Even though it was now half a decade ago, it isn’t difficult to recall just how good Dele Alli was at the peak of his powers.
He was basically unplayable. An untraceable missile that would home in on goal with late runs into space in the box, he scored at an astonishing rate for such a young player – and a young midfielder at that. He had such confidence on the ball, able to receive under pressure between the lines, and was bold in possession, never looking for an easy pass and always with half an eye on an opportunity for the impudent; a nutmeg or flick to leave an opponent embarrassed. He had energy and stamina to match, a perfect player to help Mauricio Pochettino establish his pressing game at White Hart Lane.
He wound up opponents no end and made opposing fans seethe. Because he so often scored against their team and did whatever he could to rile anyone who would listen, he wasn’t exactly universally popular. But nobody could deny his talent.
As we all know, though, following three ridiculously good Premier League campaigns after he broke onto the scene, the last five seasons have been rather less brilliant. Since Pochettino’s reign started to unravel – in truth, during the 2018/19 season when Spurs made it to the Champions League final but in the league their form got worse – Dele has played less and less, and his career has ultimately stagnated. It was only after an interview for Gary Neville’s The Overlap podcast – which Dele said he had been forced into doing by the tabloids pestering him during his time in a rehab centre – that we were given a little more insight into the difficulties he had faced and some of the external factors that will have contributed to his struggles on the pitch.
Dele might not have always been universally liked – the best players never are – but you would be hard pushed to find someone who didn’t now want to see the Everton man get back to something approaching his best.
The levels he hit in his late teenage years and early 20s were astonishing. Only five players in Premier League history (Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, Chris Sutton and Cesc Fàbregas) have managed more goals and assists by the age of 22 than Dele (62). Fàbregas is the only midfielder to better him, though Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka will have four games before his 22nd birthday at the beginning of next season to get the five goals or assists he would need to move level with Dele.
But Dele got to 62 goals and assists in 56 fewer games and almost 4,500 fewer minutes than Fàbregas. And even if Saka scores or sets up five goals in his next Arsenal game, he would still have taken 35 more appearances than Dele to get to 62 goal involvements. What Dele did before his 22nd birthday really was remarkable.
To think back then that he would only get to 85 direct goal involvements in the Premier League by the age of 27, and that he’d be loaned out to Besiktas because he wasn’t wanted by an Everton side battling relegation would have been about as farfetched as it would be now to predict the same of Saka in five years’ time. It’s much easier to imagine Saka winning the Ballon d’Or by 2028 than it is him fading to the point that he would go more than four years without an England cap, as is now the case for Dele.
Dele’s struggles on the pitch in the last five years – since he played a key role for England in their run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup – have been well documented. As we learned in that interview with Neville, there are so many factors at play here that there is no way criticism of Dele would be justified.
And injuries haven’t helped him at all. According to Transfermarkt, in his first three seasons at Spurs, Dele suffered just two injuries, and missed 26 days of action as a result. Between 2015 and 2018, he made an average of 32.3 starts in the league each season.
In the five seasons since, he has sustained 11 separate injuries, which have kept him off the pitch for a total of 288 days. Across those five seasons at Spurs, Everton and Besiktas, he has averaged 13.8 starts per season, and he hasn’t started more than 10 league games in a single campaign since 2019/20 – the season in which Pochettino was sacked and replaced by José Mourinho.
The difference in the roles he was being asked to do also affected his performances, and looking at Dele’s open-play touch maps over the course of his career shows just how much his role has changed.
At his best under Pochettino, Dele played off Harry Kane in a 4-2-3-1 and had freedom to get into attacking positions regularly, and he often ran beyond the striker. He did the bulk of his work in inside-left attacking positions – both in between the lines in the left half-space but also when bursting through on goal. His touch map from 2016-17 shows just how high up the pitch he affected games.
In his later years at Tottenham, as Spurs dropped deeper under Mourinho, Dele was asked to do more defensive work. It was also noticeable how much more he went looking for the ball in deeper central midfield positions. As the below touch map for 2019-20 shows, he was doing that a lot more on the left near the halfway line. In other words, Dele was much further from goal increasingly often.
His impact on goal waned, and there was a similar picture from his final half-season at Spurs and at Everton following his move in January 2022. The sample size is much smaller – Dele played just under 1,000 minutes in 2021/22 – but even so, the drop in his touches per 90 across every area of the pitch he was known for affecting games in was stark.
It would be wrong to judge him only on his return of goals and assists – he is far more than those numbers and always has been – but the way he burst onto the scene, it’s difficult not to focus on how much less he got forwards and how his rate of scoring and assisting slowed.
