Genius. The sense was that Mauricio Pochettino was not using the word lightly.
The Tottenham manager has spent a footballing lifetime rubbing shoulders with luminaries – and few, he thought, qualified for that description. There was Diego Maradona, a former room-mate, and two showmen who were Paris Saint-Germain team-mates in Jay-Jay Okocha and Ronaldinho. In February 2018, he identified another: Mousa Dembele.
The Belgian may seem an odd kind of genius; a midfielder who averaged a goal every 25 games for Tottenham and who didn't register an assist in his last 48 league outings. Yet there was the sense he was so idiosyncratic that he could look irreplaceable. He was, Pochettino said 17 months ago, “one of the most unbelievable talents in the history of football”.
It's one way to explain the club-record fee of £55 million plus add-ons that Spurs have paid for Tanguy Ndombele – that he is the replacement for Pochettino’s resident genius. There are others, of course: the probable proceeds of Christian Eriksen’s sale, the vacancies in a midfield where Dembele is already gone, the Dane could follow and Victor Wanyama has regressed, the need to rejuvenate a squad that famously hadn't been strengthened in either of the last two transfer windows, the income banked in a run to the Champions League final, the wish to placate Pochettino.
But there were grounds to target Ndombele in particular. His performance against Manchester City ranked among the finest by a visiting player at the Etihad Stadium last season (another came from a new team-mate, Son Heung-min). At 22, he offers the potential of a decade’s dominance in midfield.
And yet it's hard to escape the sense that he is hired as a duplicate Dembele, and not merely because of the similarity in their surnames. They have shared strengths, of carrying the ball and keeping the ball. It is a combination of attributes that very few others possess to such an extent.
Consider the figures. Ndombele’s pass completion rate in Ligue 1 last season, according to WhoScored, was 89.1%; the majority of those who were more accurate in their distribution were defenders and thus under less pressure. Not quite Dembele-esque – at his peak, the Belgian topped 92% in successive seasons – but bettered by only six Premier League midfielders. Two of them, his new colleague Harry Winks and Ross Barkley, have a pertinence.
And virtually all those who averaged more dribbles in France were forwards; indeed, every Premier League player who topped his 1.9 dribbles per game is a winger. Again, Ndombele is not quite registering the statistics of Dembele, but the Belgian’s uniqueness stemmed from his status as the midfield runner on the ball. Where others would use passing or pace to take opponents out of the game, Dembele did it by dribbling.
68% - Tanguy Ndombele completed 63 of the 92 dribbles he attempted in Ligue 1 last season, resulting in a 68% success rate - this is the highest success rate of any player in Europe's top five league last season to attempt as many dribbles. Sixpence. pic.twitter.com/LbPDYvwmiO— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 3, 2019
The common denominator among Pochettino’s recent targets is that capacity to run the ball forward. Barkley was wanted in the January 2018 window, Jack Grealish in the following summer. Each has been criticised at times for a comparative lack of goals and assists, just as Dembele was. Each has the ability to take his side upfield while retaining possession. It looks a Pochettino trademark, a version of NFL’s running back or, perhaps, some of rugby’s centres.
It suggests Pochettino judges such players not by their direct contribution to goals, but by their ability to get his team into the final third. And given the way he often relies on full-backs for genuine width, the ball-carrying central midfielder has an added significance. Dembele lent Spurs another dimension, and while they have advanced further in Europe, their Premier League points total has tailed off from 86 to 71 since his best season of 2016/17. Ndombele may be charged with recapturing what Spurs lost when Dembele declined and then departed. The price, and the extended search for a successor, showed how rare his gifts were.
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