Tanguy Ndombele is exactly what Tottenham need. Now they have to start playing him.
The 24-year-old made his first start in nearly five months during their 2-2 draw with Rennes in the Europa Conference League on Thursday evening.
It is no coincidence he has reappeared just five days after boss Nuno Espirito Santo was heavily criticised for playing three defensively-minded central midfielders during their 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace.
Oliver Skipp, Harry Winks and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg all offer something slightly different but ostensibly they form a trio which lacks creativity. There is an edge missing that a certain Frenchman brought back to the middle of the park.
It would be remiss to ignore that his performance was absolved from any errors. He is clearly lacking minutes and fitness - although his running style points towards that even when he is 100 per cent.
(AFP via Getty Images)
There was a lack of balance in the first half as Spurs struggled to get a foothold in the game with a three of Skipp, Ndombele and Gil. They looked far more accomplished when Hojbjerg came on for the injured Steven Bergwijn after 30 minutes and slotted in alongside Skipp and Ndombele.
But when it comes to making things happen there can be no doubt the former Lyon man is Nuno’s best option.
It is no secret Ndombele struggled to make the adjustment to the Premier League when he joined for a club record £54 million back in 2019.
He made 29 appearances in his opening campaign, most of which came under Mauricio Pochettino’s replacement Jose Mourinho. Ndombele’s first season saw him score two goals and assist four more.
But he failed to really establish himself as a first team regular and - as documented in the All or Nothing series - was not adapting well to life at the club.
Chairman Daniel Levy encouraged him to stay and Ndombele rather reluctantly agreed to give Spurs another shot.
And he was proven right. Ndombele began to show the kind of graceful, elegant, liquid flow that had led Tottenham to break the bank on him in the first place.
His ability to dictate the pace of the game without breaking stride was evident during Spurs’ 6-1 thumping of Manchester United 11 months ago - a result that feels so long ago you’d be forgiven for thinking Alan Hutton, Wilson Palacios and Roman Pavlyuchenko also featured.
His highlight moments came in a breakout display against Manchester City a few weeks before the Old Trafford demolition, and then in January when he hooked a sumptuous effort up and over Sheffield United keeper Aaron Ramsdale for one of the goals of the season.
But an in-form Ndombele cannot be quantified by statistics. He was far more integral to Tottenham’s side in the last campaign than his six goals and four assists would suggest. And he proved that again against Rennes with a sensational flick in the lead-up to Spurs breaking the deadlock.
There is a joy to his game which has given him a cult following - the ‘Ndombelievers’. He is Spurs’ most natural player on the ball since Mousa Dembele departed in 2019 and it could well be a blessing in disguise that they were unable to find a suitor for him in the summer after he expressed a desire to leave.
Early in the second half he played a delightful one-two with Harry Kane before sauntering through the Rennes defence, only to lose his balance when trying to finish.
That sort of dynamism, that ability to link with the front three, it’s not something Spurs are blessed with in their current squad. Nor do they possess a host of dribblers who can wrap defenders in a straight jacket like Ndombele can and did on numerous occasions before being substituted in the 78th minute.
Hojbjerg is a stopper (who scored just his third goal in 59 appearances on Thursday evening). Skipp is promising but inexperienced and basic in his offensive play. Winks has not quite developed in the way the club would have wanted over the last 24-36 months. And Dele Alli continues to stagnate despite being given a second chance under Nuno.
That only really leaves Giovani Lo Celso as the other creative midfield option aside from Ndombele. And while the Argentine is technically impressive, fitness issues have meant he has not started five Premier League games in a row for 14 months.
Tottenham do not lack attacking options up top. The ever-reliable duo of Kane and Son Heung-min have been helped out by a strong start to the season from Lucas Moura - although he did worryingly depart the match against Rennes with an injury.
At the back they are suspect. Davinson Sanchez, Joe Rodon, Eric Dier, none of them fill you with confidence. Spurs supporters will be praying Cristian Romero is the real deal.
But what Nuno now needs to focus on is using Ndombele to speed up the transitions. There has to be that link between Hojbjerg, Skipp and Winks to Kane, Son and Moura.
The Chelsea game may have come a little too soon for the Frenchman - facing Jorginho and N’Golo Kante is a thankless task for any Premier League midfielder. But why not throw him in? You could not have thought up a more insipid midfield threesome than what Spurs put out at Selhurst Park last weekend.
To almost all Tottenham fans there is no doubting that - when completely match fit - Ndombele is far and away the club’s most accomplished midfielder.
It is now a question of whether Nuno trusts him enough. If he doesn’t, the club’s record signing will go down as a frustrating failure.