Ndombele, in his second season at Spurs, has staked his claim to be the latest in a special line of footballers, the
“Premier League Fun Player,” writes Adam Walton.
Thursday’s meeting between Tottenham and Liverpool was poured over by pundits for 48 hours. Insights included Liverpool’s return to scoring form, Joel Matip and Harry Kane’s injuries and Jose Mourinho’s toothless tactics. All perfectly interesting. However, one moment escaped the analysis white noise. It happened in the 38th minute. Tanguy Ndombele picked the ball up in midfield, took a step forward and pirouetted away from James Milner as if the veteran was someone’s younger brother in a schoolyard game. This piece of skill didn’t result in a goal, a red card or, mercifully, a VAR decision. Yet it was undoubtedly the most memorable moment of football to come from the whole game.
Ndombele, in his second season at Spurs, has staked his claim to be the latest in a special line of footballers, the “Premier League Fun Player.” To state the bindingly obvious, there are many exciting footballers in the Premier League, usually concentrated in the more attacking minded and offensively dominant clubs dotted around the league. Every few seasons, however, a player arises like a mythical creature, to bring excitement to an otherwise underwhelming team, singlehandedly causing fans to enter fits of euphoria at the brilliance they are able to conjure. Think Dimitri Payet, Allan Saint-Maximin, Jay-Jay Okocha, Matt le Tissier, David Ginola or Wilfried Zaha, and you have the cult figure that is the Premier League Fun Player. Tanguy Ndombele can now be added to that list.
The Frenchman arrived at Tottenham in mid-2019 from Lyon, and initially struggled, his move coinciding with Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs death rattle. He was then publicly outed by Mourinho for a lack of fitness and application, the Portuguese evidently missing having Luke Shaw as an emotional punching bag. This season however, Ndombele has been wonderful. He scored that magnificent lob against Sheffield United, and has produced brilliant finishes against Wolves and Manchester United. His tangible contribution to the team has improved, but it is rather the way in which Ndombele goes about achieving these results which excites.
Ndombele is, in that way, a stoic footballer. Whilst a large proportion of his dribbles will be futile, there is such joy in the way he leaves the ball behind, giving an opposition player a glimmer of hope, before stretching back one of his black boots and raking the ball forward. It’s almost impossible to disposes him, being Iniesta-like in the way his body permanently stands between the opposition and the ball. He, no matter where he receives possession, looks to move forward, running with an enthusiastically chaotic style. Ndombele manages this, despite being shackled in Mourinho’s defend-first-pass-later style.
There is some tactical reasoning behind Ndombele’s upturn in Tottenham fortunes. With the overload of fixtures, teams reliant on pressing for attacking momentum have been left exhausted. This has seen the Premier League return of the previously extinct classic number 10 role.
Having been deemed luxurious for teams wanting to pressure opposition in their defensive thirds, there is now a fashion for players who drifts in between opposition lines, creating overloads in wide areas or picking the ball on the half turn and driving at defences. Players like Emile Smith Rowe, James Maddison and Bruno Fernandes have risen to prominence, and Jack Grealish has recently been converted to a similar role. These players sole function is creating chaos in other teams rigid structures, a job tailor made for Ndombele’s talents.
Whilst all the players just mentioned are effective, none force visceral joy the way Ndombele does. With the intense scrutiny footballers and clubs are under, winning and failure tend to be the only two outcomes available to anyone involved in the game. It is easy to lose sight of the game’s purpose: pure entertainment, the chance to marvel at human physicality and intelligence working in harmony, to watch something special. Without that, the game isn’t worth watching, and it’s for the reason that Tanguy Ndombele certainly is.
Following the Liverpool result, and last night’s 0-1 loss to Brighton, it doesn’t look like Ndombele’s team will win the league this season. However, he can be surely counted as the official Premier League Fun Player, and that is a title worth having.