This comfortable, smiling version of Tanguy Ndombele is a world away from the one who watched his dream move to Tottenham become a nightmare last season.
Tanguy Ndombele said: “It’s true. I was on holiday and I had dyed hair and I received the call. They said: ‘You’ve got to come to Spurs, it’s now or never. I said, ‘Ah, I’ve dyed my hair, my hair is blue!’ They said: ‘You’ve got to come anyway.’ As it happened it was fine. They said I could keep my hat on so that’s how I look in the photos!”
Mauricio Pochettino had already convinced Ndombele to leave Lyon for north London. The player said the Argentine “spoke very well” and told the France international that “he saw a good young player with so much potential that alongside him would develop”. That first experience of a Pochettino pre-season was a killer though and the club record signing admitted that he wanted to go home within weeks.
Tanguy Ndombele said: “It was incredibly tough. I remember that I was even calling home to my friends in France saying I want to come back,” he admitted. It was so, so tough, but perhaps it was what I needed. I needed to get used to that sort of work, to that sort of training and over time to acclimatise to it.”
Ndombele had risen so quickly in such a short space of time, from the fifth division of French football to becoming a Premier League player, that the jolt of those infamous Pochettino pre-seasons actually ended up causing him problems.
Tanguy Ndombele added: “Yes, undoubtedly, I think it did have a role to play in the injuries I got [later on], Obviously my body just needed to get used to that sort of work and maybe it was the shock of that hard work to begin with that perhaps had a role to play in the fitness problems I had. I think my body just needed to adapt to it.”
The Premier League felt a world away from his upbringing. It was in the fifth level of French football that he took control of his football destiny and it turned him into a fighter.
Tanguy Ndombele said: “It all made me more resilient. When you are young, it’s never easy and in the Paris region it’s really hard to go places with football because there are just so many good players around, but when you are up against them week in, week out, your level increases. There were moments though I feared I might not make it, absolutely. When you are young, you don’t think about that sort of stuff too much. You’re young, you’re playing, everyone wants to become a professional. Maybe when I was 17, 18-years-old, leaving Guingamp, that was a really hard moment but at that point I said I’m just not going to let this go. I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am today. Ndombele’s parents played their part, his father a constant and vocal presence on the touchline and his mother helped him “to be a more grounded, calm person”.
Tanguy Ndombele added: “I’m someone who plays on instinct. I never ask myself too many questions on the field. Things come to me quickly in my head, thankfully, It’s important not to be afraid. That’s exactly it. You try stuff, and taking a risk is part of the job. Of course sometimes that’s not easy but if you go for something risky and it helps the team then that’s great, and I think all teams need players who are ready to take risks.”
Even that eye-catching pirouette he uses to bamboozle surrounding opponents, something Spurs fans have likened to his predecessor and near-namesake Mousa Dembele’s trademark turn, is born from instinct.
Tanguy Ndombele added: “It’s not something that I think about too much, to be honest. It comes naturally. If I sense that it’s the right time to pull off the move, I do it and if not, then I don’t bring it out.”
Ndombele laughs when asked whether it’s his duty to entertain the supporters.
Tanguy Ndombele”No. I am just trying to do what is good for the team on the pitch,” he said. “If entertaining the crowd is better for the team then that’s good but I’m not going to dribble just to be an entertainer.”
Ndombele’s career brought him to Lyon, the Champions League, and then Tottenham, where Pochettino soon gave way to Mourinho, a very different type of manager.
Tanguy Ndombele”If you know Jose Mourinho then you understand how he behaves,” explained the Frenchman. I wouldn’t call it confrontation, but he’s just got a certain way of sending his messages and it actually all depends on how you receive those messages he sends.”
Jose Mourinho would later say that: “never doubted his quality, I doubted in some moments his motivation and commitment and professional attitude”.
Tanguy Ndombele said: “Burnley wasn’t the hardest moment for me. I think the hardest moment was the restart [after lockdown] but sure it wasn’t a nice time for me, the match against Burnley.The coach came out and said what he had to say afterwards and it’s not nice to hear those things.”
Before the restart came the infamous arrival of the Spurs boss at his door during the first lockdown. How shocked out of ten was Ndombele to find Mourinho ringing his intercom one day from outside his home, telling him to come out for a run?
Tanguy Ndombele said: “Honestly? Dix!” the midfielder exclaimed with the French word for ten. I asked why I should have to run, and he said I just had to do it. So it was nothing really. Afterwards, the manager congratulated me and said that I’d run well.”
While it certainly showed Mourinho at least had not given up on him, it did not feel like that at the time for Ndombele when asked if it was an important moment in the building of their relationship.
Tanguy Ndombele said”Most important moment? I don’t think so. It was right in the middle of the hardest time for me”.
That’s because Ndombele was struggling to convince the head coach to play him and he barely played after the restart, with just two second half appearances from the bench. Speculation surrounded his future, his strained relationship with Mourinho and he just wanted to get away from it all.
Tanguy Ndombele said: “To be perfectly honest with you I don’t know how close I was to leaving. “What I know is that I did want to leave. I spoke about this with people at the club and particularly with the chairman. The chairman said he didn’t want me to leave and definitely that’s something that really helped.”
