Dele Alli’s wonder-goal at Selhurst Park during his breakthrough 2015/16 season is something that almost all Spurs fans will remember. The technique to set up the opportunity and the finish itself were all inklings of a truly world class player, and this weekend Spurs return to the same ground to compete in their final game of this crazy Premier League season but it could well be without Dele Alli.
The 24-year-old has missed the last five games with a hamstring injury, but Spurs manager Jose Mourinho has suggested that he may still have a part to play this season. However, in his absence Spurs have changed up their shape slightly opting for both the 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 finding success with both. The question is does Mourinho re-shape his in-form Spurs to suit the return of Dele or stick with team that have earnt maximum points in their last three games? A few seasons ago it would’ve been a no-brainer to put him back in but now not so much.
So just where did it go wrong for Dele Alli at Spurs and does he still have a future in North London? To look at this properly we have to go back to when he was becoming England’s next football star.
His first two staggering seasons (2015/16, 2016/17)
During the opening few games of his first season with Spurs Dele was mostly playing in the position he believed to be his best, the centre of midfield. His first goal for Spurs was against Leicester City where he was able to get on the end of a deep cross from Nacer Chadli to head home. However, it soon became quite clear that his football brain was a waste so far back and once he was allowed to free roam further forward, he showed exactly why he’d earnt this big Premier League move.
Dele made 33 appearances in the Premier League that season scoring 10 goals, which is an impressive return for your first season in the big time, but for me in particular and a lot of Spurs fans there were three goals that stood out. The obvious one being the aforementioned extraordinary volley against Crystal Palace which was one of the best Premier League goals of the last decade and the following two were almost the exact same goal a month apart. The first came in The Midlands, where Dele made a gut-busting run into the West Brom defensive line and was superbly picked out by a Toby Alderweireld and under pressure finished brilliantly, and secondly on Merseyside where it was the exact same deadly combination again. Arguably the better of the two as this time Dele eloquently took the ball down on his chest before volleying the ball home.
In the following season Dele was a constant starter under Mauricio Pochettino and continued the great form from his debut season into the next one. Most notably having two spells of untouchable form getting nine goal contributions in six games over the busy Christmas period and in the run-up to Easter where he he repeated the same feat from earlier in the season just with an extra game.
The ultimate highlight though was the 2-0 victory at White Hart Lane over Chelsea. Two headed goals either side of the break ended Chelsea’s hopes of making Premier League history through obtaining a 14th straight Premier League victory. Spurs came up against a team in staggering form with a defence that, since going to a back five, looked impenetrable. But yet again Dele was still able to find gaps and finish with the upmost of quality and on both occasions, he was picked out by someone who was integral to his success.
The crucial role of Christian Eriksen
On his day, Christian Eriksen was arguably one of the best attacking midfielders in the world. It was his hot and cold form that ultimately led to his departure from Spurs but even when he wasn’t having a good game, he could out of nowhere produce a sublime pass or long-range effort that would change the game.
Under Mauricio Pochettino Spurs became famous for their free-flowing attacking football which was spear-headed by Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son, Eriksen and Alli. Although Spurs would line up with Dele in behind Kane, Eriksen on the right and Son on the left the three would often free roam in the attacking third and having full backs who would bomb forward still allowed Spurs to use their width.
But the most crucial part of their game was Eriksen being the playmaker which allowed Dele to find the gaps and holes to truly cause problems for defenders, the best example of this comes from the 2-0 victory against Chelsea. Both goals came from Dele driving into the box and both assists came from Eriksen.
The Danish international seemed to mostly be at his best when Dele was also at his best, it wasn’t that they could only perform when they lined up together but Spurs had a much better chance when both players were on the pitch. A personal favourite for me was the late equaliser against Swansea, as it just showed how much chemistry there was between the two players. A fizzing cross into a dangerous area from Eriksen left Dele with a simple tap in but it was the relationship between the two that allowed that goal to happen. Without even looking up Eriksen knew Dele would have made himself available in the box and vice versa with Dele clearly expecting a quality cross from his teammate which was exactly what he got and Spurs went on to win the game.
After making it clear that he didn’t want to sign a new contract with his current one expiring in the summer of 2020. Eriksen soon turned villain in the eyes of some Spurs fans and it seemed to affect his performances as his initial dream move to Real Madrid slipped through his fingers.
To avoid losing their talented Dane on a free at the end of his contract a fee of around £16.9m from Inter Milan was accepted by Spurs. In his final few months at the lilywhites Eriksen’s poor form and clear mentality left him in and out of the team meaning Dele had to adapt to his game but struggled greatly as it meant he was forced to play the creative role, where Eriksen would normally be, and it just didn’t suit how he liked to play.
Had the peak of Dele come and gone – 2017/18, 2018/19
Heading into the 2017/18 season, Spurs were coming off the back of a major title challenge and had set their markers so high that everyone associated with the club was hoping for another season of success and while it was another very respectable top four finish, Dele wasn’t quite able to match his form from the previous seasons.
Nine goals & 11 assists is not a bad return at all for an attacking midfielder but after scoring twice that in the previous season it was a slight decline and alongside this the questions were starting to rise in regards to how he conducted himself on the pitch and he had seemingly picked up a bad habit and that was diving and not the Tom Daley diving!
