Alli or Nothing: The Space Invader Lost in Time
Dele Alli’s teenage introduction was one of the most remarkable we’ve witnessed with numbers through his first three Premier League seasons that put him on pace for legendary status. However, an injury-disrupted 2018-19 caused Dele’s Tottenham Hotspur career to hit the skids before grinding completely to a halt under José Mourinho in 2020-21. Ahead of his 25th birthday, we look back on his emergence and subsequent establishment to consider how his career has faltered and what he must do to re-establish himself and fulfil that seemingly limitless potential.
Part I: Sensational Dele Alli
It’s easy to forget how young Dele Alli is, which is why it’s difficult for this not to feel like a retrospective to something with much more of a concrete ending.
Such was his seamless acclimatisation to Premier League life. Over five years have passed since that infamous volley against Crystal Palace in January 2016, a strike conjured up with the audacity of a seasoned veteran. The kind of goal that caused Danny Rose to clutch his head in disbelief, akin to Rose’s eventual replacement Sergio Reguilón when Erik Lamela netted an impudent rabona in the North London Derby last month. It’s no coincidence that whichever version of that Alli goal you watch, every commentator uses some derivative of the word sensational to describe its maker.
So where next for the sensational Dele Alli, once one of the Premier League’s most extraordinary talents?
Alli was still a teenager when he scored that goal, his sixth in the Premier League and the fourth of those first six efforts to be volleyed, with Alli visibly demonstrating a technique and composure belying his tender years. Indeed, since Dele’s Premier League debut, Jamie Vardy (nine) is the only player to have scored more volleys than Alli (eight) in the competition. However, the seventh of those volleyed goals came less than two years after the first, when Spurs steamrolled Liverpool 4-1 at Wembley in October 2017. That’s a timeline fairly synonymous with his overall Premier League career, in that it all happened before he turned 22.
By the time Alli turned 22 in April 2018, he’d already directly contributed to 62 Premier League goals, a number that only five players in league history have surpassed by that age. Excluding strikers, only Cesc Fàbregas (63) was able to ever so marginally better Dele’s feat, although it’s Alli’s double-edged threat that places him in even more elite company: Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs are the only players other than Alli to score 25+ goals and provide 25+ assists in the Premier League before turning 22.
Dele would hit one further goal after turning 22 at the back end of the 2017-18 campaign, meaning he’d directly contributed to 21 goals per season on average through his first three Premier League seasons. In the three seasons since, he’s played a direct hand in just 20 goals.
The midpoint of those inaugural three seasons represented Alli’s finest hour. His 2016-17 exploits coincided with Tottenham’s best Premier League season as Mauricio Pochettino’s side topped the scoring charts (86), conceded the fewest goals (26) for a club-best 86 points. In that campaign, Alli became the youngest player since Rooney in 2005-06 to reach 25 direct goal contributions in a Premier League season. Moreover, Alli remains the only midfielder in Premier League history to attain 25 goal contributions in a season aged 21 or younger.
It’s a lot to ask, but Rooney is exactly the sort of company Alli was expected to maintain. Dele’s career trajectory at the time was on course to surpass England’s Golden Generation of midfield talent. He recorded more goals (36) and assists (25) through his first 100 Premier League games than each of Frank Lampard (12 and six), Steven Gerrard (11 and 13) and Paul Scholes (26 and eight) at the same stage. In fact, Matt Le Tissier (93) is the only midfielder in Premier League history to directly contribute to more goals in their opening three seasons in the competition than Alli (63).
Factor in Dele’s 74 league games for MK Dons prior to his Premier League bow – where he notched 22 goals and laid on nine assists as a teenager – and it’s undisputable that Dele Alli was – and still could be – considered a generational talent. As he hits 25, Alli has time to recover some of that lost ground.
