One may be regarded as misfortune, two looks like carelessness and so what of four? It was March 2021 and Clément Lenglet had just conceded another penalty for Barcelona, this one in the Champions League last-16, second-leg exit against Paris Saint-Germain, the team that he supported as a boy.
The decision was harsh, picked out by the VAR, Lenglet having caught Mauro Icardi, even though the PSG striker was getting nowhere near to a low cross from the left. It seemed to sum up how Lenglet’s luck had turned, together with that of Barcelona. The central defender, who is on a season-long loan at Tottenham, had been all about low-key reliability since his arrival at the Camp Nou from Sevilla in 2018 for €35m, a player that you did not always notice and for the right reasons.
Everybody was noticing him now and not in a good way. It was the fourth penalty that Lenglet had given away that season, following those against Real Madrid and Cadiz in La Liga and Juventus in the Champions League group stage. All four were converted, those against Real and Cadiz particularly costly. In the clásico, it was 1-1 when Lenglet pulled Sergio Ramos’s shirt; Real would run out 3-1 winners. Against Cadiz, Lenglet went in clumsily on Ruben Sobrino in the 89th minute to concede an equaliser.
No player in any of Europe’s top five leagues gave away more than four penalties that season and the Frenchman felt the pressure mount, the scrutiny of his every mistake intense. It is stating the obvious to say that Barcelona is not an easy club to play for, even though Lenglet had credit in the bank.
The 15-cap France international had won the league title in his first season and he had played regularly, confidently; the clean technique that marked him out as the next big thing at Nancy and Sevilla to the fore. Lenglet had led Nancy to promotion from Ligue 2 as a 20-year-old, frequently wearing the captain’s armband. While at Sevilla, there was a coming-of-age performance in the Champions League last-16, second-leg win at Manchester United in 2018 when he stood tall in the physical duel with Romelu Lukaku.
“When you are in this type of club [Barcelona], you know that every day you have a lot of pressure,” Lenglet says. “You have to accept it. Here at Tottenham, we put ourselves under pressure because we want to grow and the media is putting more pressure on because they see we can be a really good team. It’s not really different to Barcelona. Of course, in Barcelona, every day you have something different. But I didn’t go out of Barcelona for this reason.”
Lenglet left the Camp Nou because of what happened last season or, more precisely, what did not happen. The 27-year-old started only seven league games – a huge drop on his previous three seasons at the club where he had been in the first XI 29, 28 and 22 times respectively. Barcelona’s financial difficulties have been well-documented and with the manager, Xavi, not counting on him, it is likely that Lenglet’s reported €12m salary made him more expendable. The Spanish press have said that Spurs will contribute €7m to his annual wage.
The player talks about how he wanted to embrace a fresh challenge in a different country. The language has been one of the tests. “I didn’t speak English when I came … a few words,” he says. He has made impressive strides in this regard. He talks about the appeal of working under Antonio Conte, plus the quality of Spurs’ facilities. But, really, what Lenglet sought when he came to Spurs was the opportunity to play, to reboot his career.
Given his class and pedigree, it has been a surprise that Lenglet has made only six starts so far – three in the Premier League, three in the Champions League. Conte has rotated him with Ben Davies on the left of his back three, although he has largely preferred the Welshman. But Lenglet hopes to feature in Sunday’s home game with Newcastle and he has certainly done little wrong when he has played.
Spurs were well beaten at Manchester United on Wednesday, having been outplayed in defeat at Arsenal earlier this month. Conte also said they were “dominated” by Chelsea in their other big league match of the season, although they did manage to draw 2-2 in that August game, and Lenglet’s analysis chimes with that of many of the fans.
“When you’re on the pitch you have to take risks, to increase your level with the ball,” he says. “Without the ball, we are the best team in terms of effort. We run a lot, we are aggressive, we help our teammates. But we have to improve [with the ball].
“It’s important to say we have made the best [Premier League] start in the history of Tottenham. But we dropped points against three big teams and we struggle against these type of teams. That’s the next step.”
Lenglet does not want to look too far ahead. A place in the France squad for the World Cup may be beyond him, his previous start having come against Switzerland in the Euro 2020 last-16 penalty shootout exit. He was substituted at half-time, having been at fault for the opening goal and he has not been called up since last November. He says he does not know whether he will stay at Spurs beyond his loan.
“It was an amazing experience at Barcelona and it is not finished because I have a contract until 2026,” Lenglet says. “We don’t have an option [to extend at Spurs]. We have to wait before thinking about this. I have to be good on the pitch, to help the team. Maybe if everything is OK, we will speak but it’s too early.”