Tanguy Ndombele faces a crossroads in his career this summer after his loan return to Lyon did not provide a permanent escape from Tottenham Hotspur.
The 25-year-old is Spurs‘ record signing, having arrived from Lyon early in the summer of 2019 to much fanfare and with Mauricio Pochettino having championed his signing along with the club’s technical performance director Steve Hitchen. Lyon announced the transfer as being worth “€60m with incentives which could reach as high as €10m”, which meant Spurs could potentially end up paying a total of around £59.6m for the player, smashing the £42m they spent on Davinson Sanchez two years earlier in 2017.
The Frenchman was widely considered to be one of the most gifted young midfielders in Europe, having dazzled in the Champions League for Lyon, even if there were questions marks about his application, consistency and workrate over the years by various coaches. Tottenham decided that Pochettino was the man to inspire Ndombele to push himself to new heights and it was worth the gamble.
It was a big step up for the then 22-year-old though and he later admitted to football.london that within weeks of joining he had told friends that he had made a mistake and wanted to leave the club during pre-season due to the grueling nature of the Argentine’s sessions.
The trials and tribulations continued for the young France international over the coming season as struggled to settle and asked to leave the club after being unable to adapt to the new head coach Jose Mourinho’s demands, culminating in a half-time substitution at Burnley and a public rebuke from the Portuguese before the midfielder was placed in a special training program to improve his fitness and nutrition.
It was only a meeting with chairman Daniel Levy that convinced him to keep his head down and continue working at that point, although, following a very public breaking of lockdown rules instigated by Mourinho and an impromptu training session outside his home, Ndombele still wanted to leave that summer only for no serious offer arrived.
Ndombele did knuckle down under Mourinho and he started the majority of matches the following season under the former Manchester United and Chelsea boss before another change in coach saw caretaker boss Ryan Mason drop him from the starting line-up for the run-in.
Once again Ndombele wanted to depart the club that summer and yet another head coach in Nuno Espirito Santo had arrived. The former Wolves boss did not involve the Frenchman until the transfer window had closed and he had refocused himself on the task at Tottenham.
It was not until late September when Ndombele did finally start a Premier League game and he earned himself a run of starts, scoring at Newcastle in the Premier League and at Wolves in the Carabao Cup. Once again though Spurs changed their head coach and Antonio Conte was not convinced, giving the midfield just one Premier League start against Liverpool following a Covid outbreak at the club that left him short of options. Ndombele grabbed an assist in that December match but it would prove to be his final start in the Premier League for the club.
The irony is that Ndombele was considered by staff at Spurs to be in the best shape of his time at the club and he was still considered to be the most naturally gifted player in a squad full of talented players, but he just could not impress Conte , a man who wants his players to perform very specific tasks rather than mavericks like the Frenchman.
“I have seen that many managers struggled about his position,” Conte told football.london soon after he joined the club. “For sure, 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. It means that it’s important to keep order and to do what the position is asking you to do .
“We are working very hard with Tanguy – he has to work much more than the others because he has some talent but he has to put this talent into the team, for the best of the team, not for the single player.”
Ndombele’s only other start came in an FA Cup match in January against Morecambe and it was in that game when he lost the support of many of the club’s fans, walking off the pitch at a snail’s pace when substituted after 69 minutes with Spurs 1-0 down to the League One side. As they booed, so he walked even slower with other players taken off after him sprinting past him.
He did not appear in another matchday squad for Spurs and the club looked to find an exit route for him. He was kept apart in training sessions from Conte’s men. Ndombele would come out with the first team on to the pitches but was not involved in tactical and game work with them and instead trained alone, with a member of the sports science staff observing him.
The term for the separate training for Ndombele was described as ‘specialized conditioning treatment’, but the decision was a collective one 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 take him back to France permanently for around £54m, with Lyon’s director of football Vincent Ponsot revealing that Ndombele had asked for that option to be included.
“Tanguy gave real sporting arguments on his choice. He was quickly attached to the project and he made an effort on the contractual level,” Ponsot said at the player’s unveiling. “Tanguy has a salary worthy of the Premier League and he made an effort after those of the club to sign him. There were facts in front of the words. The purchase option, it was Tanguy who wanted it and the amount was negotiated at the height of our valuation of the player.”
The move back began well enough but injuries and some muted performances ensured that Ndombele started only seven Ligue 1 games for Lyon during the near four months he was on loan. His spell back there, with one goal and two assists in 15 appearances, ended with him being unable to inspire 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 a permanent one. It would certainly be tough to justify spending almost the same amount that Spurs signed him for in the first place.
So what does that mean for Ndombele’s future? The club’s record signing has three more years remaining on the long six-year contract he inked when he signed and unlike Giovani Lo Celso’s loan at Villarreal, the French midfielder’s time in Lyon will not have swollen the number of suitors for him this summer.
There is unlikely to be a place for Ndombele in Conte’s squad next season and in previous years Spurs have not taken those players looking for moves on their pre-season tours in order to allow them to engineer transfers, which means the Frenchman is, at this moment, unlikely to head away with the squad to Korea for their two games in July.
Ndombele’s Tottenham career appears to be heading towards its conclusion but only if someone can come up with the funds to take the club’s record signing away permanently and Tottenham lower their valuation of the player. Otherwise another loan deal could be on the cards for one of Europe’s most naturally talented players.
Ndombele is a man who has always believed in his own ability but is yet to show that he’s got everything else in his locker that the best players are remembered for. At 25, he has reached a summer that could define the rest of his career and he needs to make sure he does not end up as one of football’s wasted great talents.