Levy’s meeting with Ndombele was shown in the Amazon documentary series All or Nothing and the Frenchman admits he has seen the final episode, in which he tells the chairman: “For three months I trained hard. Everybody says I trained really well, but if I don’t play it means there must be something else.”
When asked now what that something else was,
Tanguy Ndombele said: “Maybe there was something. Obviously at that moment in time there was something in my mind and it’s what I felt in the moment, but now it’s no longer relevant. It’s something that’s in the past. The hardest moments are in the past and I’ve moved forward and things are much better for me and the team and it’s all behind us.”
Ndombele gives plenty of credit to Levy for helping those problems become part of the past and the chairman certainly showed belief in his club record signing.
Tanguy Ndombele said: “Myself and Levy, we get on well,” he said. “I am a player and he is the chairman. If we need to speak, we speak. There’s not much more to it than that, we both respect each other.Right from the start though he said he wasn’t going to let me leave. He didn’t want me to go. He looked me in the eyes and he said to me ‘The problem is you’re stubborn’.”
Did the “stubborn” Ndombele feel he made any mistakes himself during that troubled first season?
Tanguy Ndombele said: “I wouldn’t really say that I made errors, or particular errors. I think everybody has to take their own responsibility for what goes on in a season and there were things that went on at the club that people know about and things that went on at the club that people don’t know about. It’s always like that and now’s not the time to talk about those things. If people don’t know about what went on, then it’s because they shouldn’t know about those things that went on. I’m able now to look back and see what were the aspects of my contribution that I needed to work on and what’s great now is that everything’s moving in the right direction for the team, for the club and for everyone and that’s really satisfying.”
Ndombele’s friend Paul Pogba had his own tough experiences with Mourinho at Manchester United and the Spurs man admitted he spoke to his France team-mate about their difficulties.
Tanguy Ndombele said: “We spoke, we spoke about that but really quickly. It wasn’t like he gave me any advice because our situations were completely different. It’s true he worked with Mourinho but my own experiences weren’t the same and each relationship has its own characteristics.”
For Ndombele, it was the belief in him from those inside the club that eventually outweighed the problems he was facing and he began to settle and grew ever more popular among the squad as a whole. He also didn’t want to go down as a club record flop in the Premier League with English football having failed to see the best of him.
Tanguy Ndombele said: “That’s something that motivates me all the time to improve, but you’ve got to remember that at the time I really didn’t feel good so perhaps, sure, after the event I look back and think I wouldn’t have wanted to leave and want to prove myself here, but at the time if you’re not feeling good, those sort of thoughts are quite far away from your mind. Without a doubt it’s made me stronger mentally. It’s made me and improved me as an athlete, what happened last season, because I wasn’t playing a lot. I was getting injured a lot, which I’m not used to and we were going through the pandemic and times like this you can only grow stronger.”
Ndombele’s second pre-season brought not only a knee injury carried over from the end of the last campaign, but also a positive test for Covid-19, which he admits he thankfully did not suffer too much from but it all played its part in another tough start.
Tanguy Ndombele said: “It wasn’t easy at all and above all this season had a short pre-season and all of a sudden it was match after match after match at a very high rate. Right now, I feel like I’ve got over all of that to work my way through it and the club has helped me enormously with that.”
One thing that is clear is Ndombele’s vastly superior fitness. Often unable to last past the 60 minute mark last season, the Frenchman is now not only finishing games but he’s making surging box to box runs in their latter stages to help out the defence and then attack. While Spurs fans used to mock his second half struggles as he tired, now he is one of the team’s fittest players. Mourinho points to the hard work the player has put in during training and his efforts in trying to improve himself, but Ndombele believes it’s simply down to constantly playing matches.
Tanguy Ndombele said: “I think it’s the fact that you’re playing matches at such a high rate. That’s what makes it easier for my conditioning. There’s nothing in particular that I’ve changed with regards to my lifestyle or the way I was preparing before. I’m doing the same things I was then, it’s just that I’m playing more matches more frequently and above all that I’m not picking up any injuries.”
Ndombele is constantly smiling nowadays. He’s happy at Tottenham these days and he’s so laid back it makes you smile as well. That nonchalance, which makes his play so captivating for the fans during matches, could be taken the wrong way off the pitch and it’s understood the midfield maverick has picked up the odd little fine at Tottenham here and there since joining the club in 2019. When that was put to him, Ndombele laughed heartily with a cheeky glint in his eyes that perhaps betrayed his response.
Tanguy Ndombele said: “No, no, I don’t get given fines! Certainly what’s true is that ever since I was younger, people have always commented on that nonchalant aspect about the way that I play but I can assure you that I’m less nonchalant than I used to be. Certainly if that’s something the fans like then all the better for it!”
Ndombele has learned plenty about himself in the past 18 months as he’s adapted to a new club, a new country, a new language and lifestyle and he’s learned one of the toughest lessons in football – how to make Jose Mourinho happy.
Tanguy Ndombele said: “It was instinct. It happened so quickly. The ball came over, I didn’t even have time to really look to see what the positioning [of the keeper] was. I just went for the lob and thankfully it went in so it wasn’t something that was pre-planned.”
Ndombele says his relationship with Mourinho has been repaired and is in a good place.
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