Identifying Ligue 1’s Next Breakout Talent: Tanguy Ndombele
This feels like an annual thing I do with Lyon, where at least one of these type of posts is dedicated to their young starlets. It’s a credit to them that even though they’re having a mildly turbulent season, you can’t help but be excited at the young talent at their disposal. A lot of that is due to them having one of the best youth academies in European football. When the club was in a dire financial situation earlier this decade, they relied on their kids coming through and some of the academy graduates included Alexandre Lacazette, Nabil Fekir, and Corentin Tolisso. Their academy has been ridiculous for quite some time in churning out elite young talents, and they’ve got even more talent coming up with Willem Guebels and Amine Gouiri.
This isn’t to say that Lyon haven’t had their successes in the transfer market as well. The past few windows have netter them Bertrand Traore, Memphis Depay, Mariano, Lucas Tousart; and all of these guys have been successful to varying degrees. Another to add to the list is Tanguy Ndombele, a press resistant midfielder who has made his trademark with galloping runs in the middle of the pitch. Ligue 1 has been home to numerous athletic midfielders of different shades of grey. N’Golo Kante at Caen, Mario Lemina at Marseille, Tiémoué Bakayoko and Geoffrey Kondogbia plying their trades at Monaco, with the former being a key member of their title push in 2017. All of these guys made their name in Ligue 1, and Ndombele’s work within a frantic Lyon side certainly deserves mention alongside them. He’s been a steady ship within Lyon’s midfield, showcasing a tantalizing skill set that could make him in-demand within Europe in the not too distant future.
The first thing you notice with Ndombele is his athleticism. It’s not the only thing he’s working with, and reducing him to merely an athletic midfielder would be doing him a disservice, but it’s clear that he has a higher ceiling because of it. Among the things that Ndombele is great at within open play, his ability to recover a misplaced touch and turn it into a dribble is quite remarkable. He’s got a lot of the tools you want from a modern day zone mover; speed relative to his position, ability to use quick body shifts to shake opponent markers. The numbers more than back up what you see with the eye test. This compilation is around ~2 minutes long, and it could’ve been much longer, his ball carrying library is extensive.
He’s also quite adept at doing similar things in more advanced positions, using his previously mentioned gifts to shield the ball from his opponent or working within tight confines and trying to create something out of nothing. I don’t think he holds as much value with his dribbling in the final third as he does progressing the ball from deeper areas, but he’s no slouch in this department either.
He’s been one of the best central midfielders in the league for progressing the ball this season into the final third area, and that should translate against tougher competition. There’s a high premium for midfielders who can do what Ndombele does consistently, and the fact he’s doing it at age 21 in his first season in Ligue 1 is quite impressive.
What’s perhaps more interesting to untangle is how good of a passer Ndombele is, because it’s all well and good to be a guy who progress play with his dribbling, but being a dual threat with both passing and dribbling is a rare thing to find in young midfielders. I think Ndombele is fine in this department; not necessarily brilliant and perhaps he looks a little clumsy at times, but it’s not a situation where he’s got cinder blocks for feet and the only thing he’s reduced to is simple passes. He can get passes into tight areas, though sometimes he puts a little too much mustard on them and leads to tough first touches for his teammates.
Ndombele isn’t a prolific chance creator, even if you’re grading him relative to other central midfielders. Both the quality of his chances on average and the volume of chances are fairly ordinary. A not insignificant portion of his created chances logged tend to be where he makes a pass to his teammate, and said teammate dribbles the ball a fair amount before taking a mediocre shot. This could well be a function of playing alongside numerous high usage attacking players in an mishmash system, but he’s not a special creator at his current stage of development.
Passing models like him and if push comes to shove, I would trust cold hard data versus the eye test because the eyes can lie, and that might be the case with Ndombele. Even then, I still don't think he would grade better than "solid".
Given that his passing isn’t otherworldly and he’s only taking about one shot per 90 mins of play with the majority of his shots being below average quality, I find it pretty hard to believe that Ndombele is going to be a notable goal contributor. That’s not necessarily a problem when performing other duties to a high level, as Mousa Dembele has proven over the past few years that you could be an insanely valuable player even without direct goal contribution, and perhaps you even get lucky and stumble into a few goals like Abdoulaye Decoure has done with Watford this season.
One thing that I was curious to see defensively was whether Ndombele was a type of midfielder who could turn a defensive action into potential transition opportunities. It would make sense that considering how proficient he is with his dribbling and his overall coordination with the ball and this was the thing that marked out N'Golo Kante even back at Caen. I didn't find nearly as many instances of it happening as I thought I would initially, which isn't a bad thing at all and i'm not sure how much this will translate against tougher competition
Ndombele is a decent prospect at this stage in his development. Just based on his ability to keep possession and drive play forward with his on-ball skills, he’s already close to being a net positive player. Combine that with his solid passing and defensive work, and what you have is someone who can progress towards being one of the more dynamic midfielders in European football. Considering his penchant for wanting to push the issue with his dribbling, it could be argued that Ndombele with his current skill set would be at his best playing within a three man midfield that would give him license to roam around and cause havoc. Obviously he's worked in a two man midfield for major parts of the season and done it well, so he at least brings positional equity to where he can function in a deeper position if needed.
I like Ndombele and I think he's got a high ceiling as a player. The fact that Lyon got him on a loan-to-buy transfer in the region of £10M is further proof that they generally know what they're doing in the transfer market, and Ndombele has transitioned from looking like a percentage gamble in the summer to being a core member of the first team. That's impressive for both him and his club.