For the second time in 2020, Tanguy Ndombele was substituted at Turf Moor on Monday. There the similarities ended, however. The last day crowds were allowed at Burnley, they only saw Tottenham’s record signing for 45 minutes. “In the first half we didn’t have a midfield,” said Jose Mourinho, ever the master of the pointed slight. Ndombele had got the status previously reserved for players such as Adrian Mutu, Mario Balotelli and Paul Pogba. He was Mourinho’s favourite scapegoat.
Seven months later, Ndombele made fewer headlines and a better impression. He came off with 12 minutes remaining, Spurs having just taken a hard-earned lead. Mourinho has a pragmatist’s respect for Burnley and had selected his most solid characters, unflashy toilers like Moussa Sissoko and Ben Davies. Ndombele was picked. He had gravitated to the ranks of the trusted.
In a year of surprises, most of them unpleasant, Ndombele’s renaissance has been one of the more heart-warming. When football halted, there was the sense Mourinho was trying to engineer his exit, picking a fight in a power play. There were flashbacks to Pogba and Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw, men targeted with caustic comments. There threatened to be a repeat of Alexis Sanchez, another flagship signing who never delivered anything remotely resembling his best for Mourinho.
Instead, there may be echoes of Joe Cole, another maverick talent who Mourinho appeared to pick on but who ended up as evidence that his criticism can prove constructive. Sometimes there can be a synergy between idiosyncratic gifts and his tactical demands.
Ndombele was never a promise of Mourinho-esque efficiency but his ability as a ball-carrier is being channelled. There was a moment at Burnley where, trapped near the corner flag, he scooped the ball over Ashley Westwood and dared past Matt Lowton, that showed his skill and yet retained possession.
It illustrated Ndombele’s ability to take opponents out of the game with skill, a change of pace and telescopic legs. It underlined how he is the sort of midfielder Mourinho has never had before which, in turn, perhaps, meant he did not understand him. Yet Mauricio Pochettino, the manager who bought him, had a reference point. Ndombele felt the belated replacement for Mousa Dembele, the man whose influence was not measured in goals or assists as much as an appreciation for rare skills, a magnetic ability to attract, keep and progress the ball, regardless of how many defenders converged around him.
Mourinho inherited a Pochettino player and a Pochettino squad, with a surfeit of central attacking midfielders all seemingly coveting a similar role. Now Christian Eriksen is gone and Dele Alli unable to make the bench. Giovani Lo Celso, one of the early success stories of his reign, only lost his spot due to injury but will now have to displace Ndombele or Sissoko to regain it. It is a sign of strength in depth. Mourinho used his options intelligently at Southampton, bringing on Lo Celso for Ndombele at half-time, but making the point it was to ensure the Frenchman did not get a second yellow card. It was saving him, not scapegoating him.
And whereas it appeared last season Mourinho wanted a side without Ndombele, he has an illustration of the benefits of his presence and the cost of losing him of late. It was Ndombele who got the swift leveller in the 6-1 win at Old Trafford. It was Ndombele who was removed with Spurs 3-0 ahead against West Ham. Minus his unique brand of control, they lost their lead. Mourinho and Ndombele seem the season’s odd couple but so far it is an unexpectedly flourishing relationship.
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