Part II: Delectable Alli
Dele’s natural talent and innate ability to uncover pockets of space in near-impossible-to-defend areas enabled him to adopt the Raumdeuter role in Pochettino’s system, the role that has served Thomas Müller – and then Kai Havertz – so well in the Bundesliga. Translating to the much more colloquially English “space invader” that David Bowie once sang about, Alli epitomised the Raumdeuter role. He was consistently instrumental to Tottenham’s goal output with stardust-infused moments under Pochettino, despite never being their main man for goals or assists. Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen were instead burdened with those expectations.
Between 2015-16 and 2017-18, only five players scored more Premier League goals than Alli (37) and only four provided more assists (26), yet he never led Spurs in either ranking. Alli was the only top-flight player to record 25+ of each though, owing to the dual threat provided by his intrinsic nature to roam between the lines.
Alli’s underlying numbers rarely justified his high levels of productivity in terms of goals and assists, but his instinctive ability to manipulate space in front of and behind opposition defences facilitated his emergence as a constant menace at the business end of the pitch. It’s therefore difficult to ascertain his best qualities without focusing on his goals-and-assists input, with his capacity to maraud space both on and off the ball not instantaneously apparent. Nevertheless, it operates as a lethal weapon when it comes to exploiting gaps – a notion he must rediscover to return to his deadliest, though he needs licence to do so.
During those three seasons playing at his best, Alli provided 10 assists following a carry, a number only beaten by Kevin De Bruyne (13) in the Premier League in that time. Once again, the name of a man Alli should be drawing comparisons to by now. Considering Alli only created 35 chances following a carry during that period as opposed to De Bruyne’s 74, it demonstrates how incisive Alli could be when afforded the opportunity to interrogate the space in front of an opposition backline, with the odds of a teammate converting those chances consistently high.
Part III: Dele-ted
Naturally, the sheer volume of Alli’s touches has deteriorated with limited opportunities on the pitch in 2020-21, but comparing his touch maps from recent seasons indicates that little has changed when it comes to where Dele is finding himself with the ball.
Across his first three Premier League seasons at Tottenham, David Silva (424) was the only midfielder to touch the ball more in the opposition penalty area than Alli (421). His touches in the opposition box per-90 averages haven’t dropped in his three seasons since then, still maintaining 4.5 per 90 minutes, so the issue here is seemingly playing time rather than a tactical shift. Inevitably, fewer minutes on the pitch have affected the second edge to Alli’s space-invader sword – his intelligence to arrive undetected in the penalty area with astute timing.
Tottenham are already handicapped by a reluctance to get in the box under José Mourinho with just six Premier League teams recording fewer touches in the opposition penalty area than Spurs (546) in 2020-21. Fittingly, Tanguy Ndombélé (37) is the only Spurs player outside of Harry Kane (131) or Son Heung-Min (89) with more than 35 in league play. Rationally, a player of Alli’s ilk would forge the perfect remedy to that issue, but where – if at all – does he fit in Mourinho’s system?
Part IV: Demolition of DESK
The forefront of Mourinho’s Tottenham plan is undeniably the partnership of Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min, who have rightfully taken the plaudits after combining for a Premier League record of 14 goals in 2020-21. However, that’s not symptomatic of Spurs at their free-flowing best under Pochettino, where Kane and Son constituted half of a bigger picture that also involved Alli and Eriksen. That quartet – otherwise known as DESK – provided Tottenham’s attacking impetus, with D as integral as E, S and K.
Prior to the 2020-21 season, Alli and Kane had combined for 18 Premier League goals, just two fewer at the time than the Kane-Son partnership (20) dominating headlines this term. At that point, Alli had actually assisted Kane for more Premier League goals (16) than Son had assisted for Kane (13), though the South Korean has since laid on five goals for the England captain in 2020-21.
Only 15 pairs in Premier League history have combined for more goals than Alli and Kane (18), whilst Alli also ranks inside the competition’s top 25 for his tandem with Eriksen (16), the man who has assisted Dele the most (11), ahead of Son Heung-Min (seven).
