The Rise and Fall of Dele Alli

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Few players have enjoyed such a meteoric rise to stardom in recent years. But did Dele’s star burn too bright, too soon?

Cast your mind back to early February 2015. In the dying hours of the January window, a young midfielder from MK Dons signs for Tottenham. Many will remember that coming of age League Cup performance, six months prior, against Manchester United, where a then 18 year old Alli caught the eye with a vibrant, energetic display, helping to oust one of the country’s biggest clubs. Liverpool had watched him and Newcastle had also shown an interest, but David Pleat helped convince Daniel Levy to part with the £5million to land him. There was certainly excitement around the signing, but despite his precocious performances and rave reviews, Alli was earmarked as “one for the future”, a player with a big career ahead of him, but still with a lot to learn.

Few could have imagined the impact he’d have.

A fortnight after making his debut as a substitute against United, Dele would stoop to score a diving header in a 1-1 draw against Leicester City. The ingrained, effortless, knack for popping up in the right areas was evident almost immediately.

Instantly you could see that Dele was special. His touch, his style, his panache…and most of all, his mentality; that raw, elite tenacity that you simply cannot cultivate. A star was born, a player who would either lead Tottenham to untold glory, or move as so many had before him to greener pastures. Dele was a player destined for success.

Early on, especially, what struck you most about Dele was his confidence; the sheer audacity with which he played the game. Few moments illustrate this better than his stunning strike against Crystal Palace, where he received an Eriksen pass on the turn, flicked it over the oncoming defender, and volleyed into the side netting. It was the sort of strike that made the entire footballing world sit up and take note; a truly world class goal. Alli’s fame, his reputation within the game — not to mention his price tag — swelled instantaneously.

Mourinho would later reveal in Amazon’s All or Nothing documentary, that as Manchester United manager:

Sir Alex Ferguson gave me only one piece of advice in two-and-a-half years, ‘Buy Dele Alli, that guy with that mentality, the way he plays, the aggression in his mind, that guy is a Manchester United player.’

Jose Mourinho

Comparisons to Steven Gerrard — a player Dele idolized as a child — and Frank Lampard continued unabated, and incredibly the stats backed this up. By his twentieth birthday, no English player in the history of the Premier League had scored more goals; not Gerrard, not Scholes, not even Lampard. Indeed, Alli’s 50th league goal came a full 126 games before Frank Lampard — widely regarded as the most prolific English goalscoring midfielder in Premier League history.

By the age of twenty-two, Dele had 59 goal involvements, more than the likes of Giggs and Ronaldo at the same age. Alli was fast becoming a bonafide phenom, one of the European football’s brightest prospects. To say that he had the world at his feet would be an understatement.

So what happened? 

Today, Dele is a shadow of his former self, with his Spurs future in doubt, and Jose Mourinho and Tottenham Hotspur reportedly giving serious consideration to selling him to another European club.

Mourinho’s arrival appears to have been a major turning point for Dele — and not for the better. The Portuguese seems to have been fully aware of issues with Dele prior to his arrival, asking in one of his first training sessions whether it was “Dele Alli, or Dele Alli’s brother?” he was dealing with. Despite being viewed initially as a casual, almost humorous exchange, in retrospect it’s clear that there was a more serious undercurrent; an evident mistrust with which Mourinho had been viewing the player. Kevin De Bruyne, Mo Salah, and Paul Pogba had all fallen victim to his particular brand of management, and Dele would be no exception to his ruthless, demanding standards.

For a manager obsessed with commitment and desire, who operates on a zero-tolerance philosophy for poor training and application, Dele’s future was always going to be up for debate. Few, however, could have envisaged such a spectacular fall from grace.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where it’s gone wrong for Dele. Many point to mentality — that he became too big for himself, that the fame got to his head and sapped his desire to improve and compete. Watching him week in week out, however, it’s apparent that the underlying problems run far deeper than complacency.

