Making predictions about a player’s future tends to be a self-serving process. People want to be the the first to recognise something and so the earlier a bold conclusion is drawn, the more chance there is that there will be a prophetic tweet or article to point to in the future.
Nobody can know what Clinton N’Jie is going to be in English football. At the time of writing, he has played just 129 minutes in the Premier League and most of those have come in small bursts. He has done good things and he has done bad and his rise or fall from this point onwards will be determined by a range of unforeseen factors which are impossible to foresee.
But if we can’t yet say that he has been a good signing for Tottenham, it’s already fair to conclude that he is a welcome symptom of the club’s newly measured recruitment policy.
Some players are bought off the peg. They are signed have already traversed their development curve and with the purpose of immediately filling gaps in a starting line-up. N’Jie isn’t one of those. Instead, he is just a set of raw materials. Spurs have essentially paid Lyon £10m for the privilege of shaping him and for the opportunity to give Mauricio Pochettino the chance to forge his attributes into an end product.
So that’s the only pertinent question over N’Jie at the moment: how refined are his ingredients and how suited are they to what Pochettino is trying to cook at White Hart Lane?
The mistake that will be made over the coming months is to view the Cameroonian international only in terms of what he contributes to the first-team. How accurate is his passing? How good is his ball retention? Does he beat defenders?
Some of that was visible during his latest outing, the 0-0 draw with Liverpool on Saturday. Introduced as an early substitute for the injured Nacer Chadli, N’Jie was frazzled by the pace of the game and struggled to recycle the ball even in the most basic way.
So the literal assessments of his contribution were all, understandably, quite negative. When Premier League points are at stake, “potential” and “theory” are of little consequence and everything is rightly viewed through the narrow prism of the here and now.
At this stage of his development, though, N’Jie needs to evaluated in a more between-the-lines way. Rather than worry about what he is contributing and what he can do for this team at this time, supporters are better advised to focus on what he might be able to achieve with some refinement.
And, from that vantage point, there’s a lot to like.
All players have potential and it’s very easy to make arguments predicated on generic, hypothetical growth and to extoll the magical virtues of “adjustment periods”. In this instance, however, the belief that Clinton N’Jie should become a very credible top-level performer under Pochettino is built on firmer foundations.
The Argentinian’s footballing ideology is built – in part – on a need for attacking players to be the first line of defence. When the ball is lost in advanced areas or when an opponent is trying to play their way out of their own defensive zone, the forwards and attacking-midfielders are tasked with applying pressure and, if possible, forcing mistakes.
N’Jie’s meets that part of the criteria. While the more obvious parts of his game remain hit-and-miss, he has already shown the ability to follow that instruction and beyond having the athletic ability to be a cohesive part of the press, he seemingly understands what his tactical role is in that situation.
He suits what is supposed to happen next, too. When they retrieve possession, Tottenham look to break quickly and dynamically into the vacant space and try to capitalise on numerical mismatches. N’Jie may not be quite as composed in front of goal as his new fans would like, but his movement is generally quite good and, because his acceleration is so pronounced, he’s exactly the sort of player who out-numbered defenders do not want to be isolated against.
And that’s where his ambition is relevant, too. At the moment, his tendency to try low-percentage actions is a cause of frustration and his brief appearances for Tottenham have nearly all been characterised by wild shooting and bad decisions. But within that negative there’s also promise. Direct forward play is a key Pochettino ingredient and that N’Jie’s game seems to be underwritten by self-belief is actually very encouraging. Spurs aim to attack quickly and decisively, and for that approach to be successful their offensive components need to take personal responsibility for the chances that fall to them.
Harry Kane has flourished in this system because his impulse is generally to be very aggressive in attacking situations. Nacer Chadli has had a degree of success for the same reason. And, although secondary to his playmaking and set-piece ability, part of Christian Eriksen’s value is in his willingness to express himself in the final-third.
That requires ability, of course, but also self belief – a cautious player who second-guesses himself or continually looks to defer to a teammate would have no long-term value to Pochettino.
The common mistake which gets made over transfers is the failure to separate the theory from the reality. Recruitment is ultimately unpredictable because there are so many variables involved in the process and because scouting and due-diligence can never provide a fully circumspect picture of a player. But even though Clinton N’Jie’s Tottenham career will be defined by time, it’s still reasonable now to applaud the decision to bring him to the club in the first place.
Paul Mitchell’s job, as the head of recruitment, is to identify value in players who can be molded to suit a purpose in the first-team. He buys the right clay, Mauricio Pochettino shapes it on the wheel.
And N’Jie is the right sort of clay, irrespective of what happens over the coming years.