After 10 minutes at the impressive Roazhon Park stadium, Tanguy Ndombele produced an absurd off-balance backheel to keep a ball drifting out of play improbably inside it and set in motion a Spurs move that via Oliver Skipp, Harry Kane, Lucas Moura and a lucky deflection, would result in the opening goal.
After 25 minutes, Ndombele dangled a half-hearted leg at Flavien Tait on the edge of the Spurs box and, that gambit having inexplicably failed, didn’t bother tracking the Rennes midfielder as he played a one-two with Sehrou Guirassy before curling home the equaliser.
Welcome back, Tanguy. We genuinely have missed you.
It was almost sarcastic to see such a perfect demonstration in such short order of both why Spurs need to pick Ndombele and also why they so often can’t.
The game continued in the same vein, with Spurs yet again desperately short of creativity and fizz. What little there was generally came from the feet of Ndombele and occasionally Bryan Gil but rarely threatened much in the way of end product. Ndombele giving the same defender twisted blood three times in the space of ten seconds before looking up, seeing nothing and having to pass the ball backwards to Ben Davies rather summed the whole thing up.
There is a joyless, deadening quality to Spurs’ football right now and while Nuno has done little to solve it there is no doubt where it finds its root. The brief joie do vivre that came in the closing games of last season owed much to Ryan Mason making the very obvious and very correct decision to simply pick Gareth Bale, an option not available to Nuno Espirito Santo who instead finds himself coping with an injury and quarantine list that got longer still here as Steven Bergwijn and Lucas Moura hobbled off. Rennes and Limpy, if you will.
No, you f*** off. Anyway. Ndombele. It looked like Harry Kane would be the player to define the early (only?) stages of Nuno’s reign; what he does or doesn’t do with Ndombele now looks to be crucial. Before this current crippling injury and quarantine crisis, Nuno had made tangible improvements to the defence. He has previous for this at every club he’s managed, and while clean sheets every week was unlikely to continue it didn’t feel entirely like something built on sand.
But Spurs have been chronically poor going forward. That was fine against Manchester City, but has been a hobbling problem since. Spurs are ponderous and predictable in attack and are far too reliant on Kane and/or Heung-Min Son making something, anything, happen.
With Spurs now shorn of pretty much all their most reliable defenders, there is even greater reason to think that something has to change. It would be hard enough to bottle the lightning of their 1-0 win over City and achieve something similar against Chelsea even with a full-strength defence. The ease with which Crystal Palace carved them apart tells you it is now impossible.
Spurs have to try something. It probably still won’t work. But they cannot maintain this level of drudgery. Whether Ndombele has done enough to earn that chance – on or off the field because he was still often off the pace here – is frankly moot. Something has to change, and Gil is not yet ready.
Even with five attacking players selected here, it took only 15 minutes for Rennes – despite falling a goal behind – to realise that Spurs deserved respect but certainly not fear. Both Spurs goals came from crosses so poor that they confused defenders into first diverting into their own net and then into the path of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.
A point in what is on paper Spurs’ toughest task in this group stage is a perfectly adequate result, but it would be foolish to pretend it was deserved. Spurs got extremely lucky – twice – and created precious little in between.
Nuno chucking five attacking players into his starting XI here was a clear response to the drabness of the Palace debacle, but the game itself showed that it’s not quite as simple as that. Spurs were being overrun when Bergwijn’s injury forced Nuno into a change. He could have gone for Dele Alli, he went for Hojbjerg. It was very on brand, but it also proved to be the correct switch. It gave Spurs a foothold back in the game and while they remained second best, it was never quite as strikingly one-sided as it had been.
There’s a balance to be struck. Spurs flirted with the wrong side of it in the first three games of the season and got away with it. When it went wrong at Palace it did so spectacularly. Whatever they do against Chelsea may well not be enough, but Ndombele offers Spurs something few others can. The risks are obvious and known – we saw them here – but so are the rewards. We saw those too.