Tottenham’s Most Fruitful Goal Combinations In Premier League History:
Player One Player Two Goal Combinations PL Rank Harry Kane Son Heung-Min 34 2nd Teddy Sheringham Darren Anderton 27 5th Harry Kane Christian Eriksen 21 9th Dele Alli Harry Kane 18 16th Dele Alli Christian Eriksen 16 24th Dele Alli Son Heung-Min 15 33rd
Part V: Talk About A Great Dane
Eriksen was particularly adept at exploiting Alli’s Raumdeuter qualities, seemingly telepathically trusting the Englishman to find himself in the perfect position to meet one of the Dane’s crosses. That tactic was pertinent in Tottenham’s 2-0 win over Chelsea in January 2017, with Eriksen assisting Alli to head home twice in the space behind César Azpilicueta as Spurs pursued the Blues in the title race. Three months later, Eriksen provided the most sumptuous ball for Allli to score against Chelsea in 2016-17’s FA Cup semi-final.
Alli inflicted further pain on Chelsea in April 2018 by superbly latching onto Eric Dier’s long pass to hand Spurs their first Premier League victory at Stamford Bridge. Eriksen assisted Alli to nod home once again against Chelsea in November 2018, simultaneously ending Maurizio Sarri’s unbeaten Premier League start. Against no team has Alli scored more goals for Tottenham than the six he has over Chelsea in all competitions, with Eriksen assisting four of those six – all of which were first-time finishes.
Eriksen’s first Premier League assist for Alli was that volley against Crystal Palace, whilst his second came exactly five years ago, with Martin Tyler congregating Alli’s last day as a teenager as he stroked the ball home against Manchester United on April 10, 2016. That goal was archetypal of Pochettino’s Spurs –Lamela doggedly turning over possession, Kane switching play to Eriksen and the Dane finding Alli to sweep home first time. In that moment, it was impossible to envisage Dele’s career continuing on any path other than the consistently upwards arc upon which it was transpiring.
It came at a time when Tottenham were taking flight for the start of their most successful years in the Premier League, as Spurs scored three goals in five minutes and 43 seconds to turn a stalemate into a comfortable 3-0 victory over Louis van Gaal’s army. Tottenham would maintain those levels for the best part of three years, pushing Chelsea closer in 2016-17 than they did Leicester in 2015-16, before tugging at the coattails of Manchester City and Liverpool at Christmas in 2018.
Tottenham’s last complete, all-conquering performance arguably came in a 6-2 demolition of Everton at Goodison Park on Dec. 23, 2018, which marked the last time the four members of DESK all scored in the same match. Accordingly, Tottenham’s record since has suffered considerably, with Alli’s form dropping synonymously. That 6-2 victory was the fourth of a five-game winning run for Tottenham in the Premier League, but Spurs have failed to string five consecutive wins together since. In the 88 league matches that have passed since that win, Tottenham have won just 44% and taken 137 points. That’s a stark contrast to the 67% win rate and 191 points Spurs amassed in the 88 games prior – a run that began with Alli scoring in October 2016 to inflict Pep Guardiola’s first defeat in English football.
Away from their Champions League heroics, Tottenham’s spiral in the second half of the 2018-19 campaign had already started. Five league wins from six (L1) between January and February 2019 were followed by Spurs winning just three of their remaining 12 Premier League fixtures (D2, L7), so it’s unfair to pinpoint Tottenham’s demise entirely on the shoulders of Mourinho. However, it’s also evident that the Portuguese has done little to revitalise Spurs, with their form persisting in a similarly lifeless vein for large spells of his reign.
As profitable as Kane and Son’s combinations have been in 2020-21, you can’t help but wonder if the Spurs attack is hindered by Mourinho’s ousting of Alli, a man equally as proficient at combining with both Kane and Son, given their record in previous seasons. Eriksen’s departure left Spurs without a primary creator, but Kane has successfully encompassed that role in unorthodox fashion in 2020-21. It hasn’t affected his goalscoring output in the slightest, but rather elevated his all-round output. Mourinho of course takes credit for facilitating that, although by installing fewer components in Tottenham’s attacking setup, it’s consequently diminished the fluidity of old when Dele Alli was an undisputed starter.
