José Mourinho last week: “It’s not easy for him to last 90 minutes.” This time, however, as Tottenham booked their place in the Carabao Cup final with a 2-0 victory over Brentford, Tanguy Ndombele proved him wrong.
From the first minute when he burst from his own half before picking out Lucas Moura with an inch-perfect pass, the imposing France international looked determined to make an impression in a match his manager had described as the biggest since he arrived in north London in November 2019.
In the intervening months – and while England’s Dele Alli has sat on the sidelines – Ndombele has become Mourinho’s pet project but his tough love approach is clearly paying dividends as Tottenham can now prepare for their first domestic final since losing to Chelsea in this competition in 2015.
As well as the obvious talents of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, this Spurs team relies on the mercurial ability of a player who started his senior career in the third tier of French football before joining Lyon shortly before he turned 19. Deployed in an advanced position ahead of Moussa Sissoko and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, it is usually Ndombele’s job to break the lines and feed the deadly strike duo. But he was everywhere in the opening exchanges against Brentford, winning the ball back on the edge of his own penalty area before appearing a few seconds later as a Tottenham attack came to nothing.
Ndombele was the first to congratulate Sissoko – another Frenchman who is thriving under Mourinho – after his assured finish gave Spurs the lead inside the opening quarter of an hour. Once derided as a weak link in the Tottenham midfield who was the unfortunate culprit when Liverpool were awarded a penalty in the second minute of the 2019 Champions League final, the 31-year-old has the kind of energy that his compatriot can only dream of.
Before Tuesdaylast night, Ndombele had been substituted in all but two of the matches he has started for Spurs this season – 12 times in the Premier League (second behind West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen with 15) and twice in the Europa League. The exceptions were against Shkendija in the Europa League qualifying round in September and in the penalty shootout victory over Chelsea in this competition a week later.
Mourinho was forced to apologise back in April after being pictured taking a one-on-one training session with Ndombele – who joined for a club-record £55m from Lyon under Mauricio Pochettino – on Hadley Common in Barnet during lockdown. At one stage it appeared possible that he could leave after just one season at the club following continued public criticism from his manager, although they have clearly patched things up and his influence has grown after several impressive displays.
Yet his manager has also acknowledged that Ndombele must still improve his intensity. Up against a midfield led by Josh Dasilva – a former Arsenal youth player – until his late red card for a reckless challenge on Højbjerg that left the Dane with nasty gash on his shin, it was never going to be a straightforward evening for Spurs. Brentford’s team boasted just one player with Premier League experience in Sergio Canós, whose solitary appearance for Liverpool came on as a substitute on the final day of the 2015/16 season. But having come into this match unbeaten in their last 16 matches in all competitions, the visitors clearly fancied their chances of springing a shock and reaching a first major final despite the early setback of going behind.
Ndombele dropped slightly deeper as Mourinho’s side applied the block, with Brentford’s best chances coming from set pieces. Only Ivan Toney’s knee denied Thomas Frank’s side a deserved equaliser in the second half after a corner caused havoc in the Tottenham penalty area.
His big moment came minutes later when Kane’s turn put Ndombele in behind Brentford’s midfield and his slide-rule pass was perfectly weighted for Son to deliver the killer blow.
To everyone’s surprise, the Frenchman remained on the pitch as Mourinho introduced Harry Winks and Ben Davies for Moura and Sergio Reguilón immediately after the second goal. Højbjerg’s withdrawal as he felt the effects of Dasilva’s challenge meant, for once, Ndombele was there right until the end.