This comfortable, smiling version of Tanguy Ndombele is a world away from the one who watched his dream move to Tottenham become a nightmare last season.
Today the 24-year-old sits in a doorway conducting a long and revealing interview over Zoom. He takes on such topics as Jose Mourinho’s treatment of him, that impromptu lockdown meeting at his home and what Daniel Levy said when he told him he wanted to leave Spurs and he does so with the confidence that experience and adaptation brings.
football.london first spoke with Ndombele across the world in Singapore a few weeks after he joined the club in the summer of 2019 and that young, shy midfielder has grown up quickly thanks to the tough experiences of the past 18 months.
Even the moment he joined Spurs was something that came out of the blue – quite literally.
You might have noticed at the time that in Ndombele’s unveiling photos he was wearing a cap on his head.
They were not meant to be the most laid back signing shots ever released. In fact, the Frenchman had not actually expected to sign for the club that day, but Spurs would not let him go until he put pen to paper on his deal.
“It’s true. I was on holiday and I had dyed hair and I received the call. They said: ‘You’ve got to come to Spurs, it’s now or never,'” he told football.london this week.
“I said, ‘Ah, I’ve dyed my hair, my hair is blue!’ They said: ‘You’ve got to come anyway.’ As it happened it was fine. They said I could keep my hat on so that’s how I look in the photos!”
Mauricio Pochettino had already convinced Ndombele to leave Lyon for north London. The player said the Argentine “spoke very well” and told the France international that “he saw a good young player with so much potential that alongside him would develop”.
That first experience of a Pochettino pre-season was a killer though and the club record signing admitted that he wanted to go home within weeks.
“It was incredibly tough. I remember that I was even calling home to my friends in France saying I want to come back,” he admitted.
“It was so, so tough, but perhaps it was what I needed. I needed to get used to that sort of work, to that sort of training and over time to acclimatise to it.”
Ndombele had risen so quickly in such a short space of time, from the fifth division of French football to becoming a Premier League player, that the jolt of those infamous Pochettino pre-seasons actually ended up causing him problems.
“Yes, undoubtedly, I think it did have a role to play in the injuries I got [later on],” said the player, speaking during an appearance for IWC Schaffhausen, the club’s official watch partner.
“Obviously my body just needed to get used to that sort of work and maybe it was the shock of that hard work to begin with that perhaps had a role to play in the fitness problems I had. I think my body just needed to adapt to it.”
The Premier League felt a world away from his upbringing.
Ndombele was born in Longjumeau, a suburb of Paris, and he grew up idolising Ronaldinho, Zinedine Zidane and later Cristiano Ronaldo.
His early years in football took him to various youth sides around the capital before he was snapped up into the renowned Guingamp academy.
However, while he was a talented midfielder, often playing in much higher age groups, he was released just before he managed to reach the first team, his team-mates and coaches later stating that he simply didn’t seem to want it as much as everyone else.
The rejection continued as other professional clubs passed on him after trials, claiming that he was clearly gifted but out of shape, and he finally ended up down the sport’s ladder at Amiens.
It was in the fifth level of French football that he took control of his football destiny and it turned him into a fighter.
“It all made me more resilient,” he said. “When you are young, it’s never easy and in the Paris region it’s really hard to go places with football because there are just so many good players around, but when you are up against them week in, week out, your level increases.
“There were moments though I feared I might not make it, absolutely. When you are young, you don’t think about that sort of stuff too much.
“You’re young, you’re playing, everyone wants to become a professional. Maybe when I was 17, 18-years-old, leaving Guingamp, that was a really hard moment but at that point I said I’m just not going to let this go. I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am today.”
Ndombele’s parents played their part, his father a constant and vocal presence on the touchline and his mother helped him “to be a more grounded, calm person”.
Ndombele’s game is all about being calm under pressure, someone who uses his natural-born talent to get out of tricky situations with a quick mind to plan a route through.
One moment he is surrounded by players, the next he has motored away before sending a trademark no-look pass or through ball to a team-mate.
“I’m someone who plays on instinct. I never ask myself too many questions on the field. Things come to me quickly in my head, thankfully,” he explained.
“It’s important not to be afraid. That’s exactly it. You try stuff, and taking a risk is part of the job.
“Of course sometimes that’s not easy but if you go for something risky and it helps the team then that’s great, and I think all teams need players who are ready to take risks.”
