How Tottenham Hotspur’s biggest flop has been revived this season
In July 2019, Tottenham Hotspur, who were managed by Mauricio Pochettino at the time, signed French midfielder Tanguy Ndombele from Lyon in Ligue 1 for a reported fee of £55 million with added bonuses of nearly £9 million on top of the original fee.
The Frenchman was wanted by numerous top European clubs including Barcelona and Manchester United, so when Spurs secured his signature, it was hailed as one of the best signings of the season. However, the deal never quite worked out in the 2019/20 season and Ndombele was quickly branded a flop by the media, having made only 29 appearances in all competitive competitions, scoring merely 2 goals.
This season though has been a completely different story for the 24-year-old. Ndombele has greatly improved in almost all areas of his game, supposedly patching up his rocky relationship with Jose Mourinho according to reports, and has arguably been one of Spurs’ better performers this season.
This tactical analysis article will be written in the form of a scout report of Tanguy Ndombele from this season. It will be an analysis of how the French international has massively improved his game, as well as how he better suits Mourinho’s tactics this time around, moving into a far more attacking role within the side.
Last season’s problems
Nobody ever doubted Ndombele’s talent last season. His potential was clear to see at Lyon and Amiens, so fans and pundits alike knew that there was the making of a wonderful player hidden within. It just needed to be brought to the forefront.
One can distinctly remember an edition of Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football following a 1-1 draw between Burnley and Tottenham from two days prior to its airing back in March of last year, in which Jamie Carragher labelled Ndombele a ‘disgrace’ for his performance playing alongside Oliver Skipp in a double-pivot of a 3-4-2-1.
Perhaps ‘disgrace’ was a strong word to use but it was certainly one of the Frenchman’s worst performances since moving to London, particularly with his laziness when he did not have the ball.
Here is just one example of Ndombele’s passivity when his side were in possession of the ball from that game against Burnley. Sean Dyche’s side are extremely difficult to break down regardless of whether they apply a low, medium, or high defensive block in their 4-4-2 shape.
When in possession, the midfielders of the team that have control of the ball in their positional attack need to be constantly moving to find little pockets of space to progress the ball into.
In the image above, Tottenham are struggling to break down Burnley’s compact defensive block. The Clarets have cut off or marked the short passing lanes to every Spurs player on the ball-side who is in a progressive position.
However, Ndombele is free in the central area and instead of coming short into space to receive and try to turn, which he does so well, he stays there, pointing for the player in possession to square it to the centre-back.
Another example can be seen here. Toby Alderweireld has the ball out in the left halfspace and is looking to progress it forward. Again, Ndombele is in a position to drop short to receive and attempt to turn and play forward but instead decides to point to Eric Dier for the square pass.
In the 2019/20 season, Ndombele’s debut campaign in the Premier League, the midfielder averaged only 22.4 received passes per game, which is worryingly low considering the position he plays on the pitch.
Change of position
Compared to last season, Ndombele’s main starting position was usually in central midfield either in a three-man midfield or else in a double-pivot, with Jose Mourinho’s formations varying between a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, or a 3-4-2-1.
Only one on three separate occasions last season was the Frenchman deployed as a number 10 in a 4-2-3-1. However, this season, the Portuguese boss has preferred to start him in the more attacking midfield role, quite possibly because he has fewer defensive responsibilities.
We can see from Ndombele’s heatmap that he is receiving the ball in quite advanced areas of the pitch this season playing as an attacking midfielder, whereas last season because he was playing much deeper in a double-pivot or perhaps even a three, he was receiving the ball in deeper areas.
Playing in this more advanced position has given the 24-year-old a new lease of life in which he has flourished finally at the London-based club. His stats for this Premier League season have been very impressive so far as of writing:
From the data visual above we can see how good his statistics have been this season in comparison to the rest of the Premier League. Most impressive from the graph are his rankings for key passes per 90 as well as through passes per 90.
Ndombele is currently averaging 0.7 key passes per game in the league, which is almost identical to both Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mane. In terms of his average through passes per 90, he completes 1.41, only 0.03 less than Leicester City’s James Maddison.
Key role in Spurs’ build-up play
Jose Mourinho often gets a bad rap for his more pragmatic approaches to games and a perceived ideology amongst football fans that he has not evolved with the game’s new tactical demands such as playing out from the back. This could not be further from the truth.
The two-time UEFA Champions League winner has implemented a nice blend of playing long as well as playing short to build through the thirds when they have a positional attack. When building through the thirds, the Frenchman has a vital role to play in allowing the team to progress through the opposition’s defensive structure.
As already shown against Burnley last season, Ndombele would play in a double-pivot and was very passive off the ball when his team were in the established possession phase. As the attacking midfielder though, he is far more involved, and his constant movement is essential for Tottenham in these phases of play.
Generally, when in possession, Spurs’ shape resembles a 3-2-2-3. One of the fullbacks stay back to create a back three to help them circulate the ball around in front of the opponent’s first line of pressure.
