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Austin Nyquist writes, and demonstrates in detail just what makes Dele Alli one of the most promising young midfielders in Europe at the moment.
“He is probably the best young midfielder I have seen in many years, probably going back as far as Gascoigne.”
– Sir Alex Ferguson
A meteoric rise. A phrase often thrown about in sporting narratives as a descriptor indicating something of a surprise or someone who has perhaps overreached to the amusement of all. Has it been used left, right, and center on any given week during any given game, yes; however, coming up with a more natural fitting summary of a player who just two years ago was playing in League One could be hard to come by. And as a meteor pierces through the night sky with alarming speed, so Dele Alli has bolted onto the scene and more aptly onto the stage of world football. Much like an aspiringly bright pupil skips a grade to experience a greater challenge, this 20-year-old seemed to skip not one but several grades to go from a team who finished 44 places below his current team and their prospective position. He has not simply adapted to the new challenge, he has thrived and the upside of this player is incredibly immense.
Now onto the quote above, a massive compliment to be praised by a manager such as Fergie in any regard, but to be compared to one of England’s greatest ever players, colossal. And this is where we fall into the category of déjà vu. For whenever there is a promising player, let alone a promising English player, comparisons and contrasts roll out. Whether it be the heyday of Gerrard, Lampard, and Scholes to the current tussle between Lallana, Barkley, and Alli, the central midfield has always represented something of an arena for public and private debate. What’s more, the most interesting element when it comes to the discussion of Tottenham’s #20 is not what singular dimension he excels at, but more so the collective. Because if we are being honest, he is surrounded by very good players who perform specific tasks better than he does on his own team: Eriksen is a better creator, Dembele is better on the dribble, Dier defends at a higher level, and Kane scores with more consistency. What follows though, is not just an exploration into how Dele Alli plays, but more importantly how he is unique in comparison to any of the players past or present that we so eagerly align him with and how he uses the assortment of attributes at his disposal to propel himself to a world class level.
The benchmark for most attacking midfielders at the beginning of a season is 10 goals and 10 assists. Now it’s not a hard and fast rule; however, it is an ideal target as a demonstration of attacking contribution both from a creation and finishing sense. As Alli’s second Premier League season approaches its conclusion, the Spurs midfielder has totaled 24 goals and 12 assists from 59 Premier League appearances. That means the player has had a hand in 36 goals in less than two seasons for his club. Not too shabby, especially when you consider that the team itself has scored 122 league goals over the last two seasons, meaning Alli has been involved in almost 1/3 of all team goals. Moreover, the player has gone from scoring a goal every 247.9 minutes last season to every 159.9 minutes this season. Now this increased scoring indicates an obvious performance surge from the player himself but can also be credited to his more advanced role. Mauricio Pochettino has begun, over the course of this season, to place Alli higher up the field more consistently as opposed to the more box to box role he had at times last year. He has been able to play in a more liberal #10 role, whether centrally or from the left in a front three. The shackles of defensive dependency have been lifted somewhat and he has thrived with the responsibility of offensive contribution. Now when it comes to Dele Alli, there is more to his game than just goals and assists. He works tirelessly, he presses and tracks, he is selfless in his decision making, and he has just the right amount of nasty to hold his own in the treacherous Premier League. However, those are not the qualities and attributes highlighted here. This is no meat and potatoes analysis…this is all out attack and all out glory!
Luck can be a contentious topic for sure. Those who seem to always have it claim it’s no big deal and rightly deserved for their effort and skill. Those who seem to be in short supply deride their misfortune and claim it has nothing to do with competence or general preparedness. Whatever side of the equation you seem to fall on most consistently, the fact remains that Dele Alli has it in abundance and it is my assertion that it is due to intelligence and ability and not some aligning of the stars. He seems to truly create it for himself by reacting quickest and having the best starting position, an almost sixth sense of where the ball is going and how to best adapt and execute when others are standing and watching.
A vital piece to Alli’s game and the way in which he fits into Mauricio Pochettino’s side is his vertical movement into pockets of space and beyond the backline. His involvement in the build up phase is minimal and he is not asked to set the tempo of play. More so, it is his movement to make longer runs past Kane as he checks underneath that provide an essential attacking component to the team’s play. The Spurs midfielder has a tendency to drift wide and then cut inside the opposition fullback and center back causing confusion in the defensive line as his movement is diagonal and across the face of one defender and on the blindside of another. The fullback is caught between tracking the run and passing it on while the center back is automatically put in trouble by having to move backwards towards his own goal.