Part VI: The Outcasted One
If Tottenham are to recapture former glories whilst Mourinho is around, Alli could be pivotal to instilling that absent synergy back into the team, though the Portuguese may have to contemplate some sacrifices. Alli’s skillset requires his most effective moments to be bred out of instinct, something we caught a glimpse of with his stunning overhead kick against Wolfsberg in the Europa League in February. That goal encapsulated Alli, arriving late in the box to receive a nothing pass, before producing an instinctive, unprecedented piece of magic to score in the unlikeliest manner.
Let’s not forget Dele hit the ground running before Mourinho had fully implemented his ideas and stamped his identity on Tottenham. Alli has appeared 50 times for Mourinho and was directly involved in eight goals in his first eight games under his new manager, compared to 11 goals in the 42 matches since. However, all seven of Dele’s goal contributions in 2020-21 have come in cup competitions, with Alli starting just two Premier League matches. With just 232 league minutes under his belt, winning a penalty against Manchester United and forcing an own goal against Fulham remain his only notable contributions.
There are few spots for enigmatic players of the Dele Alli mould in a Mourinho team. He found that out following an unsuccessful flick against Stoke in December, after which he was publicly chastised and hauled off by Mourinho, yet was later named man of the match. A fear factor seems to exist in the Spurs ranks, with players palpably concerned over making mistakes and becoming the next outcast, though Alli would appear the ideal candidate to unlock that fear factor.
There’s space for Alli in this team too: Mourinho appears content with his double pivot of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Ndombélé, whilst Kane and Son are guaranteed starters too, leaving two attacking slots available. Carlos Vinícius and Giovani Lo Celso deputised when Son was injured. Lucas Moura has re-entered the fold with two goals and three assists in his last nine league games after his Spurs career was headed down a blind alley reminiscent of the scenarios some would say he finds himself in on the pitch. Lamela’s unique tenacity provides a conundrum as to when his impact is best felt, whilst Steven Bergwijn holds the unfortunate label of the Premier League player to attempt the most shots without scoring (36) in all competitions this season. The small upturn in form that concurred with Gareth Bale’s reintegration into the team last month was short-lived, as was the brief introduction of BASK – Bale, Alli, Son and Kane – who started together once before Mourinho again applied the brakes, subsequently suppressing Tottenham as an attacking force.
The overthinking provoked by Mourinho’s methods evidently disrupts Alli’s game, but vintage Dele Alli – complete with nutmegs and spectacular goals – relies on him playing on the edge and acting on instinct. There’s a supposition that Dele finding that edge is motivated by playing the pantomime-villain role with opposition fans, but it’s unfair to attribute his struggles to that, given he’s been afforded just 319 minutes of Premier League action since football was consigned behind closed doors.
Alli Or Nothing
Dele Alli is just one on a growing list of players Mourinho has picked a fight with during his time at Tottenham, yet he may be exactly the player Mourinho should call upon for the Carabao Cup Final. That game could prove the deciding factor in whether Mourinho returns to the dugout next season. Or, if his fate is already sealed, it could be the accomplishment he relies on to consider his time at Spurs a success.
Alli’s goal against Man United on the eve of his 20th birthday was his first against a Big Six opponent in the Premier League, and it arrived amidst Tottenham’s longest ever unbeaten run against fellow Big Six sides in the competition (12 games). Since his debut season, Alli is one of 13 Big Six players to score against each of the other five and one of three to do so for Spurs, alongside Kane and Son. Add to that FA Cup semi-final goals against Chelsea and Man United and a League Cup quarter-final strike against Arsenal, and it becomes difficult to question Alli as a big-game player.
Along with the overhead kick scored against Wolfsberg, Alli also provided two assists, something he hadn’t achieved in a European game since assisting two of Lucas Moura’s famous treble in Amsterdam in May 2019.
That’s unquestionably the stage where a man with Alli’s ability belongs, but he needs a platform to showcase it. If Mourinho doesn’t remain in charge of Spurs beyond this season, his replacement may be chomping at the bit for the opportunity to work with Alli. If not, Pochettino is waiting in Paris.
Design by Matt Sisneros.