The following article is extracted from Football News’s 200,000 word guide to the world of French football, The Football News 100 which focused on ranking individuals’ performances over the course of 2018 as a calendar year. To download the whole guide, click here.
The following piece was written in December 2018 and published on the 1st January 2019. Tanguy Ndombele ranked 69th in the 2017 edition and ranked 4th in our index out of French football’s 100 best players in this year’s Football News 100.
Lyon have long been vaunted as having one of France’s, and indeed Europe’s strongest academies, with the likes of Karim Benzema, Alexandre Lacazette, and Frédéric Kanouté among its products, but the club have taken a rather different approach to sustaining success in recent times. While there are still academy products sprinkled throughout the team, including Houssem Aouar, Anthony Lopes, and Nabil Fékir, in recent seasons, younger players brought in from other clubs have been rather more decisive in Les Gones’ quest to maintain their place as regulars in European competition. Lucas Tousart, Ferland Mendy, and Jason Denayer are key examples, but perhaps no player has blossomed quite like Tanguy N’Dombélé, who recently earned his first full cap for France against Uruguay.
Admired by the likes of Manchester City, Roma, and Tottenham Hotspur in the summer, N’Dombélé has been nothing short of a revelation since arriving from Amiens, initially on loan, last summer. Now signed to a contract through 2023, despite enduring a somewhat shaky start to the season, thought by some to be tied to his not having departed in the summer, he has been back in magnificent form of late. While the injury absences of Corentin Tolisso and Paul Pogba certainly played their part in his being given an opportunity by Didier Deschamps, it is also more than fair to suggest that he would be ahead of those two on form, fitness notwithstanding.
Born to Congolese parents, like so many promising players in the current French set-up, N’Dombélé came of age in the outskirts of Paris, in Longjumeau, also the birthplace of Benjamin Mendy. N’Dombélé had a somewhat peripatetic youth career, spending time on the books of a variety of amateur clubs as well as Guingamp, where he was seen as talented, but perhaps lacking the necessary drive to succeed as a professional. Speaking to L’Équipe last year, Lionel Rouxel, who was the manager of the Breton side’s reserves at the time, recalled N’Dombélé thus:
“He was a nice kid, and funny, but he didn’t seem to care much in school. It wasn’t a case of his potential being questioned, and he had a good mentality — respectful — but he seemed to be lacking the awareness to reach a high level. He had a hard time waking up in the morning, he was overweight, and didn’t always present himself seriously. We were kind to him, we were tough, but in the end we felt we’d given him a chance.”
Following his departure from Guingamp, he struggled to latch on with another club, as trials with Caen, Auxerre, and Angers failed to result in his being offered a training contract, again because of concerns over his weight. Humbled by this experience, in 2014 he joined Amiens, who were then playing in the semi-professional third tier, having lost their professional status. Despite taking what seemed, at the time, a big step down vis-à-vis his ambitions, N’Dombélé buckled down and made a big impression with the northern side, despite playing only sparingly with the reserves in his first season.
Patrice Descamps, his manager then, recalls that N’Dombélé seemed to be almost in a state of shock at the seeming set-back of playing for such an unheralded club: “He was full of negative emotions caused by a gap between what he was hoping for and reality. He had to overcome this dark period, to forge a new mindset and a degree of willingness to learn that he had lost.” N’Dombélé offered in that first, difficult season, a firm rebuttal, and in his second, he subsequently became a regular with the reserves, before breaking through to the first team and finally signing his first professional contract in October of 2016.
Already an ever-present for Christophe Pélissier’s side at that point, having taken advantage of a lengthy injury absence on the part of Guy N’Gosso, he became a key figure, (particularly in the run-in as he played a hand in nine goals from late January onwards) as they famously earned promotion in dramatic fashion. His style of play was hardly one which would garner much in the way of agate type, even as he did record seven assists in less than 2,000 minutes on the pitch, but his physicality, explosiveness and power allowed him to affect play with a remarkable level of dynamism. That same frame that had been criticised by Rouxel for being overweight had been honed by this point into something far more lean, without sacrificing any of his power.
With Tolisso, Sergi Darder and Maxime Gonalons all having departed in the summer of 2017, Lyon certainly had a pressing need in midfield, and in N’Dombélé, they had a player who could provide a similar amount of versatility as Tolisso had. Like the Bayern Munich man, he, too, had also played on occasion at right-back and on the right wing with Amiens’ reserves, offering a relatively like-for-like degree of polyvalence.
