Tanguy NDombele is officially a member of Tottenham Hotspur. It’s a momentous moment for the North London club. The acquisition marks a change in not only the club’s approach, but their stature in European football. For the first time Spurs have successfully purchased a top line young star, one whose acquisition would not be out of place at any of the top clubs in the world.
Spurs have had superstars before of course. They developed Gareth Bale. They set (or at least tied) a club record to purchase Luka Modrić from Dinamo Zagreb. More recently they’ve developed Harry Kane, and won the transfer lottery with Dele Alli. Both Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-min are talented players bought for reasonable prices who have blossomed along with Spurs.
NDombele, however, is something different. Spurs successes, up until now, have been achieved by doing the things that a team has to do when the biggest players in the world are unavailable to them. Whether it’s developing their own talent, or successfully taking risks on players that other teams decide not to, Spurs, by shrewd management, or dumb luck managed to build a team of stars that other top clubs decided they didn’t want. Now, for the first time, they’ve acquired the kind of young midfield star that every team in the world targets.
NDombele is the kind of midfielder who can do everything. He’s equally adept at patrolling the midfield defensively and bringing the ball forward in attack. Lyon’s success hinged on NDombele doing both. NDombele led the team with 9.08 deep progressions per 90 minutes.
He accomplished this both by bringing the ball forward with his feet, and by demonstrating a remarkably comprehensive and incisive passing range for a player who turned 22 years old in the middle of last season. NDombele is extremely proficient using his ability with the ball at his feet to bypass defenders. He completed 2.01 successful dribbles per 90, roughly the same number as his teammate the tricky fleet footed attacker Memphis Depay (2.02) and the Lyon’s creative attacking hub, Nabil Fakir (2.22). Only Bertrand Traoré (3.0 reliably left more people in his wake with the ball at his feet.
His passing is also extremely impressive. Because he’s such a skilled dribbler, NDombele can be a relatively conservative, possession oriented passer, and still move the ball up field. His passing is relatively short, averaging 18.27 yards per attempt, and metronomic, with an 89% completion percentage, and gets shorter, 16.96 yards per attempt, the 16% of the time he’s pressured while passing.
The ability to both move the ball forward from deep areas and also retain an extremely high pass completion ratio is extremely rare. Usually progressing the ball up the field involves taking risks, acceptable risks, but risks nonetheless. Only 38 players across Europe’s big five leagues have both managed to accumulate 7.5 deep progressions per 90 while also maintaining a pass completion percentage above 85% and playing 1500 minutes or more. Only four manage to do all that while dribbling by players more than twice per game. The list is Luka Modric, Philippe Coutinho, Julian Draxler, and NDombele.
Defensively he’s also an extremely effective contributor. He spent most of his time on the right side of midfield where he was a combative force. He was second on the team in possession adjusted tackles per 90.
His defensive role wasn’t particularly expansive. As his heatmap shows he had his area of the pitch to patrol, and he thoroughly patrolled it.
Clearly NDombele exhibited tremendous range, even while being tasked with a fairly defined defensive role. There’s nothing more you could possibly want from a player than NDombele’s broad and deep set of talents, and at 22 he’s still likely to get even better.
In terms of team construction, a player like NDombele is a gift that keeps on giving. By acquiring him first, Spurs have given themselves the freedom to shape the rest of their midfield in a number of different ways. Broad skillsets provide tactical flexibility.
It’s possible to imagine NDombele as the lone holding midfielder, a Fernandinho type with two free roaming attacking midfielders in front of him. Spurs most aggressive lineups deployed that way last season with Dele and Eriksen occasionally taking up those roles in front of a single holder. NDombele would be miles ahead of anybody who played that role for them last season. It’s also possible to imagine NDombele himself occupying one of those roles in front of a more committed defensive midfielder. His ability to drive forward with the ball providing the same sorts of benefits that Moussa Sissoko did for the team in his best moments, without any of the drawbacks Sissoko provided in all his other moments.
But it’s also possible to imagine NDombele playing as part of a more traditional double pivot. If Eriksen leaves, and Spurs seek to consistently field a front four of Kane, Son, Dele and Lucas Moura in some configuration, it’s likely that NDombele would slot right in as half of the pair anchoring the midfield behind them. This would make sense even if Spurs make no other purchases this summer (which itself seems increasingly unlikely especially if they get a windfall from Eriksen), as NDombele could either positionally anchor the squad next to an ever running Sissoko, or play a more balanced role bringing heft next to Harry Winks.
Then, of course, there’s the possibility that another midfield talent might arrive. NDombele’s talents fit flawlessly with basically any partner, so his presence leaves Spurs the maximum number of options. That could mean that NDombele gets the freedom to move forward aggressively next to a more defensive and possession oriented player like Real Madrid’s Dani Ceballos.
Or, he could be the more conservative option next to a more aggressive young player like Giovanni Lo Celso.
Either way NDombele is likely to thrive.
There is, of course, no such thing as a sure thing in the transfer market. Talented players fail to transfer their skills to new environments all the time. Even the brightest young talents don’t always materialize into superstars and fulfill their potential on the biggest stage. But, make no mistake, that’s exactly what NDombele is. He’s a player that has not only the tools to mature into a great player, but one who has already become one at Lyon. The biggest question for Spurs is not whether NDombele will be good, but how best to utilize him. Spurs have built a team that got them to the upper echelons of the Premier League by finding players who then developed into stars under their tutelage. In NDombele they’ve flipped the script. He’s already a star, now Spurs just need to figure out what to do with him.