As Tanguy Ndombele walked slowly off the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium pitch on Sunday, a chorus of boos likely signalled the end of his Spurs career.
There are some things you just cannot come back from.
When Ndombele arrived from Lyon for a club-record £54 million ($68m) in 2019, his signing was considered a coup, despite the hefty price tag.
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Mauricio Pochettino had supposedly brought in a brilliant, press-resistant, box-to-box midfielder; the sort of wriggling, dribbling presence who could break the lines on his own and bring urgency back to a team that finished the previous campaign by picking up just 11 points from their final 12 league matches.
But the France international never took off, showing only very brief glimpses of his true quality in a difficult two-and-a-half years during which four different managers – Pochettino, Jose Mourinho, Nuno Espirito Santo, and now Antonio Conte – have tried and failed to integrate him into the first team.
The end has not been so explosive for Dele Alli, but a man once considered among the best young players in the world is also widely expected to leave Tottenham this month, though likely only on loan, having fallen entirely out of Conte’s plans.
Dele may have “only cost five mill”, as the terrace chant goes, but in terms of his value now compared to when Paris Saint-Germain were interested in the summer of 2020, the financial write-off is similar to that of Ndombele.
Two players with massive potential leaving Tottenham is a significant moment symbolically, ending an era and beginning a new one under Conte; a new one that is set to be defined by the hard work, discipline, and tactical mechanisations that both players lack, and their coach demands.
Individualism is simply not an option under Conte. This, more than a conscious lack of effort, is what separates Dele and Ndombele from those who have flourished early in the Italian’s regime, from Oliver Skipp to Eric Dier.
It is not a question of flair, of minimising risk and taking the cautious passing option, even if the presence of Skipp or Harry Winks over Ndombele and Dele might suggest as much to the casual onlooker. It is simply about listening to and following precise instructions
That is what Christian Eriksen and Cesc Fabregas did for Inter and Chelsea, respectively, under Conte. Both improved as players, both recorded some of the best goal and assist numbers of their careers, and both won league titles.
The Fabregas example has particular relevance for Tottenham’s future. When Conte arrived at Stamford Bridge, he introduced a tactical idea that has since spread throughout the top-half of the Premier League; that of mechanising how a team uses the ball, coaching the patterns of passing and moving with meticulous detail.
For Conte – as for Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, and Thomas Tuchel, to name but three – it is essential to follow his exact directions. This creates a level of structure to possession that allows the team to move at very quick speeds and pull the opposition around with pre-set moves, diligently practiced in training until they are instinctive – much in the same way more traditional coaches would organise a defence.
Fabregas became more robotic in his actions, but crucially did not stop being productive or enjoyable to watch. Both he, as well as Eriksen at San Siro five years later, took a long time to adapt, but both became key players for Conte by the end.
Sadly, it does not look as though this will happen for Ndombele or Dele, with the manager having already seen enough to move them to the fringes of the squad.
Dele always seemed a bad fit for Conte, just as he was for Mourinho and Nuno, both of whom played too much on the back foot, relying on counterattacks, for Dele’s style to work.
He is a victim of circumstance as much as anything else, and yet perhaps he ought to have adapted his idiosyncratic playing style by now.
Is there anyone else in the world quite like Dele? Anyone else who plays as a No.10 but is most effective as a goalscorer making runs beyond the centre forward?
He does not really fit into any tactical system in the modern game, and as a player who appears to work almost entirely on instinct – and in short creative bursts amid drifting, semi-anonymous performances – it is little wonder Conte cannot accommodate him.
Nuno’s unsuccessful experiment of using Dele as a No.8 will have been scrutinised by Conte, while the 25-year-old does not have the dribbling skills in tight spaces, or the pace, for one of the two inside forward roles. There just is not a home for Dele in a 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1.
Ndombele should be more adaptable, and yet under successive managers he has shown an individualistic streak that appears to work in opposition to a team’s goals.
He regularly drops a shoulder and attempts to burst through the lines on his own, seemingly uncomfortable with playing calmly within a system.
Unfortunately, that means his undoubted talent becomes a luxury, and when confidence dips he becomes anonymous. Worse than that, there is an attitude problem that is seemingly hastening his exit.
When Conte first arrived, one would have hoped Ndombele would finally have the right coach to mould him into a more clinical and consistent footballer, and yet within a couple of weeks of the new regime beginning, Conte told reporters that Ndombele “has to understand that there is a team, and he has to play into the team”.
If that was a warning sign, Sunday’s tantrum against Morecambe was definitive proof Ndombele is not up to the challenge.
Spurs fans will be bitterly disappointed to see both players leave, but counter-intuitively, the impending departures are a good sign. It is evidence that Conte will demand commitment to the cause, to the collective.
It is also evidence of Conte’s steadfast belief in the rigidly-structured attacks that have been the hallmark of his incredible success at Juventus, Inter, and Chelsea. If the dream for Spurs fans is to challenge for the Premier League title, then Conte is the best manager they could hope for.
The price is saying goodbye to both the club’s record signing and one of the most adored Tottenham players in recent years.