Dele, in this season in particular, had earned himself a bit of a reputation for going down in the box a bit too easy and although most players can’t say they’ve ever tried to con the officials into giving a penalty it became something that happened too often. He became the boy who cried wolf and when he went down in the box and it looked a bit contentious the official will understandably be influenced by his previous simulation attempts and not give anything.
The frustration with the diving didn’t help the Spurs faithful’s case when attempting to defend Dele as to why he didn’t perform as well that season. But there were occasions when the magic was still quite clearly there. The beautiful brace against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the instinctive volleyed finish in a 4-1 drubbing of Liverpool and the three goal contributions in a superb performance against Southampton on New Year’s Day.
The underlying issue in it though was the lack of consistency, just think back to a few seasons ago where the purple patches of form wouldn’t just come and go in 90 minutes but be there for weeks on end and that was definitely the main thing Spurs fans were hoping Dele would rectify the following season.
But unfortunately, that wasn’t the case as Dele got his first taste of injuries hampering his season. Every time it looked as though he was finding his former self a niggling injury would take him out of the team for a few weeks completely derailing any momentum he’d built.
This was the season when most fans started to sour on Dele ever so slightly, he’d set their expectations of him so high that when he didn’t deliver understandably there was some disdain. But at the same time no one can expect a player to perform consistently at the highest possible level in a league as competitive as England’s top flight, just look at Eden Hazard, one of Chelsea’s greatest players but during the 2015/16 season the Belgian only registered four goals all season. Yet in the seasons either side Hazard scored a combined total of 30 Premier League goals, showing it was just an off season. Something Spurs fans would be hoping was the case with their youthful attacker.
As we’ve discussed Dele is undoubtedly at his best when he makes darting runs into the box, yet during this season he was coming short to get the ball and playing further away from Kane and although him wanting the ball was a good sign it’s not what he does best and there were many scenarios which showcased this. He would spend far too long on the ball and eventually lose it, he would try unnecessary flicks and tricks which his teammates wouldn’t read and during counter attacks he would slow the play down, all things that became so irritating for Spurs fans especially when they knew how talented he was. Something needed to change for Dele and with the inevitable departure of Eriksen things were looking bleak for him. But to the shock of everyone who watches top flight football, the change did come and it was absolutely huge.
The arrival of Jose Mourinho
Mauricio Pochettino was sacked as Spurs manager after a poor start to the season 2019/20 season, yet no less than six months prior he led them to the Champions League final. The Argentine was then replaced by Legendary Portuguese tactician Jose Mourinho.
And there was an instant impact with Mourinho at the helm as Spurs picked up the first Premier League win away from home win in 10 months with a hard-fought 3-2 win over West Ham and it was a refreshing performance from Dele. He was finding those gaps, working hard to win the ball and produced a true moment of brilliance which led to Spurs doubling their lead. Dele received the ball on the left touchline but slipped when controlling the ball but rather than giving up and letting the ball run out of play, he managed to flick the ball underneath his other leg showcasing his undeniable football brain and quick thinking.
After a great all-round performance from Spurs in Mourinho’s opening game, no one could argue that Dele starred in the 3-2 win over Bournemouth, where two of the goals were scored by the Englishman and were perfect reminders of goals that have become associated with Dele. Running beyond defenders using the long-range passing ability of his teammates to slot home either side of half-time.
It seemed like Jose Mourinho had influenced Dele Alli in some way as his performances got better and with that came more goals, going back to finding those gaps that he had always been so good at. This was followed up by another goal at Old Trafford which was superbly taken, flicking the ball over Fred and finishing past David De Gea and it really did look like Dele was back to his very best under Mourinho.
But after the turn of the year the boost of Mourinho’s arrival seemed to have worn off and with that the form of Dele was heavily impacted and he went back to struggling to have much of an impact on games.
Should Spurs cut their losses?
Some may suggest that Dele is past his best and that he hit his prime very early on in his career but as someone who is only 24, he still has many playing years ahead of him. The problem with him is very similar to that of Eriksen, it’s finding that consistency to where he would be able to do it week in week out similar to what he was doing in his first two seasons.
Since the hamstring injury occurred In his Mourinho deployed Giovanni Lo Celso in a more advanced position and he has been adding that creativity that has been missing since Eriksen lost form. The problem though is that it would be Lo Celso who would most likely be the one to make way for Dele in that creative role in front of two holding midfielders but the 4-4-2 that Mourinho went with against Arsenal could be a way back in for Dele playing that second striker role next to Kane and pushing Son onto the wing. It would mean a slight role change for the South-Korean but Dele would be in a position where he was comfortable, where he could go beyond Kane if necessary and make those runs he’s famous for and there wouldn’t be a gap in the creativity department as Lo Celso would be there.
The part we wait for now is seeing what Mourinho does with Dele this weekend against Crystal Palace as it could showcase his plans for the player next season but selling him would be a ridiculous decision.
What do you think Mourinho should do with Dele Alli? Would you keep or sell the England international? Comment below!
Featured Image Credit – Goal