The first of Dele Alli’s two goals against Chelsea last Sunday at Stamford Bridge encapsulated almost everything he is as a football player, good and bad.
We initially marvelled at the technical brilliance to bring the ball down from Eric Dier’s pass and instinctively finish past Willie Caballero. We then witnessed a celebration that is characteristic of a player who has been guilty of divisive actions on the pitch, Alli wheeling away in front of the on-looking Chelsea supporters with a cupped hand to his ear.
Alli has always divided opinion
Since the 21-year-old announced himself on the Premier League stage in 2015, his play has often divided opinion. Nobody can dispute Alli’s footballing genius. The aforementioned strike against Chelsea can join the lobbed assist for Harry Kane’s hat-trick against West Brom in 2017, or the turn and volley against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park in 2015, as some of the best moments in a career that is still astoundingly short. However, it seems that these great deeds come at a price.
It is not difficult to see why Mauricio Pochettino has described his young charge as a wild horse. Dele Alli plays his football with an aggressive edge. At best, it is brilliant; at worst it has been spectacularly self-destructive. With this edge, he does not think twice about bringing a long ball down over his shoulder and finishing on the half volley past an onrushing goalkeeper, but with this edge, he also does not shy away from a combative opponent and will often seek to gain any advantage possible.
The 21-year-old is beginning to mellow
In the past, Alli’s aggression on the pitch has cost him and Spurs dearly on several occasions, such as his straight red card against Gent at Wembley last season. Opposition players have also acknowledged his volatile nature and exploited it in the past – Claudio Yacob’s persistence during a match in 2016 resulted in Alli making a reckless swing at his ribs and earning a 3 match ban, for instance.
It seems strange to think of a 21-year-old mellowing with age, but that is what we are witnessing with Alli this season. The bounty that seemed to be placed on his head by Giorgio Chiellini and his Juventus lieutenants in the second half of the Champions League second leg quarter-final, must have been done so in the belief that Alli could be wound up and provoked into retaliation. He was kicked all over the Wembley turf that night, but Alli did not kick back. Spurs may have lost the match but it was not due to any rash action by their number 20.
Alli’s reduced goal count is thanks to his final pass
Alli’s ruthlessness to win free kicks and penalties continue to be singled out from the antics of other players, however, he is certainly not the only player guilty of these dark arts. It is possible for a player to reform and rebuild their reputation (see “Ashley Young”), but Alli needs to cut this out of his game now, once and for all, as it risks defining him in the midst of another impressive season.
We cannot and should not view this season as anything else. Alli’s critics may point to his lack of goals – he currently sits on 12 goals, having scored 22 during all of last season – but simultaneously ignore his career high number of 14 assists, which are the most in England by any player not wearing a sky-blue Manchester City shirt! He has also created 9 more chances than he did all of last season.
Alli’s numerical decline is down to Tottenham becoming a complete team and, ironically, he has been part of that. His reduced goal return is down to the brilliant scoring form of Heung-Min Son, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane. It has often been Alli supplying the final pass.
Growth will not always be reflected in goals and assists
Looking beyond the numbers, his influence in key moments of matches continues to grow.
Alli was key in the build-up to Spurs’ equaliser at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, chasing down a loose ball and then hounding Victor Moses to block his clearance, before the ball finally fell to Eriksen to smash home from long range. He is learning and developing under Pochettino’s tutelage. This growth will not always be reflected in goals and assists – indeed, it is a testimony to the level of his performance in his first two seasons that Alli’s third term at Spurs is being viewed by some as a dip in form. He continues to come good for his team in big moments and that is what sets great players apart from good ones.
We saw against Juventus at Wembley that his fiery temper appears cooler at crucial moments. At this juncture, he still retains some of the raw aggression that has the potential to produce an infamous “Beckham” or “Rooney” moment at this summer’s World Cup. That said, the likes of Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo seem to constantly perch on the precipice of pandemonium when they take to a football pitch. Genius is so often flawed and great players are capable of brilliance and stupidity in the same breath. That goal against Chelsea was a perfect illustration of this. Whilst not at the level of Suarez or Ronaldo, he has continued to hone his craft this season, although the numbers might not show it. If Dele Alli continues to positively channel his aggression on the pitch, his rise to greatness has no limits.