It is almost five years since Mauricio Pochettino named the five footballing geniuses he had worked with. It was before he coached Lionel Messi or Kylian Mbappe, but a former teammate of Diego Maradona and Ronaldinho named two extraordinary talents. His other three choices required a little more explanation: Jay-Jay Okocha, Ivan de la Pena and Mousa Dembele.
Dembele’s brilliance was not measured in goals or assists or trophies but in his ball-carrying ability, his capacity to take opponents out of the game by running past them. He provided the backdrop to Tottenham’s record signing.
In 2019, they committed £63 million ($85.6m) to buying Tanguy Ndombele, Pochettino’s designated Dembele replacement and a midfielder who, while Dembele is unique, shares some attributes. There are examples of elusiveness, of dextrous turns and lovely flicks. Ndombele can do things very few other footballers can. The infuriating part may be that he has rarely done what any of his four managers required.
The nadir of a Tottenham career when he has felt enigma rather more often than genius came on Sunday. Spurs were trailing to perhaps the smallest club in League One, Morecambe. Ndombele’s number was up. Rather than sprinting off to save every second, he dawdled as he made his departure, was booed by the fans and then headed straight down the tunnel.
The temptation is to say his Tottenham days ended in ignominy then. The reality is more complex. He can seem the problem that doesn’t go away. Jose Mourinho would probably have hoped to sell him in 2020. Ndombele wanted to leave last summer. Antonio Conte would surely welcome his departure now, but Ndombele has three-and-a-half years left on a deal worth £200,000 a week.
His purchase, at a pre-pandemic price, a month after Spurs played in a Champions League final, when Pochettino was still in charge, looks a throwback to an earlier era.
If Spurs’ three subsequent managers are all more pragmatic and he never appeared a natural fit for any of their teams, Conte has nonetheless brought the best from many an attack-minded midfielder, from Paul Pogba to Nicolo Barella. It is apparent Ndombele has not impressed him.
There was the Italian’s deliberately unilluminating answer last week when asked what Ndombele’s position at the club was. “He is a midfielder,” he said, choosing to give a literal answer rather than an explanation of his status. In November, he reflected that Ndombele needed to be a team player. That month, he played in the defeat to NS Mura, one of the most embarrassing results in Spurs’ history.
It was not his first taste of ignominy. Rewind to March 2020, when Ndombele was hauled off after 45 minutes against Burnley, and Mourinho said: “In the first half we didn’t have a midfield.” Ndombele, he said, had had enough time “to come to a different level.”
Some 22 months later, he has reached it too rarely. He scored Tottenham’s first goal in their 6-1 win at Manchester United. There was the remarkable flicked lob against Sheffield United. Too often, however, he has not been deemed fit enough to play 90 minutes. A player with six goals and five assists in 63 Premier League games has been too unproductive.
Conte was not convinced initially, preferring the workhorses Oliver Skipp and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, but Harry Winks has won him over: terrific against Liverpool and Southampton, he has played his way into Conte’s plans.
Conte was talking about the supporters rather than himself when he said of Ndombele: “You have to be good to change opinions.” Talent is not an issue; Ndombele has enough. But now plenty of minds are made up about him. The jeers showed as much.