Dele Alli has become a pressing monster this season while continuing to carry a goal threat. Fans of opposition clubs are readily whipped into a seething frenzy by the mischievous Spurs player but they may have to set aside tribal allegiances as he becomes England’s most important player through the next decade. His unique, still developing skill set could challenge what is expected from a modern midfielder and help progress the way football is played.
In the three and a bit years since making his Tottenham Hotspur debut it feels like Dele Alli hasn’t stopped. He’s clocked up almost ten thousand minutes of Premier League football. He’s scored forty league goals. Thirty-six of those goals, along with twenty-five assists, came in his first one hundred games in the top flight – making him faster out of the blocks than illustrious predecessors such as Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. He’s got thirty-three international caps for England and scored in the World Cup earlier this year. He glides, shark like, across pitches. Not stopping. Sniffing out space. Smelling blood. He can seem to be on the periphery but is rarely peripheral. He’s picked up back to back PFA Young Player of the Year awards. Almost every weekend he’s let that cool smirk play across his lips, baiting opposition fans. He’s arrived with impeccable timing in penalty boxes over and over again. He’s played the pantomime villain: nipping in to steal away second balls, the crowd warning in vain; “He’s behind you!”. He’s been performing in big games since his North London derby debut as a teenager.
Lately, such as against Leicester, he has impressed in games when key teammates are rested. The twenty-two year old’s insouciant nature with the ball at his feet belies his full pelt race towards progress as a player. Is he a goal scorer? A raumdeuter? An elite disruptor? A ball progressor? A do-it-all 10? As top level goalkeepers and centre backs begin to contribute more to attack and attackers are expected to be able to defend is Dele part of the next evolution? What even is an attacking midfielder in 2018/19? Is he England’s most modern player – a multi-functional, protean midfielder?
This season Dele has really dialed up the amount of pressure he applies to opposition players. It has been effective, resulting in a huge amount of pressure regains for his team. On average Spurs win the ball back over five times every single match within five seconds of Dele pressuring an opponent. Players with elite destructive traits such as N’Golo Kante and Sergio Busquets are forcing fewer pressure regains than that this season. Dele is also attempting almost twice as many tackles compared to last season and, impressively, is winning almost three quarters of them. His leggy build and masterful powers of anticipation are a tough combination for opposition players especially in tight areas during moments of transition. As well as disrupting opponents, Dele reduces the pressure experienced by his teammates. He’s a great out ball – receiving the most passes when under pressure in this Spurs team. Once he’s got the ball he doesn’t just shift responsibility onto someone else in a similarly tough spot. Out of the entire Spurs squad he only plays the sixth most passes to a teammate under pressure. Interestingly this is quite a change from last season. When it comes to applying and relieving pressure Dele really seems to be developing.
This season there are also small upticks so far in terms of pass completion, deep progressions and xG per shot. On the downside the number of fouls won by Dele has almost halved. That might be due to tactical changes, or it might be a knock on effect of his reputation as a diver preceding him or it might be further physical and mental developments aiding him in evading challenges. Either way an interesting change to keep an eye on given how significant a decrease it is. Also decreasing since last season are the amount of shots he has taken – not an uncommon theme among Spurs attackers – and the amount of chances he has set up.
In terms of Dele’s own shooting this may indicate further evolution. It looks like he is making smarter choices given the comparative lack of low value efforts from outside the box. A quick caveat would be that each of his league goals so far this season have been headers. It’ll be worth keeping an eye on whether he can generate as many close range attempts with his feet throughout the remainder of this season as he has in the past. For now though his xG per 90 is similar to that of last season and he’d probably be on track to score into double digits this season if not for his hamstring injuries through September and October. All of this adds up to a seriously dangerous player. There are not many other players in the Premier League that help win the ball, progress it into dangerous areas and then provide a goal threat quite like him.
Dele’s limited Champions League minutes show a brighter picture this season in terms of chance creation. As Spurs acclimatize to a more possession oriented style in the Premier League and work to develop more controlled methods of progressing the ball into the final third it may be that Dele gets the opportunity to provide more opportunities for his teammates. Certainly there is no question over his ability to do so. The question is really: what can’t he do?
Many people still think of Dele as just a goal scorer. Or just an attacking midfielder. Clearly he’s now showing he has elite talent on both sides of the ball. That’s already a special skill set. Given his youth it is fair to think that there may be even more to come.
As basketball becomes a positionless sport, running backs evolve or die in the NFL and baseball shifts infielders from their normal locations so too are changes afoot in football. Ederson is playing no look passes. Allison is clawing headers away from the top corner before launching counter attacks. Thiago Motta is talking about 2-7-2 formations. Frenkie de Jong is dribbling out of defence, into midfield, and willing opponents to press him. Hybrid wing-forwards like Mo Salah are moving centrally. Centre forwards, like Tottenham’s Harry Kane, are sometimes not the tip of the spear. Fullbacks are a key attacking weapon. Attackers are the first line of defence. What about midfielders then? If Dele is any indication then the very best might just get very, very good at almost everything.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw
Your multi-level-marketer cousin is probably wildly misunderstanding what progress is while quoting Shaw on LinkedIn to eulogise their sociopath boss right now. However, Dele could be inspired by the same words to adapt the football world to himself. Progress in terms of how midfielders play may depend on football itself evolving to suit the will and skills of Dele and other similarly multi faceted young players such as Naby Keita. Whether what he does leads to him being called a midfielder, an attacking midfielder, a free 8, a do-it-all 10 or some other newfangled hybrid doesn’t really matter. Keep in mind that Dele dispensed, to an extent, with his own birth surname. This ultra modern footballer will be coolly winding up opponents, making decisive contributions on both sides of the ball and changing the game over the next decade. Maybe just avoid sticking him out on the left wing like Paul Scholes.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association