Tottenham and Dele Alli: A curious affection

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustrations by Philippe Fenner
November 23, 2017

Eventually, Dele Alli is probably going to leave Tottenham. It’s been suggested for a long time, mainly by a media with a curious appetite for the sale of Mauricio Pochettino’s players, but most of the club’s supporters accept that it’s likely. And that’s basically fine: Alli is only in his third season with Spurs, was signed from MK Dons rather than brought through the club’s academy, and that’s ultimately how football works.

It’s even more ‘how football works’ when Jorge Mendes is the agent involved. Alli and Mendes continue to exchange shy glances across the dancefloor and that, more than any paper talk or social media bluster, is a clear indication of where the player sees his future. If he has not played for Real Madrid within five years, that would be a surprise. Mendes’s clients are mini-industries and his power and wealth comes from relocating them.

There’s no such thing as a perfect consensus, of course, and some supporters will object on principle to the idea that one of their players might leave. Others, however, while – rightly – believing that other members of Pochettino’s squad (Kane, Eriksen, Winks, Lloris) should not be for sale at any price, probably accepted Alli’s likely transience a long time ago. When the time comes, so long as Daniel Levy receives a fee fitting of the midfielder’s talent, it shouldn’t be anything like as acrimonious as previous sagas.

Part of that is instructed by the player’s personality, of course, but also by his role at Tottenham – the way he plays in relation to others.

Alli is fabulously talented. He possesses one of the most unique skillsets modern English football has ever seen. Good in the air, velvety on the floor, and capable of all sorts of technical quirks and match-winning interventions. Even now, likely years before he reaches the apex of his potential, he is inarguably one of the best players in the country. Last season alone, he scored goals against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. This year, his volley against Liverpool helped dispatch a near-rival and his double against Real Madrid was the backbone of a famous result.

In spite of recent misfires, he is absolutely a big-game player.

And yet, there’s something wifty and peripheral in his game which makes him difficult to warm to. One of the great ironies of his career so far has been that many of his goals have come in games in which he hasn’t necessarily performed that well. His swirling ballerina moment at Selhurst Park in 2016, for instance, was the gloss on a dreadful afternoon, and there are plenty of other occasions during which he has frustrated crowds for 70 or 80 minutes, only to bring them to their feet when it matters most. Tuesday’s win in Borussia Dortmund was another example: he didn’t perform that well and didn’t really even look fit, but two moments of self-conviction in possession turned a 0-1 loss into a 2-1 win.

On the one hand, it's impossible to deny the value of that kind of player. Any argument which contests his importance to Tottenham is obviously flawed. On the other, though, it's difficult to form any sort of meaningful attachment to someone who floats so elusively in and out of games.

It’s confusing. On the one hand, it’s impossible to deny the value of that kind of player. Any argument which contests his importance to Tottenham is obviously flawed. On the other, though, it’s difficult to form any sort of meaningful attachment to someone who floats so elusively in and out of games.

Alli is always going to lack emotional resonance when compared with someone like Kane. Beyond the latter’s academy status and fandom, he is relentless centre-forward thunder. Kane is seemingly willing to chase every lost cause, wrestle with every defender and leave a pint of sweat on every football pitch in the country for the Tottenham cause. He plays with a weighty chip on his shoulder and with a determinaton to make fools out of anybody who ever said he wouldn’t make it.

Alli is not like that. He’s cool and confident, gliding around the pitch and celebrating goals with that “well, what did you expect” expression that most greats tend to have. He started in a more humble place, but Alli carries himself like someone who has never been told that he might not be good enough.

The effect of that is felt in two ways. Crowds are most often seduced by imperfections – flaws which he doesn’t have. Deep within the British pysche is an enduring fondness for underdogs and unlikely heroes. He is neither. Secondly, though, the assuredness of his progress through the game creates the impression of a shooting star. Alli is not perfect and his finishing, temperament, and choice of pass may continue to occassionally let him down, but there seems little doubt that he’s heading for the sport’s stratosphere.

Maybe, then, the response to that is this emotional hesitation. Tottenham supporters have been burnt by players they’ve loved before. A year before he left for Spain, Luka Modric’s attempt to defect to Chelsea was shocking. And, while entirely predictably, the departures of Michael Carrick and Gareth Bale both stung and each came with long-term repurcussions.

Alli has arrived at a different time in the club’s history. Spurs are no longer riding on the shoulders of a single talisman and their future won’t, with the possible exception of Pochettino himself, be defined by their ability to protect a single precious resource.  He is a part of something, not the thing itself. But still, it’s difficult not to be informed by that past and to fear the trauma lurking around the corner.

This situation is defined by a confluence of factors, all of which seem tenuous in isolation. Together, though, they combine to create this curious arm’s length dynamic with a player who has been right at the heart of the club’s resurgence. He’s someone who is embraced, but not drawn too close. Greatly admired, but perhaps not quite loved as other members of this team are.

It’s a thoroughly modern relationship with a thoroughly modern player and everyone’s eyes are open.

Dele Alli Tottenham Hotspur
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