Dele Alli still looking for his role within José Mourinho's Tottenham

Jonathan Liew
Dele Alli still looking for his role within José Mourinho's Tottenham. By taking off star playmaker during Champions League game, Tottenham manager risks fracturing his confidence

Perhaps, on reflection, José Mourinho wished it had been Dele’s brother after all. As Dele Alli hurled his water bottle to the ground in fury at being substituted against RB Leipzig on Wednesday night, as first right boot and then left boot were flung off, Mourinho might have been tempted to conclude that his attempts at motivating his star playmaker had not met with unreserved success.

It was Alli, after all, whom Mourinho had singled out during his first press conference in November as one of his most important projects. “Are you Dele or Dele’s brother?” he asked during their first conversation. “OK. Play like Dele. The real Dele.” Now, in the aftermath of a first-leg Champions League defeat, the tone would be slightly different.

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“I think he was angry with his performance, not with me,” Mourinho said of Alli’s outburst. “I think he understands why I took him off. And our performance improved.” Ouch. Factually, of course, there was very little to dispute. Alli had been poor all evening: a pale imitation of his very best, with no shots on goal and only 28 touches, the same as his goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris, and the substitute Tanguy Ndombele, who replaced Alli in the 64th minute. Only five of those touches came in the final third. Only two came in the Leipzig penalty area.

Even so, publicly flannelling one of your key players before a crucial game against your local rivals: let’s optimistically file that one under “Bold moves”.

And as Tottenham shape up for a Saturday lunchtime fixture at Chelsea that could be a decisive milestone in the race for Champions League qualification, one senses this was a gamble with quite a bit riding on it. Chelsea have historically been one of Alli’s favourite teams to play against. He has six goals against them in eight appearances, the most of any opponent. Since Mourinho’s arrival, moreover his output has risen sharply with more goals (six in all competitions), more expected goals (0.40 per 90 minutes) and more expected assists (0.22 per 90 minutes, both a significant increase on his last 12 months under Mauricio Pochettino).

Under normal circumstances this would be a fixture to relish. But the Leipzig game, along with other recent games against high-quality opposition, offered something of a corrective. One could see Alli’s exasperation growing as he was forced into chasing a succession of long balls into the channels, frozen out of the buildup, feeding off scraps.

Mourinho has said he sees Alli primarily as a No 10 playing off the striker, rather than as a midfielder, but for a player who likes to feel involved in play nights like these can prove especially frustrating.

Partly, of course, this is a function of circumstances: with Harry Kane and Son Heung-min injured, with Christian Eriksen gone, Alli is the only remaining member of the attacking quartet that for a couple of seasons was one of the most lethal front fours in Europe.

Paradoxically the scarcity of options up front has simultaneously piled extra pressure on him to produce while also starving him of the supply chain that gives him the best chance of doing so. But to a large extent, this is also a product of deliberate choices.

Mourinho’s defence-first strategy in big games has condemned one of their most creative players to long periods at the periphery. His insistence that Alli play primarily in the final third has raised his goal output while arguably diminishing his overall influence. And his decision to criticise Alli publicly risks fracturing the confidence of a player who, for all the brash confidence of his public persona, is a good deal more introspective than many give him credit for.

One could equally argue, of course, that Alli is the sort of player who requires the occasional rocket. That was certainly the view of Pochettino, who while lionising Alli in public often felt the need to point out his shortcomings in private. And the brainless coronavirus joke he posted to his Snapchat a couple of weeks ago was hardly the act of a player ready to take on greater responsibility. Alli will be 24 in a couple of months and should theoretically be entering his peak years. Instead he is still trying to sustain the jet-propelled promise of his early career, his place in England’s Euro 2020 squad not secure.

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Perhaps it was this essential tension that found its explosive outlet on Wednesday night. Those who interpreted Alli’s reaction to being substituted purely as an expression of brattish petulance are perhaps guilty of ignoring what came next. After sitting down he buried his head in his hands and then pulled his shirt over his face, blind wrath giving way to quiet devastation. It was in many ways a crushingly human moment, the point at which the dreams and unfettered ambition of youth seemed to collide head-on with the severe reality of playing up front in a team with 37% possession.

Alli’s mercurial talents have always been as much curse as gift. And there is perhaps a broader question: whether players are ultimately responsible for their performances and output or whether they are inextricably bound by circumstances: the team around them, the culture and ambience of the club, the tactics and strategy being pursued. Put more simply: does Mourinho have anything more to offer Alli than mind games? Or is he, to all purposes, on his own?