This becomes such an effective strategy for Tottenham because Harry Kane is so dangerous. Kane becomes a focal point for the defensive structure and they become complacent with his movement underneath and neglect the space in behind for Alli’s vertical movement. With the passing range present throughout the squad and the distraction Harry Kane presents as he checks for the ball, the soil is fertile for Dele Alli to continue to use his athleticism to break lines vertically. This tactical nuance works only because Spurs have other midfielders who prefer the ball at their feet and thrive under such circumstances, allowing Tottenham to use their attacking midfielder as more of a runner without the burden of creation and possession on his shoulders.
The relationship between the striker and attacking midfielder is vital to the attacking efficiency of every team. Rarely do you have one without the other and when it clicks it can be a game changer for the team as a whole. Not only will a team be more fluid throughout the attacking third, they will also gain a certain unpredictability that is not present when everything is dependent on a single player. When it comes to Harry Kane and Dele Alli, this has truly developed into a classic #10 to #9 scenario time and time again. In almost two seasons of sharing the same field, Alli has created 27 chances for Kane with 9 of them being scored. That’s 75% of Alli’s assists going to Kane alone. The two players really do complement each other in so many ways and the combination of their technique, vision, movement, and selflessness has set the table for consistent goal scoring. As the partnership continues to blossom and with both players continuing to mature in their play, the output will only increase. The telepathic nature with which they interact and the trust they seem to place in each other has benefitted both of their stat sheets but more importantly Tottenham as a whole. What’s more, they sincerely seem to be having a good time doing it!
The technical proficiency and concentration needed in order to effectively execute a scoring volley at the speed with which the professional game moves must be razor sharp. Of the 24 goals Dele Alli has scored in the Premier League, no fewer than five of them have come off some version of this technique. The balance and coordination for such a skill must not be underestimated as we have all seen attempts such as these shanked out of play for a throw in or the player himself lying on the ground in some awkwardly contorted position crying out for some sympathetic comfort from a teammate or coach as if it would gloss over his blatant embarrassment. Dele Alli shows composure where many do not and executes the volley with not just power but accuracy, making the goalkeepers’ attempts near impossible.
Another facet of Dele Alli’s game that has blossomed increasingly over the course of the current campaign has been his ability to be clinical with the use of his head. From a sheer size standpoint, 6’2”, this should never have been in doubt, but the other factors surrounding the proper and consistent execution: strength, timing, composure, have all significantly improved. This has paid huge dividends with Alli scoring four of this season’s goals from headers, two of those being against a stout Chelsea defense. With his obvious athleticism, eye for a pass, and finishing ability, the added dimension of being a threat aerially makes him an even more well rounded player than he was already widely considered.
With any attacking midfielder you come to expect a certain panache or flair; however, as tactics have evolved recently more and more teams have begun to eliminate the need for such expression. Too often we see strict utilitarian structure that prevents the need or want for such freedom of play. Pragmatism has become the norm and the collective ethos the standard. With Spurs and Dele Alli, there seems to be a mutually beneficial marriage. He works tirelessly for the team and executes the desired work rate when it comes to defending, especially with their pressing organization. In turn, the team and manager allow, no, encourage his vision and expression and the fruits of that labor are magnificent. A player who is directed to simply fulfill a role within a system does not play with the ingenuity and creativity that has been on display for over two years. Dele Alli has truly found a niche that balances his best attributes and the framework that Mauricio Pochettino demands of his team. With each and every game one anticipates a moment or two of magic from a player with such imagination. Age and experience have not whittled his courage to try the unlikely and more often than not he executes to perfection. Former MK Dons Manager, Karl Robinson, said it best of Alli, “He tries things that fear would prevent you from doing.”
As the skills and goals in the above paragraphs have demonstrated, there is no doubt this player possesses a certain rawness that provides the impetus to attempt such feats and the sheer ability to follow through. The upside is enormous as Spurs #20 is just that, 20 years old. There is little room to suggest that he will be another flash in the pan or a one hit wonder. Anything other than a glaring superstar would be the biggest surprise in all honesty. He is more than a cog in a beautiful wheel, rather, he is very much a separate wheel altogether that enhances and propels the machine itself to greater heights than ever anticipated. Some may say the future is bright, but if you ask me, the future is the present and he is on fire!