Dele Alli: Lose the crowd, win the game

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 13, 2018

It took only fifteen minutes for the Vitality Stadium to fall into line. Dele Alli had carried the ball up through the middle of the pitch and had been shouldered to the floor by Dan Gosling. It was hardly a serious foul, rather the sort which are given ten times a game. The whistle blows, the ball is put down, play restarts in an instant.

But this was Alli and, with confirmation bias loitering with intent, things were never going to be that simple. From that point on, he was goaded by the crowd, his every touch booed and his occasional miskicks jeered.

The pressbox at Dean Court is surrounded on all sides by supporters. Get the wrong seat, in fact, and fans will often comment on your prose as it’s being written. There’s a joy. But the value of that is in the unofficial commentary – from the fan a few rows in front who, at every game he attends, spends the whole 90 minutes in coversation with the linesman on the near touchline. And from the cluster of season-ticket holders to the left, who see every decision as an act of conspiracy and see the first errantly awarded throw as confirmation that a fix is in.

On Sunday, it was Alli – and that disgruntled chuntering was everywhere. Not just by the pressbox, but on all sides of the ground. The routine was always the same: he would do something, anything, and the catcalls would begin. Tottenham would answer with their own chant, the rising and falling “we’ve got Alli…” and then the game would carry on.

Old scouting wisdom implies that to get to know a player – to really understand who he is and what he does – it’s necessary to watch only him. Block out the rest of the game, forget the ball, and watch him at all times. It’s fine advice with Alli, too, because he’s fascinating. His literal effect on games has made him watchable for some time, of course, but there are very few players who share his on-field personality and who so obviously enjoy drawing a reaction from the crowd.

Without doubt, he loves that animosity. He would drink it in liquid form and take it by needle if he could.

Bournemouth started that game extremely well, bustling with life and pace. By contrast, Spurs began in a post-Juventus daze. When Junior Stanislas opened the scoring it was little surprise and, half-an-hour later, when Harry Kane limped from the field, anybody with memory of the club’s past knew what kind of afternoon this was going to be.

Tottenham would ultimately benefit from the forced tactical change, with a repurposed Son Heung Min scattering their defensive plans, but it was a sharpening Alli which lay at the root of their comeback. He would score the first goal, of course, and provide the assist for the second, but in between his stature within the game seemed to grow with each minute. Perhaps that was demanded by his team’s worsening situation and the obvious need to leapfrog Liverpool and stay out of Chelsea’s reach? Perhaps. But it was more personal than that. He was puffing out his chest, internalising the taunts leaking out of the stands and getting ready to respond.

Two-and-a-half minutes before he scored Tottenham first, Alli had scuffed a good chance. Asmir Begovic’s tame punch dropped to him in the box, but he snatched at the volley and the ball was cleared. The home fans loved it. Immediately afterwards, the television cameras lingered on him and his seething indignation. It was telling, then, that when he did eventually equalise, he was quicker to cup his ear to the home stand than he was to embrace his teammates. His instinctive reaction in that moment wasn’t joy. Neither was it to retrieve the ball from net and run it back to the centre-circle, maximising the first-half exposure of a wilting Bournemouth. Instead, he was energised by his own little moment of victory.

“And f—— what?”

Look at his expression in those few seconds. That’s not a player reacting angrily, it’s one revelling in the opportunity to taunt.

You see, it’s never just about the actual football with him. There’s a match to be won, but there’s also a duel to be fought and words to be rammed down thousands of throats. He’s that annoying friend who always has the perfect one-liner and who follows his put-downs with a smug smirk. Say what you like in whatever tone you wish, but he will always, always has the last laugh.

Above any other term used to describe him, Alli is mischief. The tumbling, diving side of his game draws the most attention and also the most belligerent remarks, but most of the time he’s just a pest. He’s always gently kicking the ankles of an opposing player, demonstrably complaing to a referee, or – as on Sunday – trying to steal a glance at tactical notes being passed onto the field. In fact, find that footage and watch Alli follow Gosling around the field; it was light-hearted slapstick but, naturally, the natives were furious.

The more you watch him, the more you realise just how comfortable he is as English football’s ├╝bervillain. It’s trite to say that he thrives on the hostility, because that’s hardly a novel concept, but you could be forgiven for thinking that everything he does on the field is with the intention of stoking the crowd. He wants them on his back, he wants their eyes to narrow every time he touches the ball. Where, after a few choruses of disapproval, other players would seek to disappear within a game’s natural froth, he evidently needs to feel the heat from every side of the ground. And, to be at his best away from home, he seems to need it all the time.

Football doesn’t do character studies. If it did – if it could get past all the spitting, tribal rage – Alli would pique everyone’s interest. Most commonly, he’s the boy who cried wolf and the impending great whose career is threatened by a short fuse and a tenuous respect for sporting morality. To be more refined, though, he’s the boy who needs to feel the fire. He’s the one who knows that the greater the abuse is, the sweeter his revenge will ultimately be.

That’s a fascinating personality type and one which hasn’t been seen in English football for a very long time.

Dele Alli Tottenham Hotspur
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