However, at times, both of Spurs’ fullback will move high up the pitch and hold the width, allowing one of the pivot players to drop as a third centre-back and create the back three. This leaves only one holding midfielder behind the opponent’s first line.
When this occurs, Ndombele moves into the vacated space next to the other pivot player – generally Moussa Sissoko and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. His excellent ability to play between the lines as well as hold off defenders with his back turned to goal makes him press resistant and he has been a huge asset to Mourinho when trying to break teams down.
The image above is an example of why Ndombele is so useful when used in this role. Winks has dropped between the two centre-backs to create a line of three with Ndombele moving next to Hojbjerg.
The ball is played to his feet with his back turned to goal whilst the Southampton midfielder has stepped out to press him. However, Ndombele can be seen as a press-resistant player and easily rolls the midfielder using his body superbly before playing forward.
Here is another example of a near-identical move. Hojbjerg this time, playing in a double-pivot with Sissoko, has dropped to become the third man in the backline whilst his team have possession.
Once again Ndombele has dropped to the vacated space and has received the ball with his back to goal, enticing the Manchester United midfielder to step out and press him.
Regardless, using quick feet, the Frenchman took a touch to the side and played in behind Scott McTominay, bypassing his press completely and progressing Spurs higher up the pitch field.
Vacating space for Kane
The midfielder excels at dropping from more advanced positions to help his side break down their opponent’s defensive block. However, he would not just drop short when one of the pivot players moved as a third centre-back.
Higher up the pitch, he would also drop slightly deeper in front of the opposition’s midfield line, looking to play forward facing goalwards. There were two main reasons for this: one personal and one tactical.
The personal reason was that the Frenchman excels when given room on the ball to pick out passes. He likes to have clear vision in front of him and to penetrate the lines of the opponent’s block with forward passes.
However, the tactical reason is to make space for Harry Kane. The English international has 11 Premier League assists this season from dropping into deeper positions between the lines, created by the vacation of space from Ndombele.
Here, Spurs are much higher up the pitch and have maintained their double-pivot in front of their centre-backs of Sissoko and Hojbjerg, but the Frenchman still drops deeper – typically into the space between the opposition’s midfield and frontline – to pick up passes with plenty of time and space on the ball to play forward into.
By positioning himself in areas as such, he is able to see all of the players in advanced positions around him to weigh up the best possible pass to play. Not only that, but he vacates space for Kane to drop into, to act almost as a false 9, which drags defenders out of position and allows the two wingers to run in behind, very similar to how Didier Drogba would play when Mourinho was at Chelsea.
The previous image shows this in action. The two wingers, Heung-Min Son and Steven Bergwijn have already begun darting in behind when Kane drops to receive the ball from Ndombele. Kane and Son manage to always grab the headlines when Spurs win but Ndombele’s movement is very underrated to make these moves possible.
Ndombele is generally given a free role when Spurs have possession of the ball, drifting out into the halfspaces and around the central corridors to link up with other players, particularly to create triangles on the flanks with the winger, and fullback.
This free role in the number 10 position has allowed the Frenchman to flourish as he can play his natural game by drifting around the pitch, picking up passes in advanced positions of the field, and trying to break down opponents rather than playing in a much deeper position where he is restricted.
For all the 24-year-old’s vast improvements this season, it would be inadequate from a scout report if areas of improvement were not highlighted. This is mainly with regard to his defensive duties.
His defensive statistics are respectable nonetheless, with an average of 2 interceptions per game currently, as well as 4 ball recoveries. He also wins an average of 4.5 defensive duels per 90 in all competitions.
His stats are OK but from watching him during the analysis for this article, Ndombele can go through many lapses of concentration when his side are out of possession, in which he ‘ball-watches’, allowing players to receive the ball on his blindside in particular.
Two situations are listed above of Ndombele’s poor defensive awareness. On both occasions, he allows an opposition player to get free and receive the ball in a dangerous area of the pitch.
In the first image, he is caught ball-watching and so does not check his shoulder for runners on his blindside, whereas the second is far more blatant. Timo Werner comes deep to receive from Ben Chilwell, visibly and clearly in the eye-line of the Frenchman but Ndombele fails to react.
Tottenham Hotspur fans, and Jose Mourinho himself, will be utterly delighted with the Ndombele’s displays in a white shirt recently. Having the Frenchman close to his best has added even more firepower to Spurs’ attack, which has been firing on all fronts and will be hoping to continue their mount for a title challenge. He seems almost like a new signing this season and looks to be finally enjoying his football for the first time since moving to London.
Ndombele still has some deficiencies in his game, particularly from a defensive standpoint, but nevertheless has quite a lot left to learn under his Portuguese manager. His progress since the beginning of the 2020/21 campaign has been astounding, and he may, and can, only get better from here on out, a scary thought for rival clubs.