Dele Alli didn’t score against West Brom. Weird. But he did provide that audacious assist for Harry Kane’s hat-trick goal. A piece of mastery, from an artist brimming with confidence. Not that he’s normally lacking; the prince of the nutmeg.
He didn’t score against Aston Villa either. And yet his impact after his introduction on the hour transcended merely scoring goals. The crowd had demanded his arrival, much like they had with Kane against the same opponent over two years earlier. Alli’s appearance at the expense of the insipid Vincent Janssen lifted a flat White Hart Lane. An inspiration, a level above all others on the pitch, with an authority reminiscent of Gareth Bale when the Welshman stalked over the grass at N17.
This rank of all-conquering game changer had been built over just the previous four games. The boy from Milton Keynes had propelled himself back into the forefront of the minds of pundits and fans alike. The midfielder re-writing goal scoring statistics. The man who had conquered Chelsea. Over the Christmas period, Alli had whipped up an aura and belief that permeated through the weakened team he joined against Villa and with every silky turn or pass against West Brom.
Suddenly, Alli is the once more the saviour of English football. All hail the architect of Tottenham’s rise to second. Now, of course, the papers tell us that the vultures are swooping in. The prodigy is back on form and so must soon be off to sunny Spain.
It wasn’t long ago that we were being told Alli was lacking the same impact that had launched him into the footballing stratosphere last season. He wasn’t scoring as much, he was trying too many tricks, he’d lost his focus. In fairness to the Match of the Day and Soccer Saturday panels, this was not just a media witch-hunt.
The disappointment came from within as well as outside. A natural consequence of looking for answers as to why the team that had so brazenly generated such joy and hope in the previous campaign now stuttered. It is obvious to look at the boy wonder and question what had changed over a single summer. He was meant to be England’s biggest prospect after all, so what’s the problem?
That’s why the recent rush of goals and confidence has been so welcome. Not just because it massively contributed to the upturn in Tottenham’s fortunes or the fact that Alli is once more delivering upon his tremendous talent. It’s that this run of form invites fresh patience and perspective. Patience that was all too quickly disappearing towards the twenty-year-old.
The perspective came from the stats that dominated football social media and television. His heroics against Chelsea meant Alli had taken just 52 Premier League games to reach twenty goals. Paul Scholes had taken 74; David Beckham 90; Frank Lampard 140 and Steven Gerrard 169. There are always small caveats with comparisons like these – in this case mostly to do with the positions of each of the players mentioned in their early careers. Still a staggering fact though, one that quietened any questions, as if his recent form hadn’t done that already.
After an extraordinary first season in the league, we expected Alli to immediately push on. Many failed to realise quite how remarkable his rise had been and how much growing he still had to do. Some poor, sometimes anonymous, performances had raised questions about whether he was that good at all, whether he needed dropping. Yet Alli kept playing, kept nicking the odd goal and here we are at twenty in the Premier League.
Perhaps we’d over-inflated our own estimations. A summer of reflection on an ultimately dejecting season had perhaps led to a slightly rose-tinted view of the better memories. Alli had been far from perfect. Incredible, but not perfect. For large parts of last season too, he would go missing. His headline moment, that special goal at Selhurst Park, came after 84 minutes of ineffectiveness from the then teenager.
His talent is one that creates spectacular moments. From the first taste of his appetite for nutmegs against Luka Modrić and Real Madrid on last season’s pre-season tour, to his immaculate first touch and finish against Everton, to his first England goal against France at Wembley. And that goal at Palace. He does not, however, have the capability to consistently dictate games. Not yet.
He’s shown glimpses of that too. His debut North London Derby was Alli’s game. He bullied and feinted, bossed and flicked. But for the most part last season, he needed the ammunition supplied to him, often through his partnership with Kane or the creativity of Christian Eriksen. The same was still true against Chelsea this month, with Alli once again making his mark on a game he had only flirted with influencing thanks to the brilliance of the Dane’s delivery.
Alli had never been the midfield dominator that some seemed to expect him to be this season. There is no doubt his form was suffering in the early stages of this campaign, but it had not been as exceptional a drop-off as it was often made out to be.
The stats and the flurry of goals provided a shock to the system. Perhaps we had expected too much too soon. Seventy games fewer than Lampard, you say? He scored a fair few in the end. Perhaps Alli’s not slacking as much as we thought.
The goals will dry up again. Alli will be trying over-complicated tricks rather than simple passes again. When it does happen, the critics will likely be more forgiving. At least those from within.
For now, let’s hope he can carry it as far as it will go. He has the invincibility of a young man riding a wave of confidence and enjoying every second of it. That aura has defenders scared. If they man mark Kane, Alli will take advantage. If they worry too much about Alli, Kane will pounce. That’s our privilege right now. Who knows where it could take us?
There will surely be quite a few more peaks and troughs in form yet. The likely destination for Alli still seems destined to be the top. He is only twenty, after all. Shit. He’s only six months older than me. Yeah, he’s doing alright really.
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