He plays the game with a “joie de vivre”. At times he seems more interested in nutmegs than goals and assists. His game is about imagination and invention. He plays off the cuff and tries to make things happen.
The Curious Case of Dele
Oh, Dele. Where did it all go wrong? How did it come to this?
An undeniably precocious talent, who burst onto the scene so young and gave us moments that we are unlikely to ever forget. If this is the end then perhaps we should be thankful for the good times. But it doesn’t have to end this way. Does it?
If anything, Dele personifies the mental conflict that many of us feel towards Jose Mourinho right now. Dele is your archetypal “Spurs player”. An enigma. A game changer. Take your pick for which of his moments you want to add to the highlight reel of Tottenham legends before the game. “The trick, the flick, the 30 yard free kick.” Two out of three ain’t bad. He represents us. Or at least our perception of who we are. We are Tottenham Hotspur. And so is he.
But maybe we’re not who we think we are. Not any more. We’re currently in a state of flux – trying to adapt to a new identity under our current manager – and it looks very much like Dele has been deemed surplus to requirements under this regime.
It would be churlish to deny that Dele’s career has waned since those early halcyon days. At first many of us attributed it to an evolution of his all round game and for a while he was largely excused as he was often playing in a less suited, deeper lying role to fill gaps in a squad depleted by injuries to the likes of Wanyama and Dembele. A victim of his versatility perhaps. And then there was a hamstring injury sustained against Fulham in January 2019 that seemed to take a heavy toll. But after a while, the excuses need to give way to the reality of the situation. He was struggling in the latter days of the Pochettino reign and hasn’t enjoyed much of a renaissance under Jose.
In the Amazon documentary, we saw how Jose tried to push his buttons. At first he appeared to get a reaction but that seems a distant memory right now. Mourinho labelled him as “lazy” and seemed less than impressed with his attitude in training. The frustration is that often we have seen quite the opposite on match days. In his breakthrough seasons, he and Christian Eriksen were consistently the players who covered the greatest distance, game in, game out. Dele was often the trigger for the press and laziness was certainly not an accusation anyone could have levelled against him. You just need to get him onside – harness his energy and aggression and funnel it to your advantage. And Jose evidently hasn’t cracked the code.
I don’t want this piece to be an attack on Jose but it is difficult to separate his fallout with Dele and the suspicions and criticisms many of us have against the manager.
We know Dele’s qualities. We have seen them first hand. We know his ceiling is far above many of the other forward players in our squad. He is capable of moments of brilliance, like his flick and volley at Selhurst Park.
His movement off the ball and timing of runs into the box are truly exceptional. There are so many examples of this but my mind is drawn to the two headers he scored against Chelsea, both from Eriksen crosses, in our 2-0 win over them in the last season at White Hart Lane. Just one example of him turning up for us on the big occasion. His brace at Wembley against Real Madrid another example. Or another brace against Chelsea in our 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge, including a quite remarkable touch and finish from Eric Dier’s long pass. The stills of him cupping his ear in front of seething Chelsea fans that day is a piece of modern art I’d happily have up on my wall.
He regularly scored big goals for us in the big games. The scorer in two FA Cup semi finals and, of course, how about his impudent dink over Petr Cech at the Emirates to dump them out of the league cup. And lest we forget, he even laid on *that* goal in Amsterdam, which took us to the Champions League final.
Some may point out that these are all now historical reference points, which is true. But we have seen glimpses of the old Dele under Jose’s reign. His goal at Old Trafford last season for example, where he brought the ball down from the sky, bewildering both Ashley Young and Fred with an audacious flick, before tucking the ball past David De Gea. And in Jose’s first game in charge against West Ham, there was a moment where Dele lost his footing on the touchline but, despite being on the floor, somehow manipulated his legs in breakdance fashion to retrieve the ball and send Son away down the left flank to square to Lucas for our second goal. Jose has seen Dele’s ability first hand.
When given the opportunity in recent months, albeit against lesser opposition, Dele has contributed and shown what we all know he is capable of. He pulled the strings in the 4-0 home win against Ludogorets, including selflessly laying one on a plate for Vinicius when he could have easily finished himself. Against Stoke City we got a reminder of his link-up play with Kane and, although he didn’t get on the scoresheet, he once again demonstrated his knack of ghosting into the box; testing the keeper on a couple of occasions. And in the rout over Marine, he was the one that broke their resistance, teeing up the first two goals. Despite barely playing in months, we still saw that swagger and effortless ability on display.
