When it comes to talking about Tanguy Ndombele and Jose Mourinho, a pair who've clashed at times in 2020, nothing will ever be simple, as we saw on Sunday when the French midfielder was surprisingly absent from the matchday squad for the 2-0 derby win over Arsenal. Yet, until the latest twist in their stormy relationship, Ndombele's renaissance has been one of the stories of the Premier League season so far. It's even more remarkable considering where we left them a few months ago, arguing and falling out with each other, with Ndombele asking for a move away from Spurs because he didn't want to work with Mourinho, as revealed by ESPN in June, to the manager hugging him after another superb performance in the 2-0 win against Manchester City on Nov. 21.
Ndombele has been one of the most entertaining players to watch in England this season, alongside Aston Villa's Jack Grealish. There aren't many players like Ndombele anywhere, offering so much technical ability while being so strong and capable of taking on players, soaking up the pressure, carrying the ball forward, breaking the lines between opponents' midfield and defense. When Mourinho and his assistant, Joao Sacramento, went back to review the 0-0 draw between Chelsea and Tottenham on Nov. 29, they still could not get their heads around how, in the first half, Ndombele managed to dribble his way beyond Thiago Silva and N'Golo Kante right by the touch line, winning a free-kick after being fouled by Silva. "It was like magic," said a member of the squad.
Even though Ndombele's stats are not exceptional (one goal and one assist in 10 Premier League games so far), his level of play has been exceptional; indeed, for all the attention and praise heaped upon teammates Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min, the French midfielder has played just as big a role in helping Tottenham to the top of the table.
Mourinho can often be uncompromising in his man-management. Yet, he recognises talent. He has been a fan of Ndombele for his potential, less so for his perceived attitude. Mourinho was reportedly tough with the club's record signing -- €62m euros in 2019 -- when he took over the manager's job a year ago because he wanted to make him better, not because he didn't like him. A similar thing happened with the man Mourinho replaced, Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentine didn't think the French international was working hard enough.
Ndombele had been quite indulged in France, both at Amiens and Lyon where he got his own way. He could arrive at training some days and not fancy it on others; his coaches would be OK with it. Of course, that's not possible with Mourinho -- it shouldn't be possible with any manager, really -- but Mourinho refused to give up on him. They talked a lot in his office after the short break they had in the summer, and began the 2020-21 season on a fresh page.
"We both put our egos to the side," Ndombele explained on French TV a few weeks ago, though Mourinho didn't change much. Ndombele did. His effort in training and during games is much better. In Mou's case, he's making more time just to sit and talk to the 23-year-old. He pushes him during training, but also shows him confidence and offers support.
"He had to mature. Don't forget that his rise to the top has been extraordinarily rapid," a source close to Ndombele explained. "He had one season in Ligue 1 at Amiens, then two at Lyon, a big money move to Tottenham, a change of manager after four months, a new league, a new country and a new language. He has had to deal with big changes very quickly, massive expectations and it was all new to him at a young age."
Ndombele was arguably not ready for a big move abroad that summer, with the demands of the Premier League, as well as both Pochettino and Mourinho representing a fundamental shift from anything he had experienced before. "Now things are better because he has understood a lot of things. He feels better physically, he knows the league and he plays in his favourite position too," the source continued.
The central No.10 position, higher up the pitch than Ndombele was last season, is indeed much better for him and he brings so much to the team from that advanced midfield role. It's surely no coincidence that the only two Premier League games he didn't start were a 1-0 defeat against Everton and a 1-1 draw with Newcastle, both of them at home, though there is of course still room for improvement. He has yet to play the full 90 minutes in a league match this season, for example, and while Ndombele has been frustrated at times to come off in the final third of matches, it's all part of the plan to build his stamina to where it counts most in the latter part of the season.
Mourinho was not happy on Sunday that Ndombele ruled himself out for the Arsenal clash. "We were positive, we were waiting until the last moment, but at that moment he decided that he was not ready," Mourinho told Sky Sports before the game to explain his player's absence, not seeming impressed at all about the "little problem" that impacted his XI. Yet in his post-match news conference, he changed his version of events: "Only today we decided he was not in good condition to play." The change has certainly been interpreted by some in Ndombele's camp as Mourinho proving publicly how much he's willing to defend him and Spurs won the game comfortably over their north London rivals.
It's still not totally perfect between the pair, but it's so much better than it ever was and both Mourinho and Ndombele are reaping the rewards. Oh, and Tottenham are as well, sitting right there at the top of the table, dreaming of a first league title in almost 60 years.