The first touch controlled the ball in an instant, the second manoeuvred it away from his markers, and the third flashed the ball across the goalkeeper and into the net. It was just the final emphatic act of Tanguy Ndombele’s game-changing cameo in Tottenham’s 4-1 win over Wycombe Wanderers in the FA Cup.
Coming on midway through the second half with the scores level, he had already provided the sumptuous lofted pass to Harry Kane in the build-up to Harry Winks’ goal before ending Wycombe’s hopes at Adams Park with a confident side-footed finish for Spurs’ third.
Ndombele’s superb second in stoppage time means that he has now scored as many goals in his last half a dozen appearances for the club than he had mustered in the previous 48.
The effort against Sheffield United last time out in the Premier League was perhaps the most imaginative of the season so far but that unique lob beyond Aaron Ramsdale was also typical of a talent who does things his own way. There might be more important players in the Tottenham team but that number is dwindling. And besides, is there a more fun player to watch in the country?
Much like Zidane, a compilation of Ndombele’s best bits will include more than mere goals and assists. “The goal was amazing, but I don’t care about the goal,” said Jose Mourinho at Bramall Lane. “I care about the performance and the performance was magnificent.”
Mourinho was thinking of more prosaic contributions than those that captured the fans’ imagination. The outside of the boot pass to Serge Aurier was just the latest spark of genius – a fresh addition to the growing list of what might be called ‘Ndombele moments’.
There was the time that he shoved Southampton’s Oriol Romeu off the ball with something approaching contempt before deceiving James Ward-Prowse with a drag-back, an incident that showcased his rare combination of strength and skill inside a single second.
At Molineux last month, he left the opposition midfield trailing in his wake more than once with his ball-carrying ability, calling to mind the old Geoffrey Green line about Ferenc Puskas making Wolves skipper Billy Wright look like a fire engine going to the wrong fire.
Ndombele’s story is all the more enjoyable given the redemptive nature of it. The fear was that this £53.8m record signing, the man Mourinho once bemoaned as always injured, would be consigned to history as an expensive Tottenham mistake, particularly after being hauled off for a particularly poor showing at Burnley in March.
His failure to register a single sprint in that game at Turf Moor seemed to sum up the lethargy that had enveloped his game, not only limiting his effectiveness but setting him on a collision course with the demanding Mourinho from which he could not deviate.
But the response has come, from the controversial personal training sessions in the park to the evident appetite to adapt, noted by Mourinho when discussing Ndombele in September.
“Tanguy is in a process of evolution. Last season, he wasn’t. Last season, he was stuck in a situation where I couldn’t see evolution. I never doubted his quality. Never. I doubted in some moments his motivation and commitment and professional attitude.”
By November, he was talking of Ndombele’s huge potential, the special qualities that he brings to the team, but what is it about the former Lyon midfielder that sets him apart?
Some of it is there in the numbers. Ndombele completes a dribble more than twice as often as any other Tottenham player. That alone helps to break the lines and open up the game for his team.
Ndombele dribbles in unusual areas and can beat the opposition press by doing so. It is rare to see a player be able to dribble so effectively in central zones and he can do it when operating in that deeper midfield role as well as when deployed behind the forwards.
That was a feature against Sheffield United. “He was very, very good on creation, transporting the game, coming out on transitions, trying to assist attacking players,” explained Mourinho.
Interestingly, when looking for evidence of improvement in Ndombele’s performance, it is not there in these key areas of his game – dribbling and ball carrying. He was delivering on his core strengths even as his overall contribution was being questioned.
While his recent goal glut is a convenient moment to celebrate his growing importance to Tottenham, his general play on the ball has not been the biggest aspect of change.
It is off the ball that Ndombele has been earning Mourinho’s trust, showing that he can maintain concentration for extended periods of time. These are the qualities that he demands in his players.
Ndombele has already covered more ground this season than he did last, despite being yet to register the same number of minutes that he did in his debut campaign. Most notably, the number of high-intensity sprints – a key criticism in the past – has quadrupled. There is more energy in Ndombele’s game and it is making a difference.
“I still think he can do better,” said Mourinho in November. “So is he doing well? Yes. Am I happy with him? Yes, I’m happy with him but I still think that he can do more. He can be fitter, he can give us 90 minutes without problems. He can be better than he is.”
The next step back then was sustaining it for the full game. When asked about his preference for substituting Ndombele midway through the second half of matches, Mourinho had explained that some players were just not able to maintain their levels.
But something has changed. Ndombele played the whole game at Bramall Lane, the first time that he has done so in the Premier League this season. Mourinho has trusted him with 70 minutes in each of his last four appearances in the competition since Christmas – having done so only twice in the whole of 2020 prior to that.
A corner has been turned.
“It is the second or third time he has played 90 minutes and 90 minutes of a game with high intensity because Sheffield United are a team that play high-intensity football. We play high-intensity football. We press very high [and it is] not easy for our midfielders to cope for 90 minutes with the intensity of the game. He did that. His performance was very, very complete.”
The complete midfielder? When Ndombele is putting in as many tackles as he is right now – more than any team-mate, including Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, since Christmas – then it seems possible.
“With his physical condition, the way he is now, he can be perfect as a midfield player. A number 10 position with his creation, his change of speed, is also very, very possible.”
It is a testament to Mourinho that he has been able to reintroduce him into the team, even if he does say so himself. “It is a great example that with me the door is always open.”
But most of all it is a credit to Ndombele and his talent. With the game deadlocked during that second half at Wycombe, his manager turned first to Kane and then to Heung-Min Son and Ndombele. It reflects his newfound status at the heart of this Spurs side.
One of the most enjoyable players in the Premier League is becoming one of the most effective too.