He's a player who always creates plenty of discussion, some complementary, some... not so much. Here Paul Maslin asks three questions of our young midfielder.
We’re at year’s end. Kane is still scoring oodles of goals. City have won the league. Our depth, or lack thereof, has been exposed. Levy probably won’t buy much in January. We are in a death match with two and possibly three other sides for Champions League qualification for the inaugural season at the new Lane. Our silverware prospects are down to two– and in both the best Premier League side in– a decade? a generation?–probably awaits before too much longer.
So what’s left to discuss? How about the Spurs player that causes so much discussion– in England and around the world– a veritable lightning rod for opinion of every stripe? 21 years old with the world at his feet, yet we wonder… He only cost 5 mill–and better than Ozil–but just what else is Dele? How good is he? How reckless? How committed? (I almost used the word loyal, but it’s an unfair standard to apply to young footballer whose ability to ply their trade is so finite. Fans have the luxury to be loyal, and pride themselves for it. Players must look out for themselves.
How Good Is He?
We know the upside. Judged, along with his teammate Harry Kane, earlier this year as perhaps the most valuable future commodity in English football, maybe even all of Europe. He was then still 20 and surfing on the wave of a meteoric two season rise from the depths of the Championship. In the full two seasons he had played for Spurs, the team had contended for the title in both, creating an aura around their youth, energy and promise. Dele quickly advanced to the national team with the hope that he, several of his club mates, and young stars such as Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling could lead a Three Lions revival for years to come.
And yet… England were bounced from Euro 2016 by Iceland. Dele’s performance this season has been uneven. Two esteemed year-end rankings disagreed this past week about is worldwide position–the Guardian’s panel of experts slated him 31st, second only to Kylian Mbappe for U21 talent. But FourFourTwo’s metrics, perhaps judging him based on more current production, have Dele only 83rd– just one of many young players in the pack. Surely Spurs supporters have seen both extremes (the good Dele was definitely in flower on Boxing Day) but have become less enamoured with his sloppy ball handling and, at times, selfish play. Yet there have been moments of sheer brilliance– against Real Madrid at Wembley, playing a deeper position, helping stampede Liverpool with an exquisite volley, his incisive passes against Southampton. And we have to keep reminding ourselves that he is only 21. In some ways he seems mature for his age, with his interview persona in particular. But in other ways….
How Reckless is He?
Dele is quickly becoming, in the absence of Suarez, Barton, Terry and others, the bad boy of English football. The problems started early– falling for the wind-up strategy of Claudio Yacob v West Brom in his first season and thus missing the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Things worsened last spring when a rash challenge sent him off early in our final European fixture v Gent– basically killing any chance for his team to advance. The carryover suspension left him off the squad for crucial fixtures v Madrid and Dortmund. Trouble soon returned in the form of a middle finger while playing for England aimed at someone– he claimed it was an inside joke directed at former Spurs teammate Kyle Walker, others thought it was more likely a signal to the match referee. Whatever the intent, a one game ban followed. Then near the end of the loss to Man City came the stomp at Kevin De Bruyne, which received but a caution but near-unanimous post-match comment that it deserved red. When in the next game v Burnley, Dele went in hard to Charlie Taylor (though I and some others thought he simply missed the ball and Taylor then slid into him, hardly the stuff of a stiff rebuke) and then just moments later went down to a somewhat soft challenge in the box, his notoriety jumped to at least another level. At that point the Claret fans were in full voice: “cheat”, “wanker” and worse could be heard echoing around Turf Moore for most of the next two hours.
In short, the rap sheet is getting longer. Steven Gerrard thinks this is how the lad is wired, and for Dele to restrain the emotions which figure in each of these incidents would be to lose what makes him special. I am inclined to agree so long as he is able to restrain feelings when he must– to not fall for the wind-up, to not rashly commit the foul for a second yellow, to not hurt his team at the worst possible time. The jury is out, and yet in the end, two decades ago Eric Cantona won the hearts of Man United fans despite his Kung Fu kick at a Palace fan. Because he won titles. Will Dele?
How Committed Is He?
Some Spurs fans seem to be working themselves into a “Good Riddance” mindset toward Dele. Their view seems to be that his agent change and the bright lights of Spain will cause an irresistible momentum to La Liga and its huge payday– either this summer or next. Levy will never pay him enough, so why get invested in him and all the complications? He’s leaving anyway. Do everything to keep Kane, and maybe Eriksen– but Dele is a lost cause.
They might be right. He is not an Academy product. His commitment to the team began and perhaps will end with Mauricio Pochettino’s service. Isn’t silverware part of the deal? And where will it come from?
Yet the counter view holds that this team, given its still relative youth, needs another two or three years to fully realise its ambition– to determine whether at its full flower in a new ground with the core players at their peak it can ascend to the top of England, Europe, or both. That Poch can keep the core together with him for at least that long. Many experts feel, though, that this question has already been answered by the past– Spurs are still viewed as impostors in the elite dozen or so teams that control club football, five of which reside in England. That their chairman will never alter his wage structure to narrow the gap with Arsenal or Chelsea, let alone the two Mancunian clubs; that the new stadium will create as many financial hurdles (a la Arsenal to the Emirates) as opportunities. And Dele, perhaps more than Kane, will be Exhibit A for this inevitable outcome when he leaves for greener pastures.
I prefer to believe otherwise. that the project has miles to go before we discover its true apogee. He is better than Ozil. And I just don’t think they understand.