It was October 1974, ahead of his heavyweight World Championship fight with George Foreman that Muhammed Ali coined one of the most famous phrases in sporting history.
Ali, always one to come alive in front of the cameras and microphones, told the press ‘I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee - his hands can't hit what his eyes can't see.’ The confidence in his ability is unwavering and the execution of his plan, faultless. Funny some 17 years later a young English namesake is born, seemingly with similar confidence and ability but gifted in another discipline of the sporting world.
Bamidele ‘Dele’ Alli, born and raised in Milton Keynes has been a huge talking point as this season has progressed, not only in North London but also across the board with his eye-catching performances for both club and country. His rise to the top tier of English football has been nothing short of astronomical and doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon – all this for a lad of 19 (yes, 19!) is a phenomenal achievement. So what is it about this young man, that has taken him from Stadium MK to Wembley in little over 6 months?
At 19, 6ft 2, and 73kg, Dele Alli doesn’t fall into the category most youngsters usually do, ‘he can’t mix it with the big boys’, because that isn’t an issue. We’ve seen previously with players like Tom Carroll and Alex Pritchard that, although both technically very sound, when it comes to the Premier League games they tend to be bullied and thrown off the ball. Although of slight build, he has already proven this year he has more than enough about him to hold his own – a fighter, he never gives up even when having lost the ball which, as we know, will only be seen fondly by Pochettino.
Strength is often accompanied by little or no pace, but Alli has enough to get by. I can’t imagine he crosses the white line first during a sprint session at Hotspur Way, but he certainly won’t be last. Pace is something Pochettino is using to his advantage within this current Spurs team and Alli can keep up, but that’s not where his real qualities lie.
He’s only 19, as I’ve mentioned a few times now (I am aware of it) and to be accomplishing the things he is and taking on the challenges he is, is remarkable. Named as Sky Sports ‘MOTM’ in the recent North London derby, the youngest player on the pitch showed the fearlessness and level head that features atop of not only the best players in the game, but also the best leaders. To be able to deal with the occasions, pressure and atmospheres the way he does is unreal. When most 19 year olds are too scared to go out and get themselves a job, this young man’s picking up Champers for his performance amongst some the world’s best.
All this is great for Dele, but what does he have that means Spurs fans have taken him into their hearts and watch in anticipation at the next piece of brilliance he’ll produce?
The answer is - he is, what we like to lovingly call, a Spurs type of player.
We’ve always had those players. The flair players, the skilled players, the players who had something that you weren’t expecting. The Gascoignes, the Hoddles, the Ardilles, the Ginolas, the Van der Vaarts. The club’s history is littered with players who ‘play the Spurs way’ and Alli looks as if he may well be prepping the engraver to begin adding his name to that list.
He’s a stylish and technically brilliant player, one who’s composed on the ball, especially for a lad of 19. Even when faced with the most awe-inspiring of players, he’s not star-struck, he’s too busy spotting the gap between their legs and one thing’s for sure, the ball’s going through it.
A prime example is his Tottenham debut against Real Madrid at the Allianz Arena. Only months after leaving his hometown club, he is thrown into the starting XI of a Spurs team, whom before he’s only seen on TV, now he stands shoulder to shoulder with them. If that’s not enough to shift a brick, he’s facing the reigning Champions of Europe with a star-studded squad. However, testament to Alli’s character and determination he was unfazed by the showpiece occasion and dealt with the job at hand.
23 minutes into his debut and it’s been a fairly close affair. Dele receives the ball in the center of the park and as it looks like he’s about to receive the ‘big boy’ treatment from Luka Modric charging in at him, he brilliantly slips the ball through Modric’s legs and continues on his way – leaving Luka rather red-faced having tasted some of his own medicine from a young apprentice. But what else could you expect from a lad whose first professional touch was a back-heeled pass, he has something unexpected and the element of surprise to put the opponent on the backfoot.
It’s clear from this piece, and to anyone that watches him play, that we can all see a bright future for Dele because of his technical and mental ability, but there’s another reason I want to see him do well. He’s simply a lovely lad. He reminds me of the early Bale days when receiving praise, keen to show his willingness to learn, grow and play for his teammates – again something breeding under the Pochettino regime.
Although not yet as famous as his Ali namesake predecessor, on the football field he’s most definitely as gracious as a butterfly, but don’t underestimate him as he stings like a bee too. If he keeps his guard up and looks for the opportunities to knock his opponents out, I don’t see any reason why young Alli can’t be a world champion himself. Plus, guess how old he is? Yeah, 19!
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