It had become one of English football’s long-running jokes. When did Tottenham last sign a player?
As it turned out, Tanguy Ndombele was Spurs’ second purchase since Lucas Moura arrived from Paris St-Germain in January 2018.
But, at a club record £62.8m, Ndombele will be scrutinised in a way 18-year-old Jack Clarke, who has already been loaned back to Championship club Leeds, will not.
On Thursday in Shanghai, the 22-year-old France midfielder, who also attracted interest from Manchester City, made his first Tottenham start, playing the first half in the 2-1 defeat by Manchester United.
He did not stand out. But, after a week on public view, at training and in matches, there has been clear glimpses of huge talent, which Tottenham hope will help propel them to even greater heights than last season, when they finished fourth in the Premier League and reached the Champions League for the first time.
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An impact from the first touch
It took Ndombele precisely one minute and four touches to make an impact in a Tottenham shirt. With a single pass that allowed Lucas to score against Juventus in Singapore, the former Lyon man arrived with a flourish.
The precision control needed to create the opportunity seems to be at odds with Ndombele’s stature. To an outsider, he seems all about power and strength. Ndombele’s movement is akin to that of Yaya Toure. A bit like Toure, he seems to reserve that little bit more energy for going forward than he does going back.
In the stifling humidity of south-east Asia, this may be an unfair snapshot. Ndombele was not the only player at the Hongkou Football Stadium in Shanghai who appeared to be lacking enthusiasm for the situation they found themselves in.
Yet, even then, Ndombele showed a deftness of touch. Not quite as nimble as Manchester United’s Paul Pogba, who was on the pitch at the same time, but agile enough to complete a 360-degree turn to lose his marker, then lay off a short pass to set up a Spurs attack.
Yet the stand-out memory from Ndombele’s 75 minutes of action for his new club so far was that first minute of his debut four days earlier. He nearly scored himself not long afterwards but his boss was more impressed with the immediacy of his impact.
“With that first touch, he showed his quality, it was amazing,” said Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino.
“You see when he touches the ball, or when he runs, something can happen. But we cannot expect too much. He has to get to know his new team-mates, adapt to a new country and culture – and a new tempo.”
‘I don’t feel pressure’
Against United, Ndombele started on the left of a three-man midfield, which was anchored by Harry Winks. To be barged off the ball by Aaron Wan-Bissaka early in the contest was disappointing but it may well be that, like his manager, he wasn’t expecting the game to be quite as physical as the first half in particular turned out to be.
Dele Alli has spoken of Ndombele’s presence allowing him to get forward more and it does seem the new arrival has been bought to fill the gap Mousa Dembele created when he left for Chinese Super League side Guangzhou R&F in January.
Whether Ndombele is a like-for-like replacement for the Belgian is open to question. It does seem he is more suited to attacking from deeper positions, rather than sitting in front of a defence to mop up opposition attacks and recycle possession to team-mates in more creative roles.
The facts show Ndombele created 16 goals in 96 appearances for Lyon.
He was also one of the inspirations behind two outstanding Lyon performances against Manchester City in last season’s Champions League. In addition, he scored in both group encounters with German side Hoffenheim.
Mentally he is strong. Ndombele has made a rapid rise through the ranks. It is less than four years ago since he became a regular in the Amiens reserve side, which competes in the fifth tier of French football.
Evidently, he doesn’t suffer from self-doubt.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” he said. “I am proud to be the club record signing. I knew Tottenham was a big team. I was excited to join a big team. That is why I signed.”
Big Brother’s watching
Ndombele did look a bit bewildered at a well-attended fan event in Singapore which became increasingly chaotic as his hour-long appearance wore on.
His lack of English meant he leant on Moussa Sissoko for support as well as translation. The fact Sissoko made the same journey from France to England in 2013, albeit as a full international, and plays in the same area of the field, makes him an ideal mentor.
Ndombele knows Sissoko from the French set-up and has followed his progress. The Spurs players already refer to Sissoko as Ndombele’s big brother.
“He knows how it works here,” said Ndombele.
Sissoko takes pride in the big brother tag.
“He says I am helping him with everything,” said the former Newcastle man.
“I know when you come from another country, it is not easy, especially when you don’t speak the language. I am a good example. It can take time to adapt. He just has to be patient because he has the quality.”