And suddenly the world became aware of Dele Alli…
The problem with doing what Alli did during the Sky 4pm game is that, English football being what it is, he will now find it incredibly difficult to exist outside of his own hype. Before yesterday, those who hadn’t watched much of the Tottenham teenager were probably still wondering what the fuss was about and whether the midfielder’s reputation had been created by his own fanbase.
Not so much. His goal portrayed what a technically capable player he is and the moment suitably framed his potential: you won’t see a more seamlessly executed direct move all month and Alli’s balance, first touch and composure married with Toby Alderweireld’s long-range pass produced something really special.
It bore at least some resemblance to this goal by Marcelo Salas in 1997:
The finishes are slightly different, but each goal relied on similar qualities. In both instances, the ball is in the air for a very long time and the scoring player not only has to track it, but simultaneously stay aware of the surrounding defenders’ positions. Don’t underestimate the value of the first touch, either, because had it not been perfect - again, for either goal - then a shooting opportunity wouldn’t have existed. Just as Salas had done eighteen years ago, Alli set the ball at just the right height to volley powerfully home. It was very stylish but also very economic and because so few touches were required, Tim Howard didn’t really have the time to set his feet properly and was never really in the right position to make a save.
But Alli’s goal was just the highpoint in a performance which was generally excellent.
The graphic above (via Squawka) shows his distribution and - admittedly in a limited way - the variation in his game. Ali’s biggest virtue is not his tendency to nutmeg opponents or ability to break late into an opponents’ box, but his all-round game: he does a lot of things very well. He’s obviously very comfortable in possession, but he also has value in Tottenham’s high-press, he can retrieve the ball if needed and, as shown yesterday, his interaction with advanced players is typically excellent. More than once yesterday (most notably involving Harry Kane in the second-half) Alli created an opportunity with a one-touch lay-off and although those moments were indicative of his technical skill, they also demonstrated how advanced his attacking awareness can be. He processes the game very quickly and that’s probably the most pertinent ability an attacking midfielder can have.
He fits the system in which he operates, too. Spurs like to break forward as rapidly as possible and Mauricio Pochettino’s dream passage of play involves quickly dispossessing an opposition player and moving the ball quickly and accurately into the attacking zones. Alli is - or will at least grow to be - the perfect component within that approach because he can perform every action which it demands.
The discussion this week will be about England and you can expect the coverage to jump the shark fairly quickly (interviews with school friends, parents, silly photoshops etc) but this is just someone to sit back and enjoy. While he might eventually suffer a temporary downturn on account of the amount of football he’s played and the different level of the game he’s had to adjust to, Alli currently seems to get stronger with every touch he takes. With each passing ninety minutes he grows more bold, more self-assured and, ultimately, more effective.
For those interested, there’s a longer article on his mentality here.
For Betbright: Tottenham in January: Protection over Ambition