Dele Alli played 88 minutes of Tottenham’s comfortable 3-0 Champions League win over Apoel on Wednesday night but the debate over his performances goes on. Adam Bate was at Wembley to see this latest effort and assess Alli’s form so far this season…
According to Brave New World, Mauricio Pochettino’s much-publicised account of life at Tottenham, Dele Alli was only two games into his Spurs career when the warning was issued. “It’s just as easy to take you out of the team as it is to put you in it,” he was told.
Even more prophetic is the line that follows two paragraphs later. “The danger remains, as is often the case, that he will forget what has got him to this point,” Pochettino says of Alli. Some of the Spurs doom-mongers are suggesting that time is now upon us.
Alli’s form is a concern. One goal in 11 Premier League games is the worst streak of his Spurs career in front of goal and while there was the high of his two against Real Madrid, heralded at the time as a return to form, results since have put his efforts under scrutiny once more.
His tally of three Premier League goals is actually the same as his total at this stage of last season, but it will be a huge ask to add another 15 as he did in 2016/17. And besides, Alli’s numbers for shots, passes, dribbles and losing possession are all inferior to last term too.
Asked in midweek whether he was demanding more of himself, Alli said: “I’m my own biggest critic. Every time, I know when I’m not playing well, when it’s not going well for me, and it’s important that I keep working hard to learn and improve as a player.
“Obviously, I would like to be at the highest level, in every game, every single training session, but I don’t think that’s possible,” he had earlier explained. “It’s been an opportunity for me to learn more about myself as a player and as a person… I’ve got to keep enjoying it.”
Pochettino gave Alli that chance against Cypriot side Apoel on Wednesday. With Tottenham through to the knockout stages of the Champions League as group leaders with a game to spare, it was an opportunity for many of the stars to rest up but Alli was not among them.
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“He needs to play,” said Pochettino beforehand and it seems clear he was hoping the game could be a catalyst for the player. “When you don’t win, like on Saturday, maybe you should give the possibility to the same players to play and build the momentum,” he pointed out.
Alli’s subsequent performance was no more than a qualified success. The game was won comfortably enough with Fernando Llorente, Heung-Min Son and Georges-Kevin N’Koudou the scorers. Indeed, Alli was heavily involved in the build-up to N’Koudou’s late goal.
But he was not wholly convincing. A misplaced pass here and a poor touch there. The fans offered encouragement but while the song in Alli’s honour suggests it is others who ‘just don’t understand’, it feels as if they are the ones as confused as anyone by this dip in form.
Alli’s Apoel Highlights
3 – Comes away with the ball in midfield and threads a pass into the path of Heung-Min Son whose left-footed shot from distance is pushed away for a corner.
23 – Draws applause from the crowd as he dinks the ball nonchalantly over the heads of two opponents to keep possession.
27 – Clumsy failure to bring the ball under control when facing his own goal allows Apoel to counter-attack but the opportunity comes to nothing.
41 – Put away down the right channel by Son but miskicks when attempting to cross with Fernando Llorente well placed in the middle.
46 – Shows clever movement to get in behind in the left channel but he fails to control the lofted ball and it runs out of play. The fans chant his name in support.
53 – Spreads the play left to Georges-Kevin N’Koudou but the winger’s curled shot is deflected wide off the far post for a Tottenham corner.
58 – Good skill to evade two opponents before being unceremoniously dumped to the ground, winning a free-kick in a great position 30 yards out.
67 – Attempts a turn when in a dangerous position on the edge of the Apoel box but he is too slow, the ball bouncing off him and rolling to safety.
74 – Groans from the crowd as he casually overhits a curling pass when in space and seemingly free to counter-attack in the centre of the pitch.
80 – ASSIST! Alli is the architect as he links up well with Kyle Walker-Peters down the left wing, before feeding N’Koudou who makes it 3-0 to Tottenham.
83 – Measured free-kick effort is aimed too close to the goalkeeper and is collected at the second attempt.
88 – Substituted to warm applause from the Tottenham fans as well as a handshake and brief embrace from Mauricio Pochettino on the touchline.
Discussions of Alli’s form on the field have coincided with speculation off it. He signed with a new agency this week and while there is nothing unusual about making commercial deals, the timing of the announcement encouraged easy assumptions about a player distracted.
Even Pochettino has suggested over-confidence may be a factor in his side’s form. “Maybe, it is possible that [we had] too much confidence,” he said on Tuesday. “Maybe it is possible that, in that moment after Real Madrid happened, something changed in our mind.”
But such explanations are not always the right ones and there is little evidence in the data to suggest that Alli’s work rate or appetite has suffered in any way. In fact, the number of high-intensity sprints that the 21-year-old midfielder continues to make is remarkable.
Alli has made more sprints than any other Spurs player in all 10 of the league games he has completed this season. He’s even done so in two of the four in which he was substituted. He is one of only two Premier League players to make over 1000 sprints so far this season.
It seems that he is still making the runs but is not reaping the same rewards. And given that his role is as much one of finisher as it is that of creator, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Alli is a victim of Tottenham’s dip in form rather than the cause of it.
Spurs are having to find fresh solutions and the fact that Christian Eriksen’s assist at Watford was his first since the opening weekend would suggest that teams are beginning to realise that if the supply from the Dane’s is successfully stifled then so is this Tottenham team.
Opponents who defend deep and get bodies behind the ball not only ensure Spurs are reliant on Eriksen picking the lock, but they deny Alli the space to exploit with his late runs into the box.
Perhaps it is for tactical reasons as much as mental that the last two matches in which Alli has scored more than one goal were against the current Premier League champions Chelsea in January and against the current European champions Real Madrid in October.
Spurs’ next away day is at Manchester City and another big-game goal by Alli would be a timely reminder of his talents. But first there are two Wembley fixtures – against Stoke and Brighton. Anything other than six points will add to the pressure on Alli and the rest.
“I think this can be a good experience for us in the long term,” noted the ever-optimistic Pochettino. “When you face disappointment, frustration and tough periods, it can build character. We must learn and be stronger for it.” Dele Alli has been warned.