One of the problems for Dele Alli during the first long winter of his career was that it coincided with Tottenham’s own tough season. Their famine wasn’t reflected in any great downturn – they’re still only five months removed from a Champions League final – but in a constant state of flux, which blurred their side’s shape and order.
Alli was a casualty of that. He was a victim of his own injuries and perhaps a muddled priorities too, but he also got lost within Spurs’ shifting shape and, too often, had to be patched into different parts of the side out of necessity.
Attributing his decline to one factor would be reductive, but in concert those issues not only blunted his statistical contribution, but also drained away the charisma entwined around his playing style.
This performance, within a more-comfortable-than-it-sounds 3-2 win for Tottenham, was long on both. It was punctuated by two opportunistic goals – one with a debt to an errant touch from Son Heung-min, the other courtesy of a splendid driven ball from Toby Alderweireld – but textured by the flecks of cocky devilment which tell you that he’s enjoying life again.
So, well done Jose Mourinho. We’ve heard the stories before – of players being made to feel ten-foot tall and of careers revived – but it’s a long time since there was a living example. Spurs as a whole are not a changed side. They’re starting to play well in bursts, with combinations which are lasting longer and charging the native enthusiasm, but not without the occasional wobble. Alli, however, is most definitely a changed player.
It showed on Saturday in the goals he scored and the one he helped create for Moussa Sissoko, with a cutting slide-rule pass for Son. But Alli has never been that literal, meaning that it’s hardly a surprise that this outbreak of form shows most radiantly in his mood.
His entire demeanour changes with confidence. The way he receives the ball, the way he passes it. It’s a cliché, of course, but a match really does slow down when he’s in possession. Not in the hackneyed, American sports film sense, with slow violins and dancing trumpets, but within the context of what’s expected in the Premier League.
Take a touch, maybe two, then pass and move. Those are the rules which Alli, at the peak of his power, cheerfully flaunts. He quite deliberately dallies, switching the ball between his feet, rolling it between the occasional defender’s legs. And the more he does that, the more the mood seems to take him and the more artistic his performance tends to become.
This was one of those days. Against West Ham he was generally good, finding pockets of space and exploiting them. Against Olympiacos he scored a very important goal, created another, and was generally very decent again.
But here, against Bournemouth, he was the full rainbow of his abilities. He’s an impudent and ethereal footballer by nature who doesn’t generally suit the metrics by which involvement is described, but 75 touches of the ball, five shots on goal and 89% passing accuracy should prove a rare exception. That should describe a game which was really all about him.
There were times when his rising confidence threatened to spill over. Midway through the second half, for instance, when his attempted flick of a Son cross crossed the line between extravagance and wastefulness. Or, later in the game and with Spurs cruising, when he pushed a through-ball to Harry Kane clumsily over the goal-line. But those were exceptions. In the main, this was an Alli performance defined by arty little touches, wafted passes played with the outside of his boot and, as a whole, that infectious playfulness which he hasn’t shown for a really, really long time.
It was also a reminder of how thrilling he can be and what a spectacle he can produce. To his own supporters at least, he’s a very charming sort of player whose thrusting effect often presents as an expression of fun. An iron fist inside a velvet glove, a smiling assassin; however he’s described, he’s unusual and rare and it’s in football’s interests for him to be playing like this.
When he left the field late on, it was to a thunderous standing ovation from the crowd and, eventually, a big hug from a grinning Mourinho. He deserved both. He’d won the game for his side and entertained everyone who paid to watch in the process and, of course, there is no more complete performance than that.
There’s no question: he’s back and he’s leading this recovery.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.