Dele Alli is at a crossroads. Again. The 24-year-old has gone from being a key component in Tottenham Hotspur’s plans for the future to a disposable asset at White Hart Lane. It is becoming increasingly clear that the midfielder is not Jose Mourinho’s type of player.
Back in 2017, when Alli collected his second consecutive PFA Young Player of the Year award, the worry in north London was that bigger, richer teams would come sniffing around and tempt the budding superstar away. The youngster was on the radar of Europe’s megaclubs. There is now general indifference to his availability. Real Madrid turned down the chance to sign him when Alli was offered as a makeweight in the Gareth Bale loan deal. Paris Saint-Germain have expressed interest but at a knockdown price. He is no longer a premium buy.
Mourinho is rarely the right manager for a young player, particularly one who displays a touch of arrogance. Alli has always had a wayward streak on the pitch. The Portuguese demands discipline. He is willing to indulge only the very best. Harry Kane will get plenty of latitude and Gareth Bale will enjoy the liberty to express himself. While they are productive. Lesser talents have to do things the Mourinho way.
Alli, who seemed to be developing into a top-class operator, has plateaued and is not in the same class as his more illustrious team-mates. There is a growing school of thought that suggests he was over-rated in his teenage years. That is revisionism. His potential was enormous. A succession of thigh and hamstring injuries have interrupted his progress and affected his consistency. Even so, many of the flaws in his game can be put down to management.
Mauricio Pochettino did Alli no favours by giving him a roaming, attacking role playing off Kane. At first the goals justified the position but it meant that other parts his game failed to develop. Midfielders in deeper-lying positions can assess the pitch in front of them. Alli showed the delicacy of touch and passing range to dictate the tempo of a contest. At one stage he looked as if he could become the sort of playmaker who makes a team tick. That requires a more thoughtful, tactical approach.
Instead, he barged forward at 100mph, acting like a second forward and barely checking what was happening behind him. It was easier to charge around up front and put physicality to the forefront of his game.
That turned out to be a mistake. Son Heung-min is a much better foil for Kane. Not only does the South Korean make more disciplined runs but the winger gives more to the team when the opposition have the ball.
If Alli is not going to be used as an auxiliary striker then he must play deeper. Even at his peak he would not be deployed as a No 10 by Mourinho. The best he could hope for at Spurs is being used as an up-and-down midfielder. The up part of the equation comes easy to Alli; the down side less so.
Defensive duties were never his strong point. His recklessness in the tackle works against him, too. Because of this, it is hard to see where Mourinho would utilise him on a regular basis.
In Tottenham Hotspur: All Or Nothing, Amazon Prime’s documentary about life behind the scenes at Spurs, the Portuguese was disparaging about the England player, calling him “lazy” and criticising his lifestyle. Alli, like many young players, has had his temperament questioned on and off the field. The path to maturity is filled with pitfalls for footballers but managers tend to overlook the indiscretions of those who produce on matchday and exaggerate the lapses of those who fail to perform. Perhaps Alli is at a stage in his career where he needs to be nursed along with an arm around his shoulder. Unfortunately for him, Mourinho does not do love – tough or otherwise.
For Alli to resume his upward trajectory, he needs to leave White Hart Lane. A change of scenery and a new challenge could help put him back on a positive course. This will likely entail him breaking down his game and learning some new methods. For too long he relied on his explosiveness; it could be time to take a more considered perspective.
He has the capability to do this. The raw materials of brilliance are still there. It is a shame for Spurs and the English game that he may have to go to Paris to rebuild his reputation.