The evolution of the defensive midfielder is a fascinating one. From the physical destroyers in Keane and Gattuso to intelligent readers of the game in Alonso and Busquets. The next step in this evolution was Belgian midfielder Mousa Dembele. He arrived in the Premier League as an attacking midfielder for Fulham. After a relatively successful spell for the Cottages, he arrived in North London, signing for Tottenham. While he was good under AVB, it was the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino that transformed him. He decided to move Dembele deeper, using his superior dribbling to help transition the ball from defence. This truly changed what a defensive midfielder could do. Since his fantastic 2015/16 season, we’ve seen the emergence of players with a similar skillset to Dembele, with Kondogbia, Sangare, Kovacic and Allan. These players who combine elite dribbling with solid defensive output have made them a player in high demand. Clubs are ready to spend a lot of money on players with these skillsets.Embed from Getty Images
Dembele’s importance to that Tottenham side can be seen how much they’ve struggled in midfield this season. After Dembele’s defensive work slowing down each season, it was an area where they needed to strengthen in the summer. However, as it’s well documented, they didn’t sign any players. While Dembele has shown his age, no one expected such a huge drop-off. He looked a shadow of the player he once was, and his usefulness to Pochettino was dwindling. Some midfielders will reach this drop-off, especially those focused on their hard work, energy and defensive output. It left Tottenham in a real conundrum. They were lacking any midfielder who could effectively transition the ball from defence into attack. The solution they found just continues to highlight the genius of the Spurs manager, being able to get every last drop of quality out of both Winks and Sissoko, forming a midfield partnership that would solve the issue on the short term. It has given them a huge problem in attack, however. Without Dembele’s elite dribbling, it has forced Alli and Eriksen to come deeper to receive the ball, which has weakened their output and has put more pressure on them defensively. Pochettino has opted to place either Alli or Eriksen in central midfield, with his options that low. It has highlighted their midfield as the area that is in desperate need of improvement.
This is where Tanguay NDombele fits in. The Frenchman was one of the breakout stars of the 2017/18 season, establishing himself as one of the brightest midfield prospects in Europe. In a young and exciting Lyon side, Ndombele has been given the platform to flourish. His signing deserves a lot of credit from whoever handles Lyon’s transfers. In a summer which saw them lose both Tolisso and Lacazette for nearly a combined £90 million, it left a challenge for the club. They acted smartly in bringing in Mariano for less than £10 million, and NDombele on loan. It’s what makes NDombele’s arrival so strange. He arrived on loan and was signed for £7.2 million before the 2018/19 season, a true bargain in today’s market. Nothing was well known of him at the time and only made 3 starts for Amiens before leaving for Lyon. The club has been known for finding players in obscurity before. They’ve taken risks on older players like Marcelo and Jallet, while also ready give the younger players a chance. During the 2017/18 season, Genesio was starting Tousart, Aouar and NDombele in a midfield three. All were young and excelled in their bid to secure Champions League football. NDombele was the stand out of the trio. His maturity and strength showed him to be above his peers in terms of importance for the side. He was essential in giving the side defensive stability, while also using his incredible ball retention skills to help push Lyon further up the pitch. Lyon is a side full of great dribblers. Aouar, Fekir, Depay, Traore and Mendy are all excellent in moving the ball into the final third, but NDombele stands out. He’s been averaging over 70% success rate for dribbling, a high figure for a player who usually receives the ball in crowded areas. It’s actually one of his most impressive qualities. No matter how many players attempt to stay tight to him, he will always find a way to avert pressure. During their impressive 2-1 win over champions Paris Saint-Germain, NDombele had one of his best games. He would constantly find space to receive the ball and would drop deep to drag the opposing players in areas they did not want to go. He completed 3 dribbles, made 58 passes, the highest in the side, put in 3 tackles and completed 4 long balls. A well-rounded performance that helped show his best qualities. There is no player in Europe with such a similar skillset to Mousa Dembele. Good defensive numbers, a solid passer, a fantastic dribbler and a player who is press resistant make NDombele a player who is sought after.Embed from Getty Images
Can Tottenham sign the highly rated Frenchman? It is a possibility. If they are finally ready to spend money and show the rest of the league that they are ready to challenge both Tottenham and Liverpool, they have to. Ndombele was heavily linked to PSG, Barcelona and Manchester City for months. However, with Barcelona signing Frenkie De Jong, Manchester City looking at Rodri from Atletico Madrid and PSG focusing their attention on Allan, it has left Tottenham with a chance to sign him. It does beg the question of if they can afford him. He’s been rumoured to cost over £65 million. While that would be a fee that Tottenham could pay, the issue is there are other areas of that squad that need attention. If Trippier departs for Napoli, they will need another right back. If Alderweireld does decide to leave, as well as Eriksen, Rose, Lamela and Llorente, it leaves a lot of players that need replacing. While signing NDombele is possible, signing him while also needing to find replacements for all the players listed (as well as a goalkeeper with Lloris showing his age). When I spoke about the midfielders that Tottenham need to sign, I didn’t mention NDombele because I thought the idea of signing him was extremely unlikely. Spurs have a gift of having a manager who is able to get the best out of the talent at his disposal. The club might decide to look at players more in line of Billing, Grillitch, Anguissa and Lemina. Players who won’t cost an extraordinary amount while still improving the squad. If Tottenham do want to be taken seriously, it’s time to start buying the best players around, to show the ambition they claim to have.