a long time.
‘But a player with his potential, his responsibility, he has to give us more. And especially when you see the way (Giovani) Lo Celso played, every minute I was expecting more in the first half.’
Despite showing intentions otherwise having turned up to the Frenchman’s house for an impromptu training session during the midst of the first lockdown – which he later apologised for due to the breach of Covid guidelines – Mourinho handed Ndombele just over an hour of football after the restart.
And if it wasn’t for Daniel Levy, who convinced Ndombele to stay in a meeting shown in the club’s ‘All or Nothing’ Amazon series, the midfielder might not even be a Tottenham player today.
But here’s the important part: Ndombele turned it around. Though left out of Tottenham’s 2021/22 season-opener – a 1-0 home defeat to Everton – Ndombele then proved himself as Spurs demolished Southampton 5-2 away in the following league fixture.
He was also at his scintillating best as Tottenham thrashed Manchester United 6-1 at Old Trafford just a couple of weeks later. The player Tottenham signed had arrived – and Mourinho was delighted.
Ndombele played a crucial role as Tottenham beat Manchester United 6-1 at Old Trafford
He later scored an exquisite goal as Tottenham beat Sheffield United 3-1 in January
And after an ingenious goal in a 3-1 January win over Sheffield United, Mourinho once again went public – this time praising Ndombele for putting the work in and turning his situation around.
He said: ‘I coach for so many years, had so many players and I have enough experience to say and to feel that when a player is not playing very well, it’s his responsibility, and when a player turns things around and brings his performance level to a very high level, it’s also his responsibility.
‘It’s a great example that with me the door is always open. The door of the team is always open, and when a player is not playing he has to try to understand why and he has to try to understand how can he walk through that door. He understood, he understood.’
The goal came shortly after the Frenchman put in an sublime performance as Tottenham beat Brentford 2-0 to reach the Carabao Cup final, a fixture that would become symbolic, both for Mourinho and Ndombele.
The fans, alongside Mourinho, were delighted by Ndombele’s turnaround – and so were the players.
Ndombele put in a stunning display as Spurs beat Brentford to reach the Carabao Cup final
Moussa Sissoko (centre) spoke of the advice he had given to midfield partner Ndombele
Moussa Sissoko – now at Watford – told the club’s website of his team-mate’s struggles, also revealing the advice he had given him.
‘I said to him to stay calm, stay patient, and just to work hard in training and try to understand everyone here,’ he said. ‘Everyone knows he has talent, and everyone is sure he will perform.
‘You can see this season that he’s showing a lot of quality on the pitch and we are all happy to have Tanguy in that form.’
It was clear that having put the work in, Ndombele was now trusted by Mourinho, his team-mates and the fans were on his side as well.
But after playing such a crucial role for Tottenham throughout the season – featuring in 33 Premier League games, up from 21 the prior campaign – Ndombele was once again brushed aside when Mourinho was sacked and replaced by interim head coach Ryan Mason, just six days before the Carabao Cup final.
Ndombele didn’t feature at all as Tottenham lost to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final
In what felt an abrupt and frankly bizarre omission, Ndombele would go on to start just one of seven games under Mason. And despite a series of impressive performances against City, he didn’t feature at all in the 1-0 cup final defeat to the eventual champions.
Reports have suggested this was a major factor in Ndombele’s desire to leave this summer. But after staying, Ndombele finds himself with an uphill battle once more.
Again, he must prove his reliability to a new manager, who clearly hasn’t taken to him early on.
But Mourinho is as ruthless as they come. And if Ndombele can emerge from the abyss under his former manager, there’s no reason he can’t do it again with Nuno.
And with Tottenham clearly lacking in creativity – a problem they have experienced ever since the departure of Christian Eriksen to Inter Milan – it is paramount he does.