Dele Alli was brilliant. And he can be again at Everton

Date published: Saturday 5th February 2022 7:32 - John Nicholson

Dele Alli is the subject of John Nicholson’s latest ‘What’s So Great About…’. Aged 25, there’s still time to rediscover his brilliant best after a change of scene…

 

Who’s this then?
Bamidele Jermaine Alli is still just 25 years old. The 6ft 2in Milton Keynes-born midfielder left Spurs this week, after being there for seven years, to join Everton and hopefully resurrect what had been a sparkling early career.

He got his start at MK Dons, joining their youth system aged just 11 and making his first team debut aged 16. By 2013/14 he’d cemented a regular first-team place and was part of the side that spanked Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United 4-0 in the League Cup.

He was such a stellar talent that it was rumoured clubs all across Europe were looking at him, unsurprising, as he seemed to have it all. He was a gifted playmaker with the vision to make defence splitting passes, he could score elegant goals and was a hard-to-mark No.0. What’s more, he exuded the sort of confidence that is borne out of finding the game easier than most.

This attracted Daniel Levy who slapped £5million on to MK Dons’ kitchen table on Feb 2 2015, and said they could keep him until the end of the season. In that time Dele was named Young Player of the Year at the Football League Awards and helped the club to promotion.

He hit the ground running in his first season for Tottenham scoring 10 goals in 46 games. They quickly extended his contract in January to make sure this wonderful young player would be on their books for a long time.

He won PFA Young Player of the Year two years consecutively in 2015/16 and again in 2016/17.

And that season was his best so far. Working under Mauricio Pochettino, he was irresistible, scoring 22 in 50 games.

By 2018, he was so dominant that he was valued as the most expensive midfielder in world football by CIES, for what that is worth.

It was at this point that someone swapped the original Dele Alli for a budget version which didn’t work properly. From 2018 to 2022 he scored fewer goals than he had in 2016/17 alone. His influence waned and he stopped being an automatic pick.

Then Poch was fired and his replacement, Jose Mourinho, fancied Alli as a forward and played him as a 10. For a few games, he got a tune out of him. He notched three goals in three games. Dele was back! But it was only a brief resurrection and soon enough the slump continued. There was a £50,000 fine for a bit of the auld ‘unacceptable racist stereotype’ behaviour and slowly but surely it felt to many that he had disappeared from view.

When he reappeared with dreads, he seemed to look much older somehow. Yet after signing a six-year extension in 2018, he still had two years left on his contract and didn’t seem likely to play much. That’s when Everton came in for him and arranged a very unusual, if not unique, deal.

Still just 25, now working under Frank Lampard, an early role model for him, we shall soon see if a change of clubs sparks a change in Dele.

Internationally, he has played 37 times for England. He was stained by the 2016 farce against Iceland, a game he played in, but still on board for the revival under Gareth Southgate, but was jettisoned before 2020.

 


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Why the love?
When you’re really, really good at football and are still a teenager, you set yourself a very high standard against which you may soon be unfavourably measured. This is what happened to Dele. His first three seasons at Spurs were so good, and 2016/17 especially so, we all thought this was his playing par. But it has subsequently turned out not to be the case. But we did not imagine that fantastic Dele. We did not overrate him. He really was that good for MK Dons and for three seasons at Spurs.

He could glide into space, feet barely seeming to touch the ground. He was brave and cheeky and took chances. If not exactly a maverick, he was someone you looked to in order to change games either with some creative support play or by knocking a couple in.

In 2017, there seemed nothing he couldn’t do in the front third of the pitch but by 2022 he seemed unable to do much anywhere on the pitch. It is easily the biggest drop-off in form I can recall ever seeing in top flight football across the last 50 years. To go from being one of the most renowned and highly valued players in world football to being released on a free (albeit with caveats) four years later, is a steep downward spiral.

How did it happen? Many have speculated. Some say that after that great season in 2016/17, he had his head turned by money and fame. After all, he was only 21 in the April of that season. He wouldn’t be the first or last to get distracted from his game by extracurricular activities. He brought out, or at least endorsed, a clothing brand in 2018. But that was four years ago now and the boohoo website doesn’t have any Dele presence today, so I assume that’s a relationship that is in the past. It can’t explain such a prolonged collapse of form.