Capable of playing as a six, but also a decent attacking midfielder, N’Dombélé is at his best as a relayeur, a player capable of breaking up play, but more importantly, driving the game forward on the counter through his ability to keep possession and play through balls to players who are more naturally gifted or have a better eye for goal. In an interview with Amiens paper Gazette Sport on the occasion of signing his first contract, the player himself mentioned Giannelli Imbula, who had also spent time at Guingamp, as a model, but it is clear now that his sights should be set much higher in terms of emulation, with another former Lyon player, Michael Essien, perhaps a more apt comparison.
Initially signed on loan but with an obligation to buy and despite permanent offers being tabled from the likes of Hoffenheim and Saint-Étienne, he quickly made a splash upon his arrival in summer 2017, delivering a man of the match performance against Paris Saint-Germain in his first appearance with his new club. It was a clear precedent that set the tone for his early days with Lyon, offering a commanding performance whilst driving forward from midfield.
Coming on the heels of a similarly strong display against Paris with Amiens a month earlier, that match showed how comfortably he could adapt to the rigours of not only the top flight but also European football, as he was key to Lyon navigating a tricky Europa League group successfully. While Les Gones were frustratingly eliminated from that competition by CSKA Moscow, his play continued to prove key as Lyon withstood the lengthy absence of Nabil Fékir in the second half of the season to pip Marseille to third place.
N’Dombélé was the victim of a contentious non-call that ought to have resulted in a penalty against Paris Saint-Germain in that initial meeting, but he was again at his most vital in the reverse fixture, proving decisive in a 2-1 win that presaged the club’s improved form in the run-in, with Fékir admitting that his young teammate was a more deserving winner of the man of the match award which had been bestowed upon him. Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traoré may have garnered most of the headlines given their prodigious scoring rates during that period, but one would be foolish indeed not to recognise that the freedom in attack that those two enjoyed was surely down to the energetic displays put on by the midfield.
Things have admittedly been slightly rockier for N’Dombélé this season. The aforementioned big links to moves abroad will have surely turned the head of a player signed by Lyon for what seems a paltry €8m, but his form has also suffered slightly as a result of Bruno Génésio’s tactics. Lately, the Lyon boss has become enamoured with playing three at the back, despite only having three orthodox centre backs in his side (and that’s only if one counts Jérémy Morel, a converted left back). With Ferland Mendy and Rafael pushed up on the wings, that has seen N’Dombélé and Houssem Aouar playing as a midfield two with Nabil Fékir taking up a more creative role ahead of them.
Last season, Lyon often lined up in a 4-3-3 with Lucas Tousart playing in front of the defence, or in a 4-2-3-1, with N’Dombélé paired with the former Valenciennes man. Tousart is not the quickest player, but he offered the sort of shield that allowed N’Dombélé and Aouar to get forward and affect the match with their dribbling ability, something that was similarly on display for France as N’Golo Kanté and N’Dombélé seemed to quickly forge a profitable understanding, also in a 4-2-3-1.
However, Tousart has been out of favour for much of the season, and while Pape Cheikh Diop is also capable of being a more prosaic option, the pairing of Aouar and N’Dombélé in front of a back three has seen both players often playing too deep to affect matches going forward, as neither seems exactly comfortable as the deepest-lying midfielder, nor do either want to be derelict in helping to protect the defence. Génésio had at times similarly miscast Tolisso as a defensive midfielder, playing him deepest in a three, to no great effect as well, and one must ask the question of how much more defensively sound Lyon could be with a natural six in the lineup.
Putting aside those tactical considerations, N’Dombélé has continued to improve, ranking as one of the division’s best dribblers (and most-fouled) among central midfielders, with only Nîmes’ Téji Savanier bettering his figures. Even with a role that sees him be less involved in the attack, he has still managed to record four assists in the league, putting him on pace to improve upon the six he recorded last year. While he has been somewhat inconsistent with his play domestically, in Europe, he has put in a number of displays that are on a level similar to what he has shown for France, scoring two goals and being the club’s best player across the five matches played in the Champions’ League to date.
Internationally, despite being wooed by DR Congo, he has been a key part of France finally qualifying for this upcoming summer’s U-21 Championships, despite only making his debut after joining Lyon, featuring eleven times as Les Espoirs topped their group, recording nine wins and a draw in ten matches. This, in stark contrast to their failure to qualify for the 2017 tournament, despite then having an arguably more talented side. His involvement with the senior national team may curtail his ability to play in Italy this summer, but that fact should underscore his remarkable rise and still brighter future. This young man was playing for Amiens’ reserves in the fifth tier almost exactly two years before first being called up by Deschamps.