While dominant second-half performances against Bulgarian and Macedonian Europa League qualifiers, alongside a majestic sequence of individual brilliance to outfox a pair of average Premier League midfielders, hardly screams Super Bowl 51 levels of comeback, there’s no doubting that Tanguy Ndombele is on an upward trajectory at Tottenham.
There was a point where it seemed unlikely for the outrageously gifted Frenchman to even be strutting his stuff in N17 this season; with Mourinho unconvinced he could spark a remontada in his second season at the club. A point that was like…a month ago.
Inter were poised to strike, but Daniel Levy – who just can’t do any wrong at the moment – intervened, expressing caution at giving up on their record signing so hastily.
Levy is said to have offered the introverted midfielder plenty of support throughout the tricky acclimatisation phase, something the Frenchman appreciates, and the early signs this term suggests the chairman’s faith in the former Lyon star will be justified.
Tottenham’s Europa League qualifier at Macedonian giants Shkendija may serve as the most unlikely of watershed fixtures in Ndombele’s previously stuttering Spurs career.
His inclusion in Mourinho’s starting XI meant back-to-back starts for the first time under the Portuguese string-puller, and when Steven Bergwijn was substituted in favour of Lucas Moura just past the hour mark, it meant Ndombele would complete 90 minutes for the first time since Spurs’ 2-2 draw with Norwich…last December.
And what a fine showing it was, his most complete display for the Lilywhites apart from – perhaps – the aforementioned draw at Carrow Road. Alongside second-half substitute Giovani Lo Celso, Ndombele took the contest away from mightily inferior opposition.
But while the typical Tanguy traits he’s teased ever since he announced himself to the wider footballing world with superb Champions League displays against Manchester City and Barcelona in 2018/19 – the discovery of non-existent angles, variation, verticality, etc – Tottenham fans were treated to an iteration of the 24-year-old previously unforeseen in N17.
This was a midfielder who was defending astutely in transition, tracking runners, contesting in duels all over the pitch, winning headers in his own box after 78 minutes and sprinting away in attacking transition in the dying embers. Sprinting!
Ndombele was the best player on the park, leaving his harshest critic thrilled.
“I’m very happy,” Mourinho said post-match. “He brought a very good dynamic to the team. He has gone in a good direction.
“I don’t want players to moan, I don’t want players to feel frustrated, I don’t want players to feel that I have something against them when I don’t pick them. I want players to fight for the minutes they want on the pitch.”
These are only minor steps, but for Spurs fans they must feel like giant leaps.
Never mind the heir to Mousa Dembele’s throne, this is the most naturally gifted footballer they’ve had on their books since Luka Modric left town. Ndombele has the capacity to define the Mourinho era in north London should he continue to mount a second season turnaround.
The Frenchman’s example is one that the seemingly alienated Dele Alli has to follow.
The Englishman’s relationship with the ‘Special One’ was poised to be, well, a special one following a significant upturn in form amid Mourinho’s honeymoon period, but their relationship has soured as of late – with the Spurs boss attempting those ‘outdated’ tough man-management methods in an attempt to return the English space interpreter to his finest form.
The 24-year-old has already endured a half-time hooking and a pair of matchday squad overlookings this term which thrust his Spurs future into serious doubt.
He won’t leave north London this summer. Instead, he has to respond to his manager’s tough love, whether it’s losing the ‘lazy trainer’ tag or his frustratingly erratic nature on the pitch.
While Ndombele starred in Skopje on Thursday, Dele’s showing was a 60-minute microcosm of his past 18 months: genius off the ball, but distinctly poor on it.
With the sheer amount of attacking talent Mourinho will have at his disposal once Gareth Bale recovers from a knee injury, Dele has to rediscover the consistency and unique goalscoring prowess that saw him emerge as the country’s brightest talent during the formative years of Mauricio Pochettino’s reign.
The next few weeks and months will be the ultimate strength of the 24-year-old’s character amid what feels like a career-defining period.
Dele has to follow in Ndombele’s footsteps and spark his own resurgence otherwise things could start to unravel rather sharpish for the former MK Dons starlet.