Perhaps it was Pochettino that got the best out of him, but in truth his form was waning before the Argentinian left, even if it did revive for that legendary Champions League semi-final against Ajax.

Could it be that he found football just too easy and somehow lost the edge and interest in playing at the top of his game? Was playing for Spurs the problem? Did his experience with England in the bleak 2016 campaigns sour him in some way? Or is it a mental thing where you know you’ve lost what you had, and don’t have any mechanism to get it back?

It’s hard to say but at 25, there is plenty of time to become a new improved Dele. When he was on top form, he always played in an advanced position where his deft touch and silky skills could do the most damage. It seems likely that is where new boss Frank Lampard will deploy him. A player with his talent doesn’t need to be doing the hard yards in the defensive third, give him freedom to create and to penetrate and let’s see what he can do. Everton’s squad is better than good, at least in offensive positions.

His fall from grace begs another question. Is it possible for someone to get worse and worse as their career develops? You peak early and from being a 20-year-old it is all downhill? Because this isn’t just a small drop in performance over the last three years, it is a prolonged and sustained decline from the snowiest peak down to the stoney river bed.

Valencia target Dele Alli

 

Four great moments
The boy’s a dancer…

 

A kid of schoolyard performance art, imitated by every kid with a tennis ball in the following days. Sublime…

 

The grace with which he takes the ball and flicks it over the keeper. The lad is simply no ordinary talent…

 

Where did the player who so effortlessly did this go?

 

What the people say

– His new hair just reminds me heavily of Henrik Larsson, seems a good lad so hopefully can do well at Everton

– Absolutely wonderful at his best – Spurs v Real Madrid at Wembley, I was there in November 2017… Dele gave a world class performance and two stunning goals. The song we sang – Dele outlasted Ozil by a country mile.

– The fact he’s prepared to make a move out of a comfort zone, to rediscover his love of the game with us.

– In his pomp big game player. Loved the spotlight. However his game regressed along with the rest of the Tottenham midfield once Moussa Dembele left the club. The talent is still there with Dele, I just hope the desire is.

– A thrilling part of my favourite Spurs team. Scored great goals, scored important goals. Loved the half smile/half smirk that he played with, loved his runs into space that no one else saw. Needs a manager who loves him but he maybe didn’t realise that till Poch left.

– That picture of him celebrating in front of the Chelsea fans at Stamford Bridge after scoring a fantastic goal sums him up completely. I love Dele and only want him to get back to his best at Everton. He deserves that.

– Considering he’s still only 25 and has 51 goals and 34 assists in 181 games is mightily impressive given how off the boil he’s been last 2 seasons. Hope it’s the case he didn’t burn out too early as he looked a generational talent.

– Dele’s happiness can be specifically linked to how many nutmegs he was getting through. At his height, I’m pretty sure he managed to meg Jesus Perez in training without Perez even realising. They were sorely missed in his last couple of seasons at Spurs.

 

Future days
There is always a lot of media on hand to document the defenestration of a once great footballer, especially a young star who goes some shade of bad. Soon enough, everything is put through that prism. Hence, when he turned up for training at Everton in a Rolls Royce some parts of the press treated it as though this was a wealthy potentate arriving amongst the poor with gold coins falling from his pockets. I mean, no-one in Everton’s first team is short of money. They could all buy a fleet of Rolls Royces. But there is always an audience for the spoilt modern footballer rubbing our noses in his undeserved wealth story. These are the pressures he has to overcome.

He has to perform well and do it quickly because much faith in the magic that used to be in his boots has evaporated and criticism will come thick and fast at the first signs of him plodding through games ineffectually. If we don’t see the 21-year-old Dele within a few games, faith will soon be lost.

His debut won’t come in Saturday’s cup tie against Brentford but it may at Newcastle next Tuesday and what better time to announce yourself on a new stage and tell the world that New Dele is here and New Dele is as good as the Old Dele used to be.

He was such a thoroughly engaging player and one of England’s great talents, the last four years gave none of us any pleasure. So good luck Dele, we all look forward to you being wonderful once again.

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