The Curious Case of Dele Alli


We’re at the halfway point. Kane is still scoring oodles of goals. City have won the league. Our depth, or lack thereof, has been exposed. Levy probably won’t buy much in January. We are in a death match with two and possibly three other sides for Champions League qualification for the inaugural season at the new Lane. Our silverware prospects are down to two—and in both the best Premier League side in—a decade? a generation?—probably awaits before too much longer.

So what’s left to talk about? How about the Spurs player that causes so much discussion—in England and around the world—a veritable lightning rod for opinion of every stripe? 21 years old with the world in front of him, yet we wonder… He only cost 5 mill—and better than Ozil—but just what else is Dele? How good IS he? How reckless? How committed? (I almost used the word loyal, but that is an unfair standard to apply to young footballers whose ability to ply their trade is so finite. Fans have the luxury to be loyal, and pride themselves for it. Players must look out for themselves.)

How Good is He?

We know the upside. Judged, along with his teammate Harry Kane, earlier this year as perhaps the most valuable future commodity in world football. Then still only 20 years old and surfing on the wave of a meteoric two season rise from the depths of the Championship at MK Dons. In the two full seasons he had played for Spurs then, the team had contended for the title in both, creating an aura around their youth, energy and promise. Dele quickly advanced to the English national team with the hope that he, several of his teammates, and young stars such as Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling could lead a Three Lions revival for years to come.

And yet…England was bounced from the Euro 2016 by Iceland. Dele’s performance this season has been uneven. Two esteemed year-end ratings disagreed this week about his worldwide position—the Guardian’s panel of experts ranked him 31st, second only to Kylian Mbappe for U21 talent. But FourFourTwo’s metrics, perhaps judging based on more current production, have Dele only 83rd—just one of many young players in the pack. Surely Spurs fans have seen both extremes, but have become less enamored at his sloppy ballhandling and, at times, selfish play. Yet there have still been moments of brilliance this season—against Real Madrid at Wembley in his initial Champions League action, playing a deeper role, helping stampede Liverpool with an exquisite volley, also at Wembley. And we have to keep reminding ourselves that he’s only 21. In some ways he seems mature for his age, with his interview persona in particular. But in other ways…

How Reckless Is He?

Dele seems to be quickly becoming, in the absence of Suarez, Barton, Terry and others, the bad boy of English football. The problems started early, with his send-off against West Bromwich Albion in his first Spurs season, succumbing to an obvious wind-up strategy by Claudio Yacob and thus missing out on the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Things worsened last spring when a rash challenge left him out of most of Spurs’ final European fixture vs Gent—basically eliminating any chance for his team to advance in the Europa League. The carryover suspension left him off the squad for the first three games of a crucial Champions League campaign—fortunately in his absence his teammates managed victories over APOEL and Dortmund and a storied draw at the Bernabeu vs Real Madrid. Trouble returned while playing for England in the form of a middle finger aimed at someone—he claimed it was former teammate Kyle Walker in an inside joke, but others thought it was probably directed to the match referee. Whatever his intent UEFA decided it merited a one-game ban. Then near the end of last weekend’s loss to Man City came the challenge stomping Kevin De Bruyne which only received a caution and near-unanimous post-match commentary that it merited red. When in the next game at Burnley, Dele went in hard to Charlie Taylor (though I and some others thought he simply missed the ball and Taylor then slid into him, hardly the stuff of a serious rebuke) winning a quick yellow card and then just minutes later went down to a somewhat soft challenge in the box, earning the penalty which Kane quickly converted to give Spurs the lead, his notoriety jumped at least another level. At that point the Claret fans were in full voice: “cheat”, “wanker” and worse could be heard echoing around Turf Moor for most of the next two hours.

In short, the rap sheet is getting longer. Steven Gerrard for one thinks this is how the lad is wired, and for Dele to restrain the emotions which figured in each of these incidents would be to lose what makes him special. I am inclined to agree so long as Dele is able to restrain emotions when he must—to not fall for the wind-up, to not rashly commit the foul for a second yellow, to not hurt his team at the worst possible time. The jury is out, and yet in the end Eric Cantona won the hearts of Man United fans despite his Kung-Fu kick at a Palace fan. Because he won titles—will Dele?

How Committed Is He?

Some Spurs fans seem to be working themselves into a “Good Riddance” mindset toward Dele. Their view seems to be that his agent change and the bright lights of Spain will cause an irresistible momentum to La Liga and the payoff of an advancement to Madrid or Barcelona—either this summer or next. Levy will never pay him enough, so why get invested in him and all the complications? He’s leaving anyway. Do everything to keep Kane, and maybe Eriksen—but Dele is a lost cause.

They might be right. He is not an Academy product. His commitment to the team began and perhaps will end with Mauricio Pochettino’s service, and none of us yet know, despite the latter’s seeming happiness here, whether Poch will last much longer than the inaugural season at the new stadium. Isn’t silverware part of the deal? And where might it come from?

Yet the counterview holds that this team, given its still relative youth, needs another two or three years to fully realise its ambition—to determine whether at full flower in a new ground with the core players at their peak it can ascend to the top of England, Europe or both. That Poch can keep the core together with him for at least that long. Many experts feel, though that the question has been answered by the past—Spurs are still viewed as impostors in the elite dozen or so teams that control club soccer, five of which reside in the Premier League. That their chairman will never alter his wage structure to narrow the difference with Arsenal or Chelsea, let alone the two Mancunian clubs; that the new stadium will create as many financial hurdles (a la Arsenal post-move from Highbury) as opportunities. And Dele, perhaps more than Kane, will be Exhibit A for this inevitable outcome when he leaves for greener pastures.

I prefer to believe otherwise. That the project has miles to go before we discover its true apogee. He is better than Ozil. And I just don’t think they understand.

Have something to tell us about this article?

Previous articlePochettino heaps praise on “world class” Kane
Next articleSpurs legend claims Alli back to his best
Paul is a respected U.S. political pollster (Democrat) based in Madison, Wisconsin and Los Angeles. His love for Spurs began when the Premier League games started appearing regularly in the U.S. and an American lover of football had to choose a side. Bale, Rushdie, Adele, Shakespeare, the Spurs faithful, The Lane, etc. were all irresistible attractions and have made Maslin a Spur for life.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.