Comparing his career to those of the other players mentioned above who also registered 50 goal involvements before the age of 22, it is difficult not to fear that it could be tough for Dele to get back on track.
Many of the players in that list ended up retiring on the early side, having struggled with injuries and fitness post 30. Each of Rooney, Fowler, Owen and Fàbregas – four of the players who got more goals and assists than Dele before the age of 22 – saw their numbers flatline later in their careers. (Sutton’s line also levels out but he did carry on scoring in the Scottish Premiership, which we haven’t included in our graph, just as Dele’s two Turkish Süper Lig goals aren’t included.)
Dele’s line on the above graph flattens out between the age of 23 and 24, and sadly it is difficult to envisage him getting anywhere close to catching Owen or Fowler up around the 200 mark. Romelu Lukaku, who managed 56 goal involvements before turning 22, is now on 232 in games in Europe’s top five leagues, having turned 30 a couple of months ago.
But as we have already mentioned, few would have predicted this state of affairs back in 2018. Most people would have predicted Dele challenging for the biggest honours in football, keeping Spurs on their upward trajectory and being a key man for England at Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup. Things could change drastically again, couldn’t they? So, let’s have a look at what would need to happen on the pitch for him to get his career back on track.
Is Everton the Right Place For Dele?
Dele spoke in his interview with Neville about how supportive Everton manager Sean Dyche has been of late, but his future at the club is far from clear. It is complicated by the fact that Dele has just one year left on his deal, and that Everton would have to pay Tottenham another £10m if he makes another seven Premier League appearances for them. He is also reported to be on £100,000 a week and is currently missing the start of pre-season due to injury.
So, the question for Everton is whether they take the risk on Alli by giving him a run of games, paying the lump sum to Spurs as well as his wages in the hope that he can rediscover his best, while also risking losing him for free next summer, or do they simply cut their losses now, save their money and tell him to find a new club?
There’s no question that Dele’s best would be worth far more than £10m to Everton. Goals were a huge issue for them last season, with only Wolves (31) scoring fewer times than them (34), though they underperformed their expected goals (45.9) terribly across the season. Dele has outperformed his expected goals over the course of his Premier League career, with 51 goals from 46.6 xG, so he could at least contribute to solving that problem.
So, would he fit into this Everton side, and if so, where? The formation Dyche uses would suit Dele, with a version of a 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 used in all but three of his Premier League games in charge of Everton last season, and one of the players in the central midfield three given licence to get forward and join the striker on the front line. There’s an obvious position for Dele, then.
Dyche also has lots of previous for taking pressure off individuals by making the teams he builds greater than the sum of their parts, which is surely something Dele would benefit from at this stage in his career.
The problem is that Dyche doesn’t care too much about possession and, well, Dele likes it. He thrived in his prime when he had lots of opportunities to move between the lines, looking to receive and affect the game high up the pitch. Although he scored all types of goal, he isn’t as much of a transitional player as Dyche often goes for. Everton’s average possession dropped from 46.3% before Dyche’s arrival down to 38.3% in the Premier League games since he came in in January. Dyche is many things – including, crucially for Everton right now, a master of avoiding relegation – but he isn’t a possession manager.
But that said, he isn’t playing the same kind of low-block football that he employed at Burnley, and maybe there is reason to look at Dele’s first half-season under Mourinho, when transitions were the name of the game and, briefly at least, he looked something close to his best.
In the first five games after Mourinho’s arrival, Dele racked up four goals and three assists and was playing like he was free to do what he was best at.
When he has the confidence of his manager and freedom to express himself, Dele produces his best football and has shown he can adapt to fit a new game plan, even if it isn’t quite what he is used to. There’s no reason that Dyche can’t do the same for him, if he is willing to give him the chance. If not, there is still time for the former Spurs man to resurrect his career elsewhere.
It is impossible – particularly for talentless writers like this one – to imagine how hard it must be to contend with the kind of drop-off that Dele suffered. Without even considering the unimaginable aspects of his early life that he spoke about in that interview with Neville, Dele must have felt like he could conquer the world back when he was in his early 20s and scoring goals for fun at the top of the Premier League and against Europe’s best in the Champions League.
For him to then fade away like he did must have been hard enough to deal with. To now be unsure as to whether Everton, who only just beat the drop last season, even want him heading into next term must be astonishingly difficult to accept. After taking to the big time as easily as he did, he probably assumed that was what football would be like for him for his whole career. Us watching him play certainly did. He clearly has immense strength of character and has certainly dealt with bigger challenges than the current one he faces to get his career back on track. Absolutely everyone wants to see Dele back doing what he does best once again.