Tanguy Ndombele is at a crossroads in his career this summer after his return to Lyon on loan failed to provide a permanent escape from Tottenham Hotspur.
The 25-year-old is Spurs’ record signing after coming too much fanfare from Lyon in early summer 2019 and Mauricio Pochettino campaigned for his signing alongside the club’s technical performance director Steve Hitchen. Lyon announced the transfer was worth “€60m with incentives of up to €10m”, meaning Spurs could end up paying around £59.6m in total for the player and the £42m they owe spent on Davinson Sanchez, nullified two years earlier in 2017.
The Frenchman was widely regarded as one of Europe’s most gifted young midfielders after dazzling for Lyon in the Champions League, although there have been doubts about his dedication, consistency and pace of work from various coaches over the years. Tottenham decided Pochettino was the man who inspired Ndombele to push himself to new heights and it was worth the risk.
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However, it was a big step up for the then 22-year-old, which he later admitted football.london that within weeks of joining, he had told friends he had made a mistake and wanted to leave the club in pre-season because the Argentine’s training sessions were tiring.
The trials and tribulations continued for the young France international into the coming season as he struggled to settle down and asked to leave the club after failing to adjust to the demands of new head coach Jose Mourinho, resulting in a half-time substitution at Burnley and a crowd culminated in Portugal’s rebuke before the midfielder was placed on a special training program to improve his fitness and diet.
It was just a meeting with chairman Daniel Levy that convinced him to keep his head down and keep working at this point, although Ndombele still wanted after a very public breach of lockdown rules instigated by Mourinho and an impromptu training session outside his home only left this summer because no serious offer has arrived.
Ndombele settled down under Mourinho and he started most of the following season’s games under the former Manchester United and Chelsea boss before another managerial change saw caretaker Ryan Mason drop him from the starting line-up for the run-in.
Once again Ndombele was looking to leave the club this summer and another head coach had arrived in Nuno Espirito Santo. The former Wolves boss only involved the Frenchman once the transfer window had closed and he had refocused on the Tottenham task.
It wasn’t until late September that Ndombele finally got his start in the Premier League, earning a string of starts, scoring at Newcastle in the Premier League and at Wolves in the Carabao Cup. Despite Spurs changing their head coach again and Antonio Conte unconvinced, he only gave the midfield a Premier League start against Liverpool after a Covid outbreak at the club left them with no options. Ndombele grabbed an assist in that December game but it would prove to be his last Premier League start for the club.
The irony is that Ndombele was considered by Spurs staff to be in the best form of his time at the club and he was still considered the most naturally gifted player in a squad full of talented players, but he just failed to impress Conte, a man he wants his players to fulfill very specific tasks and not lateral thinkers like the Frenchman.
“I saw that many managers fought for his position,” said Conte football.london Shortly after he joined the club. “Certainly Tanguy has the quality, but at the same time he has to understand that there is a team and he has to play into the team. That means it’s important to keep order and do what the position demands of you.” .
“We work very hard with Tanguy – he has to work a lot more than the others because he has some talent, but he has to bring that talent to the team, for the best of the team, not for the individual player.”
Ndombele’s only other start was an FA Cup game against Morecambe in January and in that game he lost the support of many of the club’s fans and walked off the pitch at a snail’s pace when he was substituted 1-0 by Spurs after 69 minutes to the League One page. When they booed, he slowed even more while other players chased after him and sprinted past him.
He did not appear in another matchday squad for Spurs and the club were looking for an exit route for him. He was kept separate from Conte’s men in training sessions. Ndombele came onto the pitches with the first team but was not involved in tactical and playful work with them, instead training alone with a member of the sports science staff watching him.
The term for training Ndombele separately has been called ‘specialized conditioning treatment’ but the decision was a joint decision between Conte and the club as they awaited interest in him from other clubs. The only serious option that presented itself at the end of the window was a loan move back to Lyon.
On deadline day, the move was completed with an option to bring him back to France permanently for around £54million, with Lyon director of football Vincent Ponsot revealing Ndombele had asked for that option to be included.
“Tanguy made real sporting arguments for his choice. He was quickly committed to the project and made efforts at the contractual level,” Ponsot said at the player’s unveiling. “Tanguy has a salary worthy of the Premier League and he has made efforts to sign him after that of the club. Facts preceded words. The option to buy, it was Tanguy who wanted it and the amount was negotiated our rating of the player.”
The retirement started well enough but injuries and some subdued performances meant Ndombele made just seven Ligue 1 appearances for Lyon in the nearly four months he was on loan. His stint there with one goal and two assists in 15 games ended in him being unable to get his team to qualify for Europe next season as they finished eighth in the table.
On Thursday, reports in France made it clear that Lyon had no intention of taking the option to make his move permanent. It would certainly be hard to justify spending almost the same amount Spurs signed him for in the first place.
What does this mean for Ndombele’s future? The club’s record-breaking signing has three more years left on the lengthy six-year contract he signed when he signed and unlike Giovani Lo Celso’s loan spell at Villarreal, the French midfielder’s time at Lyon will rank the number of suitors for him in this one summer have not increased.
Ndombele is unlikely to find a place in Conte’s squad next season and in previous years Spurs have failed to take players looking for moves on their pre-season tours to allow them to make transfers allow, which means the Frenchman is unlikely to take the side to the two games in July in Korea at the moment.
Ndombele’s Tottenham career appears to be drawing to a close, but only if someone can raise the funds to permanently remove the club’s record signing and lower Tottenham’s rating on the player. Otherwise, another loan deal could be on the cards for one of Europe’s greatest natural talents.
Ndombele is a man who has always believed in his own abilities but has yet to show he has everything else in his closet that the best players are remembered for. At 25 he has achieved a summer that could define the rest of his career and he must ensure he doesn’t end up as one of football’s wasted great talents.