Dele’s decline has been long coming. For at least two seasons now — possibly longer — he has underperformed massively. The most worrying thing, is that it’s not just his productivity that has regressed; it’s his all-round game. The current version of Dele is slow and ponderous on the ball, suffering far too frequently from a poor first touch. His touch and control are so bad, in fact, that he often now slows down counterattacks — the primary form of attack for any Mourinho team. For a while now, it’s been clear that if Dele isn’t scoring or assisting, he offers very little to this team. Sadly, he has become a luxury that Tottenham and Mourinho can ill afford.

Injuries have clearly taken their toll. Alli has suffered from recurring hamstring issues, which perhaps explains why he’s lacking that crucial sharpness to either take him past players or turn out of difficult situations. He seems to be a footballer lost on the football pitch these days, wandering around without much drive or purpose, hoping for a ball to land in his favour, but unsure of what to do once he receives it.

Mentally, Dele Alli is simply not the same player, his confidence nowhere near what it once was. The tricks and flicks that once made him so special are now rarely even attempted, let alone executed. He no longer attacks the ball with the same vigour as he used to, appearing to play well within himself these days. In truth, Dele has been a passenger for longer than many tend to realize. His ability to chip in with crucial goals or assists often papered over the cracks in his all round game, but once those dried up, his poor performances have been brutally exposed.

Some point to losing Eriksen as the catalyst for his dip in form, but this ignores that Dele’s form was often poor even with the Dane still at the club — and furthermore, that Kane and Son, the two other players who benefitted most from Eriksen’s creativity, have not declined to nearly the same extent since his departure.

Perhaps, like others around him to a slightly lesser degree, he was victim of the pervasive stagnation that gripped the squad. Eriksen, Rose, Dier and Vertongen — though the latter was largely due to age — all had precipitous drop offs in form and performance levels from their 2016-17 peaks, each one becoming a shadow of their former self. Ferguson and many managers spoke often of the need for refreshment purely to keep others on their toes. With reinforcements not appearing for years on end, it is possible that even subconsciously he become too comfortable, less motivated, and deprived of that extra push needed to take his game to the next level. Of course Harry and Son have maintained their spectacular form, but every player is different. Dele’s productivity has been in sharp decline since those heady days of his early career.

So what’s the solution? Keep him around and hope that somehow he recaptures his old form? That he suddenly learns to accelerate his touch, passing, vision and control? Or do Tottenham cut their losses and find a suitable replacement as soon as possible?

At a different club, with a more dynamic, progressive approach to transfers, perhaps keeping Dele around wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Replacements would come in regardless, and Dele would have plenty of opportunities to prove himself and get back to his former self. At Tottenham, however, where transfers are almost always contingent on selling players, selling him and reinvesting the funds appears the more viable option.

It will be sad to see him go; a player who’s played such a major role in Tottenham’s recent renaissance, a vital cog in Pochettino’s prime team. But all things have to come to an end, and perhaps it’s something that needs to happen in order for the team’s evolution to continue. Worryingly for Tottenham, there are far worse examples of deadwood — players who have also stagnated, but who offer far less in terms of potential — who should be shifted prior to Dele. Chairman Daniel Levy, however, typically operates on a “who has suitors,” policy, as opposed to “who does the team truly no longer need.” Thus, while the likes of Winks, Sissoko, Dier and even Lamela and Lucas could and possibly should be shifted before Dele, ultimately it’s likely to be the young Englishman who makes way first.

PSG were strongly rumored to hold an interest in taking him on loan, and Inter were also reportedly interested, however, both links appear to have cooled. One can only hope, for Dele’s sake, that whether at Tottenham, or elsewhere, he somehow turns his career around. Perhaps a change of scenery will suit all parties. For now, one has to wonder how long Dele Alli will remain a Tottenham player.

Few players in the English game have seen their stock rise so quickly, only to fall so hard. Perhaps the likes of Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler are comparable, prodigious talents for whom injury and form ate steadily away at once storied careers. Dele still has time to turn things around — he is only 24. But the drive to recapture his form, to reignite the fire that once glowed so hot, has to come from within.

Only Dele himself can keep his star from burning out now.

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