Opinion: The curious case of Dele Alli

There was a time, not so long ago, when Dele Alli was coveted by some of the biggest clubs in Europe.

In the summer of 2017, Dele was linked with the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester United, with Spurs seemingly struggling to keep hold of their prized asset. Jose Mourinho, then Manchester United manager, would later reveal that “Sir Alex Ferguson gave me only one bit of advice in two and a half years: buy Dele Alli.”

Bought in February 2015 for £5m from MK Dons, Spurs initially loaned him back for the remainder of that season. It became apparent that other top clubs, including Liverpool and Bayern Munich, were also closely watching him. It didn’t take long to see why.

Dele joined up with the Spurs squad ahead of the 2015/16 campaign. His first start came in a pre-season friendly against Real Madrid. Playing in midfield against the heavyweight pairing of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric might seem a daunting prospect, especially for a 19-year-old.

But Dele was unfazed. One moment, in particular, would give fans a taste of what to expect from their new signing. Receiving the ball on the half turn and being closed down by Modric, Dele showed a flash of brilliance – almost arrogance – with a cute nutmeg on the former Spurs player.

Despite his pre-season promise, the expectancy was that he would be slowly integrated into the first team. However, impressive cameo appearances in the first few league games, including a goal at Leicester in a 1-1 draw, made it impossible to not play him sooner.

It would be a breakthrough season, scoring 10 goals and producing 9 assists in 33 league appearances. One particular goal stands out – in a 3-1 win over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. With Spurs struggling to break down a resolute Palace, Dele controlled a knock down header before flicking the ball over the onrushing defender and volleying into the bottom corner. It was a moment which perfectly encapsulated the instinctiveness and audacity of Dele in his early Spurs career.

His performances that season resulted in an England senior call up and being awarded the PFA young player of the year – beating the likes of Harry Kane, Philippe Coutinho and Romelu Lukaku.

If his first season was good, his second was even better. Playing as an attacking midfielder, just behind Kane, Dele scored an impressive 18 league goals. To add context, in his first 50 Premier League games he scored 16 goals. That is more than double the amount scored by Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard combined in the same period (7 goals). He also provided 10 assists compared to their combined 5.

An incredible feat considering the respective achievements of Gerrard and Lampard. Such was Dele’s promise that Mauricio Pochettino described him as “the most important player to emerge in English football in recent years.” It was hard to disagree. Which makes his decline even harder to comprehend.

The cracks started to show in the 2018/19 season. Injuries played a part – missing 12 league games – but there was a noticeable drop in his performance levels. However, it would be unfair to criticise only Dele during this period. The performances of the team – the Champions League aside – were well below par with just 3 wins from the last 12 league games.

Seemingly suffering from a Champions League hangover, the poor performances would continue into the following season. It was a run of games that would culminate in the shock departure of Pochettino and the arrival of Mourinho.

The new manager would have an instant impact on Dele, providing hope that he could recapture his best form. In Mourinho’s first four league games, Dele would register 3 goals and 3 assists. Unfortunately, the revival didn’t last long.

Despite starting the first game of the 2020/21 season against Everton, Dele suffered the indignity of being substituted at half time. Mourinho subsequently left Dele out of the squad for 9 of the next 10 games and his appearances beyond that were few and far between. It was only when Mourinho was sacked in April 2021 that Dele was given an extended run under Ryan Mason.

This season, both Nuno Espirito Santo and Antonio Conte have given Dele a clean slate and an opportunity to impress. Unfortunately, they came to the same conclusion as Mourinho. Three managers have now tried, and ultimately failed, to rejuvenate Dele, who once again finds himself in the wilderness at Spurs.

It is too simplistic to suggest there is one isolated reason for his decline. Realistically it is the combination of several elements.

From a footballing perspective he seemed to be the victim of a tactical shift which originally started under Pochettino. Dele was at his best when playing just behind Kane, making instinctive late runs into the box. However, he was increasingly being played in a deeper midfield position, partly to accommodate Son Heung-min in a more prominent attacking role. After a 2-1 league defeat to Liverpool in 2019, Jamie Carragher agreed that he was at his best playing as “a second striker behind Harry Kane. He was never a midfielder. I’ve never seen Dele Alli as a great player on the ball.”

The issue became more pronounced under Mourinho, who echoed Carragher’s view that “Dele is not a midfield player” and needs “freedom” rather than tactical rigidity to be at his best. Unfortunately for Dele, Mourinho was master minding a new role for Kane, dropping deeper to be more involved in the build-up play. His partnership with Son was also thriving, the pair breaking the Premier League record with 14 goal combinations in the 2020/21 season. As a result, Dele was surplus to requirements.

It’s not just tactical. Dele has lost the determination and edge that once defined his game. Roy Keane saw it in 2019 – “He has lost that hunger. When you lose that it is hard to get it back.” Graeme Souness believes “it’s a classic case of too much too soon, too much stardom, too much of everything too soon and he’s dropped into an armchair.” In the Spurs All or Nothing documentary, Mourinho hinted at his “lifestyle” being the problem.

Only Dele knows the real reason behind his decline and only he can rectify that. With a move away from Spurs now confirmed, one feels it is a move that will be mutually beneficial. For Dele, it is an opportunity to play regular football and a chance to rediscover his hunger and enjoyment for the game.

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