When Nabil Bentlaleb was signed on a season-long loan deal by Schalke at the end of August, his Tottenham career appeared all but over. When Bentaleb then began his stint in the Bundesliga with a series of poor showings, it appeared any permanent move to Germany may be scuppered by his own doing. And when he went on to make disparaging comments about English fans, it seemed the Algerian was trying hard to burn any remaining bridges he had left at Spurs.
Just four weeks ago, Bentaleb was not only an outcast at Tottenham. He had also sunk to the depths of despair in the eyes of the German press, copping a brutal slaying following Schalke’s winless start in the first five games of their season. It looked a matter of just how far the midfielder could fall from the high of manager Mauricio Pochettino’s first choice defensive midfielder just two seasons ago.
But now, following a run of three games in which Bentaleb has been the star attraction, he is suddenly the new darling of Schalke fans and the Bundesliga alike. The culmination came at the weekend in a man of the match display during Schalke’s 3-0 drubbing of Mainz. Playing a hand in all three goals, Bentaleb managed a brace of his own bookending one from Max Meyer. A goal in each half and a thoroughly dominant display; it doesn’t get much better than that in what was surely Bentlaleb’s finest senior performance to date.
The frustration with which Bentaleb displayed during his latter appearances at Tottenham and early days at Schalke have disappeared. In its’ place, a return to the dynamic and skilful midfielder who uses the ball beautifully, his one-touch passing and neat finishing a sight to behold. It is reminiscent of his finest moments at Spurs, when he was the future of the club; even before the full arrival of Harry Kane. The two goals portrayed a calm, unflappable character at ease with his environment and comfortable in his ability. The frustration replaced by pure skill and enjoyment.
That it has taken Bentaleb time to settle in Germany should come as no surprise. He is not yet 22, and it is barely a day over two months since the move was confirmed. Whilst his initial displays were perhaps more underwhelming than expected, he has made up for this in spades with three goals and an assist in his past three appearances. And some simply sublime football.
Given the sudden change in Bentaleb’s attitude and form, the question arises as to whether a return to Tottenham at the completion of his loan deal is at all a possibility. Recent experience suggests that it would be unlikely, and there are two major stumbling blocks in the way.
Firstly, a return would require a significant change of heart and even an adjustment in philosophy from Pochettino. He has shown in his handling of many others that were unable to toe the line that, once you are cast out, there is no way back. But would Bentlaleb’s youth, his inexperience and of course his ability when in form and mentally switched on, be enough to persuade the manager to give him another chance?
At Spurs, we have seen that if you are loaned out as a senior player by Pochettino, then you are as good as sold (see Aaron Lennon and Federico Fazio). But perhaps there is a small chance that Bentaleb is more in the category of a Clinto N’jie, who is also young and for whom there may yet be a way back in to Pochettino’s plans.
The second issue is that of the mental state of Bentaleb himself. If he is happy in Germany, as seems the case, then this would seemingly override any happiness he felt during the early days at Spurs. It appears he feels burned by the club, manager and fans; and sees his loan deal as a transfer in all but name only. So this secondary aspect looks as though it is even less likely to be overcome.
With a transfer fee already agreed between the two clubs, pending the successful completion of Bentaleb’s loan, this still looks the most likely outcome. But there is a lot of time between now and the end of the season. If Bentaleb and Tottenham are still in some form of communication, if they haven’t cut all ties, then just maybe there is an outside chance that he could come back. But given the amount of proverbial water that must go under the bridge for this to occur, it seems a long shot.