Even that eye-catching pirouette he uses to bamboozle surrounding opponents, something Spurs fans have likened to his predecessor and near-namesake Mousa Dembele’s trademark turn, is born from instinct.
“It’s not something that I think about too much, to be honest,” he said. “It comes naturally.
“If I sense that it’s the right time to pull off the move, I do it and if not, then I don’t bring it out.”
Ndombele laughs when asked whether it’s his duty to entertain the supporters.
“No. I am just trying to do what is good for the team on the pitch,” he said. “If entertaining the crowd is better for the team then that’s good but I’m not going to dribble just to be an entertainer.”
Ndombele’s career brought him to Lyon, the Champions League, and then Tottenham, where Pochettino soon gave way to Mourinho, a very different type of manager.
“If you know Jose Mourinho then you understand how he behaves,” explained the Frenchman.
“I wouldn’t call it confrontation, but he’s just got a certain way of sending his messages and it actually all depends on how you receive those messages he sends.”
Ndombele claims that he found the change in lifestyle, language and team-mates a tougher challenge than the arrival of Mourinho but the two men certainly were at odds as that first season together continued.
The Spurs head coach publicly criticised Ndombele, particularly brutally after taking him off at half-time in a Premier League game in May last year at Turf Moor against Burnley, a team Tottenham host this weekend.
Mourinho said Ndombele had to give the team more than he was giving and that he had already been given enough time to reach a decent level.
The Portuguese would later say that he “never doubted his quality, I doubted in some moments his motivation and commitment and professional attitude”.
“Burnley wasn’t the hardest moment for me,” Ndombele told football.london. “I think the hardest moment was the restart [after lockdown] but sure it wasn’t a nice time for me, the match against Burnley.
“The coach came out and said what he had to say afterwards and it’s not nice to hear those things.”
Before the restart came the infamous arrival of the Spurs boss at his door during the first lockdown.
How shocked out of ten was Ndombele to find Mourinho ringing his intercom one day from outside his home, telling him to come out for a run?
“Honestly? Dix!” the midfielder exclaimed with the French word for ten.
“I asked why I should have to run, and he said I just had to do it. So it was nothing really. Afterwards, the manager congratulated me and said that I’d run well.”
While it certainly showed Mourinho at least had not given up on him, it did not feel like that at the time for Ndombele when asked if it was an important moment in the building of their relationship.
“Most important moment? I don’t think so. It was right in the middle of the hardest time for me,” he said.
That’s because Ndombele was struggling to convince the head coach to play him and he barely played after the restart, with just two second half appearances from the bench. Speculation surrounded his future, his strained relationship with Mourinho and he just wanted to get away from it all.
Inter Milan were one of the clubs wanted to take him to Italy and the player told Mourinho and Spurs chairman Daniel Levy that he wanted to leave north London.
“To be perfectly honest with you I don’t know how close I was to leaving,” he said. “What I know is that I did want to leave. I spoke about this with people at the club and particularly with the chairman.
“The chairman said he didn’t want me to leave and definitely that’s something that really helped.”
Levy’s meeting with Ndombele was shown in the Amazon documentary series All or Nothing and the Frenchman admits he has seen the final episode, in which he tells the chairman: “For three months I trained hard. Everybody says I trained really well, but if I don’t play it means there must be something else.”
When asked now what that something else was, Ndombele said: “Maybe there was something. Obviously at that moment in time there was something in my mind and it’s what I felt in the moment, but now it’s no longer relevant. It’s something that’s in the past.
“The hardest moments are in the past and I’ve moved forward and things are much better for me and the team and it’s all behind us.”
Ndombele gives plenty of credit to Levy for helping those problems become part of the past and the chairman certainly showed belief in his club record signing.
“Myself and Levy, we get on well,” he said. “I am a player and he is the chairman. If we need to speak, we speak. There’s not much more to it than that, we both respect each other.
“Right from the start though he said he wasn’t going to let me leave. He didn’t want me to go. He looked me in the eyes and he said to me ‘The problem is you’re stubborn’.”
Did the “stubborn” Ndombele feel he made any mistakes himself during that troubled first season?
“I wouldn’t really say that I made errors, or particular errors. I think everybody has to take their own responsibility for what goes on in a season and there were things that went on at the club that people know about and things that went on at the club that people don’t know about,” he said.
