Nearly four years into his Tottenham career it’s very easy to forget Dele - who asks not to be referred to by the surname of his estranged parents - is still only 23 years of age.
Purchased by Tottenham as a teenager in early 2015, his transfer was intended to be that of a prospect. Initially loaned back out to MK Dons to complete his final season, he was then expected to be slowly introduced to first team experience at Spurs. One for later. He came off the bench for the first few fixtures and quickly impressed, earning a starting place away at Sunderland and has been considered a must-pick player by both Pochettino and fans since.
English, expressive, flashy, naughty and quickly moving forward from a midfield role into a more advanced one - while still often carrying a midfield label - plaudits came pouring in from all angles. Dele was a near over-night megastar, immediately making his England debut and scoring. For a brief period of time, he perhaps shone brighter than even Harry Kane. Given this timeline to date it seems as if fan perception around Dele has never been lower than it is now. Last season was, by all reports, a quiet one for him and pre-season drew criticism - even boos. Now, just as Spurs are putting together a squad worthy of the club’s ambitions, Dele is missing out on the party with injury and disappearing from fans’ hypothetical line-ups.
He is certainly not new to criticism. His first two seasons would often see him largely uninvolved in games - even destructive towards Spurs’ efforts in possession. Regularly, just as the calls came in from commentators and crowds alike for him to be subbed off, he would pop-up in the right place at the right time to score. Comparisons were made to Thomas Müller and Dele was labeled with the German’s self-described role; Raumdeuter, which translates to space-investigator. Brilliant off-the-ball movement remains his greatest attribute. The 2017/18 season did make for a developmental milestone. Dele, coming of age, was now consistently a positive contributor in possession and with 7.9 xG Assisted (at 0.23p90) he began to have a significant creative output. As his return on assists rose, his goals did decrease, but one made up for the other and all was well.
Then came 2018/19. With absolute linchpin Mousa Dembélé, aged, injured and then sold, 18/19 beame the season of the midfield crisis. The effects on Dele were twofold. Firstly, he was moved deeper into midfield a near dozen times; often mid-match. In this role, the one he played for The Dons, he not only made up the numbers but helped alleviate issues Tottenham were having defensively, in terms of physicality and in ball progression. However, he was no longer freely scoring goals and so his stock fell. Fans may well have recognised this excuse for him but for the fact that being quickly returned into a more attacking position, failed to return him to goal-scoring form.
Due to Tottenham’s midfield issues, even when Dele was freed of build-up play and defensive duties, he was still starved of the midfield platform and quality passes that had fueled him in the previous season and so he remained somewhat ineffectual as a goal-scorer. This is echoed in the attacking drop-off seen with both Kane and Eriksen too. Further, one of the ploys used to salve a lack of control in midfield was switching to a centrally congesting 4-3-1-2 (or Diamond) shape. This meant Dele, even when playing as the number 10, was still only the third most advanced player on the pitch, when in previous seasons, he was behind - and in fact often running in ahead of - only Kane. Add into all these mitigating circumstances two lengthy injury spells - Dele missed a total of 22 all-competition games in 18/19 - and for most fans, this was his poorest season.
Radars on both relevant templates capture some of that trend into a more supportive role. Fewer touches in the box alongside less of the activities that tend to go on in and around it - shots, assists, dribbles, drawing fouls. Meanwhile a greater focus on safety - higher pass %, fewer turnovers - while significantly increasing defensive work in both pressures and tackles to the point of putting him in the world elite for defensive forwards. But it’s hard to argue these radars don’t also suggest a regression in general quality too. Along with his touches inside the box falling, between seasons, from 8.9 to 7.7, Dele’s passes into the box also dropped from 2.1 to 1.7 but his ratio of passes that were forward remained consistent at 17%, so they were still happening somewhere. This is accounted for by his deep progressions rising a small but certainly not insignificant amount from 5.4 to 5.8.
A deeper look at where he’s making his carries of the ball and their length really underlines the change in roles - regardless of position. In 17/18 a moderate number of short quick carries through midfield - predominantly in the left channel. In the final third, a huge amount of, often productive, carries into the box and work in the wide areas. In 18/19, with a change in what the team is in need of, a big increase in both the number and length of carries from his own half - now much more spread across the midfield area.
Conversely The final third is much more sparse for activity. There’s a lot less in the width outside the box. Carries in this zone are shorter and there’s only a single deep carry leading to a key pass on the books for this season. Under inspection there’s a suggestion here that most of his final third work, in 18/19, is being done when arriving late into attacking areas, rather than working in a back-and-forth creative combination with others that can be seen in 17/18.
All this points to Dele molding his tools into a slightly, importantly, different role. This adaptability is of course a skill in of its own, but it also suggests a continued diversification of what he can offer his team due to the proximity and crossover between these roles. It remains not unfair to criticise, or at least be disappointed by, his attacking output for last season based on where expectations were for him. There’s no crazy swings of variance going on here either, Dele was pretty much matching goals and assists with his projected numbers in both sampled seasons. However, there are some very positive signs. Both in the development and diversification of his skillset last season and in the promise that comes with Tottenham’s investment in midfield, that allows Dele to return to a more attacking role, and do so in a more capable side.
There is suddenly competition for attacking and midfield places at Tottenham in ways there never have been during Dele’s time at the club, but, if he can get on to the pitch and marry ‘midfielding’ growth with his attacking legacy he stands to make yet another great leap forward just as he is being counted out.