There has always been the potential, the spectacular pass just seconds away, the jink and move past two defenders, the moment that makes you sit up in your seat in wonder. But with it has come frustration, hesitant moves, being bullied off the ball, failure to track back, imprecise passes, and the fear, as was demonstrated yesterday, that something so profound has gotten things off track in a way that can never be redeemed.

But maybe it’s simpler than all that. Maybe Tanguy Ndombele is simply a free spirit with a certain style of football that can only work at a lower level or for a team prepared to subordinate its other components to his skill-set and style of play. Maybe he was really never all that—at least not for this club at this time. 

Four different managers have judged him with each subsequent verdict more critical than the last. I think there’s a reason Antonio Conte didn’t fancy him for nearly two months, despite (or perhaps because) of continuous exposure to his skills on the training ground. And that reason must exceed a simple failure to meet Conte’s system or notion of how to advance and control the ball. The Ndombele that faced off against third-tier Morecambe was unable to unwilling to dictate the game when no other of his teammates—not Bryan, Lo Celso, Winks or Dele—had the opportunity or ability to do so. 

This was his chance to shine, and instead, he dimmed. Poor passing, poor decisions, dispossessions, that staggered running when space was provided and a more direct and urgent gait was called for. He wasn’t the worst Spur on the pitch in that first half—Japhet Tanganga and Joe Rodon can vie for that ignominious honour— but he was by far the most disappointing. And when his inevitable removal from the action came, and was executed at a saunter, well the crowd reaction was almost guaranteed as despicable as it might be.

It’s over for Tanguy now. The clock is rapidly ticking down for Dele, probably headed that way for Lo Celso and Bergwijn, never really started for Doherty. But those are less spectacular failures—the fan base is not as divided over them. Even Conte himself seemed to acknowledge that fact when he finally praised Ndembele during this week, or maybe he’s trying to lure a buyer. His original comment may have been the truer. He’s a midfielder—and, sadly, too often, little more than that. There is a brutal set of fixtures on the horizon—bracketed by games against Chelsea, and also including the NLD and a visit to Leicester—where Son’s injury has opened up starting spots for at least two of the players who featured yesterday. Off of this performance, I can see Winks and possibly Lo Celso or Gil being selected multiple times. I doubt we’ll see Dele more than once—and Tanguy? Well, I suspect Paratici will be working overtime now to find him a different home. 

Football is littered with “what ifs” and “could have beens”. It is entirely possible that the great promise many of us bought into with Ndombele will be reached somewhere else. It’s equally possible it will never come, and perhaps was always destined to end that way. He simply may never have been all that. Regardless, I am sorry for him that it may have ended so badly. Adieu, ami. Fare thee well. 

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