“It’s always like that and now’s not the time to talk about those things. If people don’t know about what went on, then it’s because they shouldn’t know about those things that went on.
“I’m able now to look back and see what were the aspects of my contribution that I needed to work on and what’s great now is that everything’s moving in the right direction for the team, for the club and for everyone and that’s really satisfying.”
Ndombele’s friend Paul Pogba had his own tough experiences with Mourinho at Manchester United and the Spurs man admitted he spoke to his France team-mate about their difficulties.
“We spoke, we spoke about that but really quickly,” he explained. “It wasn’t like he gave me any advice because our situations were completely different.
“It’s true he worked with Mourinho but my own experiences weren’t the same and each relationship has its own characteristics.”
For Ndombele, it was the belief in him from those inside the club that eventually outweighed the problems he was facing and he began to settle and grew ever more popular among the squad as a whole.
He also didn’t want to go down as a club record flop in the Premier League with English football having failed to see the best of him.
“That’s something that motivates me all the time to improve, but you’ve got to remember that at the time I really didn’t feel good so perhaps, sure, after the event I look back and think I wouldn’t have wanted to leave and want to prove myself here, but at the time if you’re not feeling good, those sort of thoughts are quite far away from your mind,” he said.
“Without a doubt it’s made me stronger mentally. It’s made me and improved me as an athlete, what happened last season, because I wasn’t playing a lot. I was getting injured a lot, which I’m not used to and we were going through the pandemic and times like this you can only grow stronger.”
Ndombele’s second pre-season brought not only a knee injury carried over from the end of the last campaign, but also a positive test for Covid-19, which he admits he thankfully did not suffer too much from but it all played its part in another tough start.
“It wasn’t easy at all and above all this season had a short pre-season and all of a sudden it was match after match after match at a very high rate,” he said.
“Right now, I feel like I’ve got over all of that to work my way through it and the club has helped me enormously with that.”
One thing that is clear is Ndombele’s vastly superior fitness. Often unable to last past the 60 minute mark last season, the Frenchman is now not only finishing games but he’s making surging box to box runs in their latter stages to help out the defence and then attack. While Spurs fans used to mock his second half struggles as he tired, now he is one of the team’s fittest players.
Mourinho points to the hard work the player has put in during training and his efforts in trying to improve himself, but Ndombele believes it’s simply down to constantly playing matches.
“I think it’s the fact that you’re playing matches at such a high rate,” he explained. “That’s what makes it easier for my conditioning.
“There’s nothing in particular that I’ve changed with regards to my lifestyle or the way I was preparing before.
“I’m doing the same things I was then, it’s just that I’m playing more matches more frequently and above all that I’m not picking up any injuries.”
Ndombele is constantly smiling nowadays. He’s happy at Tottenham these days and he’s so laid back it makes you smile as well.
That nonchalance, which makes his play so captivating for the fans during matches, could be taken the wrong way off the pitch and it’s understood the midfield maverick has picked up the odd little fine at Tottenham here and there since joining the club in 2019.
When that was put to him, Ndombele laughed heartily with a cheeky glint in his eyes that perhaps betrayed his response.
“No, no, I don’t get given fines! Certainly what’s true is that ever since I was younger, people have always commented on that nonchalant aspect about the way that I play but I can assure you that I’m less nonchalant than I used to be,” he said.
“Certainly if that’s something the fans like then all the better for it!”
Ndombele has learned plenty about himself in the past 18 months as he’s adapted to a new club, a new country, a new language and lifestyle and he’s learned one of the toughest lessons in football – how to make Jose Mourinho happy.
The result has been him becoming a near ever-present under the Portuguese this season, able to play in a deeper, more taxing role, yet with six goals and three assists to boot and plenty of praise coming his way.
There was also a goal of the season contender with a deft no-look lob against Sheffield United.
“It was instinct. It happened so quickly. The ball came over, I didn’t even have time to really look to see what the positioning [of the keeper] was,” he remembered.
“I just went for the lob and thankfully it went in so it wasn’t something that was pre-planned.”
Ndombele says his relationship with Mourinho has been repaired and is in a good place.
In turn, the Portuguese regularly praises the young midfielder and is keen to make it clear that the player deserves all the credit for his turnaround in fortunes.
Things are better now for the smiling Ndombele, but ask him what he prefers when it comes to the carrot and stick approach to motivation and he quickly admits with a laugh: “La carotte!”