There were few positives for Tottenham head coach Nuno Espirito Santo from a underwhelming and potentially damaging 2-2 draw with Rennes last night, but the performance of Tanguy Ndombele was encouraging.
Ndombele helped a depleted Spurs to a point in their opening Europa Conference League group game in France after returning to the side for the first time under Nuno.
The maverick midfielder, who asked to leave the club during the transfer window and was not selected in August, had to shake some rust but was the best thing about Tottenham on another difficult night for the manager.
Ndombele’s back-heel to start the move for Spurs’s opening goal was typically off the cuff and in stark contrast to the lack of creativity and spark offered by his team-mates.
He also played a part in their second goal with a pass out to full-back Matt Doherty, whose cross was turned in by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. Ndombele has fast become Tottenham’s in-house culture war — talked up by some supporters, disliked by others — but for his all apparent shortcomings in attitude, there is no questioning his innate quality.
Starting him for Sunday’s visit of Chelsea may be a risk given his lack of competitive minutes but Nuno increasingly has little choice given his mounting selection issues.
The manager surely cannot stick with his pedestrian midfield three of Hojbjerg, Oliver Skip and Harry Winks from the 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace last weekend, particularly against a Chelsea side likely to start with N’Golo Kante, Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic in the middle of the park.
At his best, Ndombele is one of the League’s most press-resistant players, capable of receiving the ball in tight areas and wriggling away from opponents, and he can also add the creative spark on the ball that Spurs have so sorely missed. Without him, Spurs face being overrun this weekend.
Last night, Ndombele was the most likely to make something happen for the visitors and his talent makes him a project Nuno should persevere with, even if it is against the manager’s best instincts.
They started well and took the lead after 11 minutes courtesy of a Loic Bade own goal, but from there they rapidly lost control. Rennes roared back and equalised through Flavian Tait, while Bergwijn limped off in the first half to add to Spurs’s woes.
When Gaetan Laborde put Rennes ahead in the 71st minute that looked like it for Tottenham but Hojbjerg rescued a point five minutes later.
“It is hard to judge all the game with all the circumstances that happened,” said Nuno. “But we finished well, we showed character.”
Spurs finished with a front three of new signing Emerson Royal, a right-back, teenager Dane Scarlett and Bryan Gil — reflecting the strain on Nuno’s squad.
The manager hooked Harry Kane early, perhaps unable to contemplate the prospect of an injury to him. Nuno will need his walking wounded to rouse themselves for Chelsea, where Ndombele may hold the key.