There seem to have been opportunities for the olive branch of reconciliation to be held out and for Dele’s reintegration into the first team squad. Instead, Jose publicly blamed Dele for the goal we conceded against Stoke. A failed flick on the half way line supposedly left us exposed to the counter attack. Yet the ball subsequently went back to their goalkeeper before being recycled up the field. In no way was the goal Dele’s fault but he was scapegoated.
Jose seems to thrive on internal conflict and often seeks it out. The stick rather than the carrot seems to be his modus operandi. Disagreements with players at his previous clubs have been well documented – Iker Casillas at Real Madrid and Paul Pogba at Manchester United were two of the higher profile examples. For a while, Tanguy Ndombele appeared to be our pariah but that man now seems to be Dele. Dressing room harmony doesn’t appear to be something Jose prioritises, which quite frankly baffles me.
And then there’s his “bromance” with Eric Dier. The two were inseparable in the early days but our newly instated first choice centre back appears to have moved on; forming his own Portuguese bromance with the gaffer. Perhaps the most callous act of the Mourinho era has been to drive a wedge between them; whispering sweet nothings into Dier’s ear while showing Dele the door. You heartless bastard Jose. You’ll never make him feel as happy as Dele did!
I digress. If the manager doesn’t want him then I suppose we have to back the manager and reinvest any proceeds in players he does want. The lingering concern though is that we know Jose rarely lasts more than a couple of years in each job. He might be gone in 12 months and the next man might love to have someone like Dele around.
He plays the game with a “joie de vivre”. At times he seems more interested in nutmegs than goals and assists. His game is about imagination and invention. He plays off the cuff and tries to make things happen. Inevitably, some of his ideas will work and some won’t. When they fail and he turns over possession, it can be frustrating. But when they work, it can be breathtaking and could give you a moment you’ll be talking about the whole way down Tottenham High Road and long into the night. Pochettino often talked about his players needing to be brave. To want the ball and try to make things happen. What we have now is the antithesis of that. It’s about making fewer mistakes than our opponents. Quite simply, if you’re going to suppress that side of his game and make him play with fear rather than freedom then there’s no point keeping him.
The fans took to Dele immediately – we identify with the way he plays the game. His song is always one of the first to get an airing at each match, even when he’s not on the pitch. If fans were still watching in the stadium, it would be interesting to see whether we’d still be hearing his name sung by the crowd, perhaps giving Jose a message. Either way, Jose wouldn’t change, neither I suppose should he. He is single minded and ruthless and cares not for what others think. But most fans prefer their arrogance on the field rather than off it.
If nothing else, the upshot of this situation is that we lose a valuable asset, both in terms of on field productivity and off field marketability, at well below market value. A few years ago, Dele was being touted as a £100m player. Now what? Half that? A third perhaps? Daniel Levy will be all too aware.
The most regrettable thing is that I don’t even think Dele is a luxury player – it’s not a perfect dichotomy. There is room in Mourinho’s system for an expressive player who is willing to work backwards as well. It’s a sacrifice I don’t think we need to make.
I still think he’s perhaps our best “number 10” (he or Kane) but it seems that Jose has settled with Ndombele in that role. And before the pelters come in, I absolutely love Ndombele but I think there’s room in this team for both of them, with Tanguy playing in a deeper role, utilising both his ability to play progressive passes between the lines and Dele’s ability to find space.
For me, the conversation about Dele isn’t just about Dele. It speaks to a much wider debate around philosophy and what we want from our football team. It’s what we’re giving up in having a pragmatist like Jose Mourinho in charge. Losing Dele would be the first tangible example of the price we are paying for playing “Mourinho-ball” and that is where I struggle.
Replace Gascoigne, Ginola and Bale in the pre-match montage with Freund, Sandro and Hojbjerg. All cult heroes in their own right, but not necessarily who we’d pay our entrance fee to see. Maybe that’s who we are now. And maybe that will ultimately serve us well.
The situation isn’t this black and white of course – we still have some top class forwards at our disposal – but there must be a place in our squad for someone with the ability and artistry of Dele Alli. At 24, he still has at least half of his career ahead of him and conventional thought tells us that his peak years are still to come. That’s a sobering thought.
If Jose is unable or unwilling to integrate him into the squad then I think that’s a failure on his part and we have lost a gem. Time will tell whether he rediscovers his potential, either with us or elsewhere. I think there is still a very special player in there. Maybe Jose does too and has simply lost patience but, sadly, “I just don’t think he understands…”
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