A manager’s first signing can be a statement of intent. Jose Mourinho’s first recruit as Tottenham manager was Gedson Fernandes. A manager’s biggest buy certainly is. Mauricio Pochettino’s most expensive addition was Tanguy Ndombele. One arrived on an 18-month loan, the other for £65 million.
The common denominator is each covets what looks like a solitary role in Mourinho’s side: as the No. 8, the more attack-minded of two central midfielders. Pochettino’s various formations, with his occasional fondness for a diamond and his willingness to field several players who were different types of progressive midfielder, may have offered more opportunities.
It also created a squad with an imbalance. Moussa Sissoko is injured now but, in his ideal world, he would be a No. 8. Christian Eriksen could leave, but as he has dropped deeper, that feels his best position. Harry Winks is the Pochettino protégé who is scarcely a Mourinho defensive midfielder. The prioritisation of Fernandes, when Spurs are short of strikers and fit left-backs, felt symbolic.
The tragedy of Tanguy Ndombele is that he might be the right player for the right team at the wrong time. He feels an innocent victim of regime change. He looked potentially the perfect Pochettino midfielder, probably a very good Jurgen Klopp one and possibly not what Mourinho would want.
Neither manager nor player is fully culpable for a stop-start Spurs career, but there is an undercurrent of distrust already. “I cannot say he is injured,” Mourinho said when the Frenchman asked to be omitted from the win over Brighton. “He is always injured,” the Portuguese stated after Ndombele lasted just 25 minutes against Southampton on New Year’s Day. The manager summed up the summer signing’s time at Tottenham this week as “injured and with lots of problems.”
And while Mourinho branded his performance at Norwich “phenomenal”, it otherwise feels inauspicious for the man who seemed to signal the end of austerity at White Hart Lane. Ndombele was a genuinely ambitious signing and not just because one who arrived at 22 promised a decade of box-to-box running.
Arguably the two best performances by a visiting player at the Etihad Stadium last season came from current Spurs team-mates: Ndombele when Lyon beat Manchester City and Heung-Min Son when Tottenham lost 4-3, but progressed on away goals in the Champions League. That ability to excel against the best, coupled with youth, pointed to a high ceiling.
A combination of attributes equips for the multi-dimensional demands of Klopp and Pochettino. Pace and power, ball-carrying ability and high pass completion rate all contribute to a capacity to overwhelm opponents, to take players out of the game and to link sections of his side.
If it was impossible to clone Mousa Dembele, Ndombele seemed to have more similarities with Pochettino’s idiosyncratic talisman than most. He averaged 2.9 dribbles per game in Ligue Un last season, a total topped only by Eden Hazard and Wilfried Zaha in the Premier League. His pass completion rate was 89.1 per cent; the only English top-flight midfielders with higher figures were Mateo Kovacic, Winks, Ross Barkley, Gini Wijnaldum, Ilkay Gundogan and Jorginho and some of them spend more time in their own half than Ndombele.
That ability to play in high-speed teams and retain the ball in the opposition’s half is a reason why, quietly, Wijnaldum became crucial to Klopp. That group of midfielders show a commonality of thought among three managers whose shared principles differentiate them from Mourinho: Gundogan also used to play for Klopp, Barkley had been a target for Pochettino and Jorginho had been wanted by Pep Guardiola.
The shortcoming in Ndombele’s game may not worry some of them. He has never scored more than two league goals in a season. But Klopp’s midfielders are infrequent scorers. Dembele only got seven in as many seasons for Spurs. Pochettino nevertheless named him among the five “genius” players he had worked with in his career. If Ndombele seemed destined to replace Spurs’ resident genius, now his fate may be to understudy Mourinho’s first transfer.