Towards the end of last season, Fabio Paratici drew up his shortlist for left centre-backs Tottenham Hotspur would target this summer, and Barcelona’s Clement Lenglet was nowhere near the top.
The main names were RB Leipzig’s Josko Gvardiol and Inter Milan’s Alessandro Bastoni. There was Nico Schlotterbeck, then from Fribourg, and Sven Botman, then from Lille. Pau Torres, who turned down a move to Tottenham in 2021, was not an active target but ticked all the boxes.
But Tottenham haven’t finished with any of them. They decided, like someone scrambling to buy a present on Christmas Eve, to abandon their original priorities, compromise with reality, and move down the list. Is this an ingenious innovation? Maybe. Is it despair? Not really. But it is a pivot. And one that again underlines how keen Tottenham are on doing their business early.
Lenglet, 27, is now the likeliest option for Tottenham, lined up for a loan deal, allowing Paratici to add more experience and competition to the squad without risking too much money. On Tuesday night, the deal isn’t imminent but Barcelona have announced the signing of their effective replacement, Andreas Christensen from Chelsea.
It remains to be seen when exactly Lenglet will walk through the door. It’s no secret that Conte wants the summer to work with his players, rather than letting negotiations drag on in July and August, as has been the case in previous Spurs summers. It will be his first pre-season at Tottenham, after all, but they have gotten Ivan Perisic, Fraser Forster, Yves Bissouma and Richarlison, and Conte has had a spring in his step on the training ground this week.
The majority of Spurs’ first-team squad showed up for pre-season on Monday. Those who were on international duty at the end of June (Harry Kane, Ben Davies, Hugo Lloris, Dejan Kulusevski, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg) will join the group when the team flies to South Korea on Saturday evening.
But there are still final touches to be made to the team. And the top of the list is always the left centre-back.
The search for a left centre-back turned out to be more difficult than expected. It was originally expected to be Spurs’ top priority in this market, with the club ready to spend at least as much money as the £42.5m they spent on right-wing Cristian Romero of their back three. As good as Ben Davies has been under Conte, with the Wales international playing all but two games since Conte replaced Nuno Espirito Santo, the idea was always to buy an expensive upgrade.
But even £50m wouldn’t have been enough to sign Gvardiol. Leipzig value him so highly that they would have liked a much higher figure than that. Schlotterbeck was highly rated by Paratici but he wanted to stay in Germany and signed a contract with Borussia Dortmund instead. Botman was not deemed as good as the others – less experienced at playing in a three – so Spurs went against him, allowing Newcastle United to beat Milan to his signature.
They were three, and Bastoni, and he was the Inter man for whom Spurs pushed hardest. Conte had worked with him before and Inter’s financial situation might have played into Spurs’ hands.
But Inter were reluctant to sell Bastoni (he is an Inter fan and their best young player), and he was also reluctant to push for a move. With the option of selling Milan Skriniar to Paris Saint-Germain and replacing him with Turin’s Gleison Bremer, Inter had the chance to turn a profit and keep Bastoni. None of those moves have happened yet – the centre-back’s global merry-go-round is still slowly kicking into gear.
But that’s why Tottenham found themselves landing so many other positions (scoring left-back, versatile central midfielder, home reserve keeper, versatile striker) without coming close to the position they had prioritized from the start. .
At this point, Tottenham had two choices. Do they hang on all summer hoping that Bastoni’s situation will change to their advantage? Or are they moving down the list to someone they can land quickly and easily?
Obviously, that’s what Tottenham are trying to do with Lenglet. And while a critical voice might say he’s, at best, Spurs’ sixth choice for that particular job, there’s another way to look at it: by signing a low-risk, one-year loan deal. with an experienced international, Spurs would provide much-needed cover and competition for Davies.
And while Lenglet wouldn’t have the advantage or longevity of a Gvardiol or a Bastoni, his arrival would at least kick the box for a year.
Even though Lenglet is associated by many with the last difficult years that Barcelona have been through, that doesn’t mean he’s a bad player. His stock has gone down so much that it makes more sense to sign him, when other teams may be put off and Barcelona would be happy to see him go.
Barcelona signed Lenglet from Sevilla in the summer of 2018, and he entered Ernesto Valverde’s side which won La Liga but they haven’t won it since.
Soon, Lenglet had a good partnership with Gerard Pique, playing 70% of La Liga’s available minutes in 2019-20 and 2020-21. Whatever other criticisms he receives, Lenglet is a naturally accomplished player.
In each of those two seasons, he ranked fifth in La Liga in progressive carry distance and second in pass completion percentage. There is no doubting his natural quality with the ball, his character or the quality of his left foot.
The problem for Lenglet was the other side of the game. As Barcelona struggled under their rotating coaching cast and aging squad, the team continued to be exposed in the big games. No one has had more problems than Lenglet – there was the 4-0 defeat at Anfield in May 2019, Bayern Munich’s 8-2 embarrassment in August 2020 and Kylian Mbappe’s hat-trick game in February 2021.
Mistakes piled up and he lost his place in the team. Last season he played less than a quarter of La Liga’s available minutes which led to Xavi telling him he could leave.
Criticism is leveled at Lenglet that he lacks the speed and agility of a modern centre-back and may struggle with the Premier League physique. That may be true, but he will at least play in a back-three and benefit from the fact that Tottenham’s defensive line doesn’t push as far up the pitch as it did under Mauricio Pochettino.
Critics will point to Lenglet’s role in some of those bad Barcelona defeats, but it would be unfair to say they were a mess in those games specifically because of him.
Good players can struggle at badly run clubs of any size and then go elsewhere and thrive with a low-pressure fresh start. Just look at Rodrigo Bentancur and Kulusevski, who arrived at Spurs from Juventus and immediately shone for Conte.
So perhaps Lenglet is a downgrade from the idea Spurs had at the start of the summer of splashing the big bucks on one of the best young left-wing centre-backs in the world. It is a compromise, a palliative, a reminder that not all priority objectives are quickly attainable.
It’s just not as glamorous as going all-in on Gvardiol or Bastoni. But with Davies performing well last season, perhaps Spurs just need experienced cover rather than someone as exciting as Romero. Having already done much of their work in this window, only the finishing touches remain.
(Top photo: Mateo Villalba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)