Tottenham Hotspur have worked tirelessly to install the virtue of patience into their fanbase, but they finally ended a seemingly endless operation by making their first signings since January 2018 earlier this week, as Jack Clarke and Tanguy Ndombele were added to Mauricio Pochettino’s squad.
The £65m fee paid by Spurs is a real statement of intent, and while the Frenchman provides an upgrade in midfield, he also brings with him an adaptability and flexibility that some of the Argentine’s attacking talent haven’t been able to execute as successfully as he might have hoped.
This flexibility involves moving from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-5-2 as effortlessly as possible.
Much has been made about the quality of Spurs’ starting front four. Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Son Heung-min are capable of combining to lethal effect, however, maximising the attacking potential of the quartet is a genuine conundrum for Pochettino.
On occasion, the Argentine has looked to adapt to a 3-5-2 or 3-1-4-2 depending on your perspective, but has suffered defeats to Watford, Liverpool, Ajax in this system, though a convincing 3-0 win at home to Borussia Dortmund proves that it’s not without its merits.
In order to line up this way, creative influences like Eriksen and Alli have been forced to drop and start in a midfield-three, which hasn’t come naturally to them.
Pochettino has often preferred a back-three system when facing elite quality teams – such as Ajax and Borussia Dortmund – suggesting he often champions defensive solidity on the big stage.
The only issue is that Eriksen doesn’t possess the dynamism or defensive instinct to play deeper and Alli doesn’t possess the discipline, which can be forgiven considering his best work is typically conducted in the final third.
This is where the signing of Ndombele could be particularly important.
Eriksen’s future remains in doubt after he stated his desire to “try something new” and, while the Frenchman is by no means a like-for-like signing, he suits Pochettino’s strategy against the top teams.
When the 47-year-old chooses to adopt the 4-2-3-1 system, Ndombele could slot into a midfield two with Sissoko or Winks and provide the Moussa Dembele-esque creativity from deep, with a physical stature and defensive awareness to compliment his attacking instincts.
However, when those daunting trips to the Etihad and Anfield do come along, the shift to a 3-5-2 can be reverted-to far more easily. Partnering with Winks and Sissoko in a three gives Spurs plenty of dynamism as well as creativity in front of three centre-backs.
Per Whoscored, Ndombele averaged at 1.9 tackles per game in Ligue 1 last season – 0.7 more per game than the defensively astute Sissoko – while slicing his way through the opposition on the front foot with 1.9 dribbles per game, winning 2.1 fouls per game in the process.
It is this rare but coveted ability to contribute to both phases of play with equal proficiency that makes him such an irresistible and game-changing talent.
It’s not only the midfield, though, that the 22-year-old will be improving.
In recent seasons, question marks have been raised over the performances of Danny Rose and Kieran Tripper, two full-backs with plenty of attacking intent. Rose’s perpetual improvement in the most recent campaign has all but restored his reputation amongst the fans towards the end of the most recent campaign but there is still work to be done, while Trippier has plummeted in the opposite direction.
Back-three formations allow the wing-backs far more protection when marauding up the pitch and, with Ndombele’s influence bolstering the effectiveness of that particular system, both England defenders can fully discover their best form once again in north London.
The wing-back’s aggressive forward runs are an asset Spurs will look to exploit regularly as natural wingers like Son and Lucas Moura dart inside to take up more central roles.
The width provided by the wing-backs is essential for Pochettino’s philosophy, but they can only afford to make these runs if the defensive cover is there to support the attacks.
It’s pertinent to note that during Trippier’s stellar World Cup, he played brilliantly in a 3-5-2 formation.
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The midfielder’s arrival will only encourage Pochettino to persist more with this formation.
Ndombele is a player Spurs have desperately needed, and is no doubt an upgrade on what they’ve had in the past few seasons.
Not only will he improve the quality in central midfield, he should allow those around him to thrive and improve.