On Tuesday, Dele Alli turns 21.
I start with his age because youth is so easy to overlook in successful sportspeople. Of the 172 players to start 20 or more Premier League matches this season, Alli is the youngest. That is a statistic that jumps out from the page, demanding to be repeated.
In fact, it isn’t even close. Hector Bellerin ranks in second and is 13 months older than Alli. In eighth on that list is Nathan Redmond, but Alli will not turn the same age that Redmond is now until May 17, 2019. The first clutch of Premier League regulars comes with those born in 1993, meaning Alli is three years ahead of the curve. He will still be eligible for the PFA Young Player of the Year award in 2019/20.
Alli is not just competing in the Premier League, of course, but thriving in it. While Mauricio Pochettino deserves immense praise, and possibly even awards, for re-energising the squad after the slump towards the end of 2015/16, Tottenham’s form is a team effort. Yet within that close-knit, unified structure, individual brilliance flourishes.
By any measure Alli’s output is astounding, not just among English peers but across the world. The youngest player to score more than 15 goals in La Liga this season is 29, in the Bundesliga 27, in Ligue 1 25 and in Serie A 23.
Alli has managed it at 20, and done so from attacking midfield. There is no doubt that he has benefited from a freer role afforded by the cover of at least two of Eric Dier, Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele, but the point still stands. Alli has managed 40 goals and assists combined before his 21st birthday.
Yet statistics only offer a shell. There is a swagger and panache to Alli’s game that is deeply endearing (and, it has to be said, incredibly marketable). He is slight, skillful and quick of thought. This is, to resort to cliche, a player who you would pay to watch with a ball at his feet in the park. Football has increasingly become a Very Serious Business, but Alli has that glint of the street footballer that makes his progress so intriguing.
MK Dons manager Karl Robinson recalls introducing Alli to journalist Michael Calvin after a training session. “Dele spat his chewing gum out, caught it on his knee, kicked it into the air, caught it back in his mouth and carried on walking,” Robinson says. The word he used most often to describe his player was “cheeky”.
Consistency, both in on-pitch proficiency and off-pitch choices, is generally a trait that comes with age, but Alli is re-writing that rulebook too. Tottenham have had to cope with injuries to Erik Lamela (who has missed 22 league matches), Danny Rose (13), Harry Kane, Mousa Dembele and Toby Alderweireld (all eight), but only two players have managed more minutes than Alli. Every professional football player plays better in some matches and worse in others, but Alli’s performance range is smaller than most.
There are flaws, of course. Graeme Souness may have professed to enjoying seeing Alli plant his studs into the leg of Brecht Dejaegere, but that is an archaic and, hopefully, minority opinion. Alli will miss half of the group stage in the Champions League next season, and the challenge merited that punishment.
Like any other 21-year-old, there are moments of temper and frustration. Unlike most 21-year-olds, his are played out in front of a live audience. The key will be harnessing the annoyance, as Wayne Rooney managed to do under the guidance of Alex Ferguson.
Alli could not have found a better mentor and counsel than Pochettino. There is a paternal tone whenever the Tottenham manager speaks about Alli that is lacking in discussion of other players. It would be distasteful to remark on Alli’s broken relationship with his own father, but Pochettino at least fills that void in a professional capacity.
“It’s true, yes my relationship is good with him,” said Pochettino. “He is a really, really lovely person and that makes us very happy because he’s enjoying his football. I remember after a game many people criticised me, killed me, killed him and time has shown we are right to support him. To give love, because he is so young.”
Hearing those words, it is is easy to wonder what might have happened to Alli at another club. He was close to joining Liverpool, but may have struggled under the weight of expectation. He was wanted by Newcastle, but would have been found an unhappy home in a relegation-haunted team. Would he have struggled to gain regular football under Jose Mourinho, or had complacency fester under Arsene Wenger? Or, perhaps, talent always finds a way.
That is all moot, because Alli found the perfect manager at the ideal home to nurture and embrace his personality and ability. He found like-minded teammates and coaches, a club committed to sustainable improvement without succumbing to the glitz and glamour and intent on putting faith in youth. Alli avoided much of the inglorious countdown to his footballing coming of age by developing in MK Dons rather than Manchester United. This is the blueprint for nurturing a young player.
Yet if Alli thought that he can avoid the extremes of the English sporting disease forever, he was wrong. On the eve of his 21st birthday, the unhelpful comparisons finally arrived. Jamie Redknapp said that he had eclipsed Paul Pogba and could become one of the greatest midfielders of all time, while a BBC Sport article mused whether Alli was ‘better than Lampard, Gerrard and Beckham combined?’ The front page of the Daily Mirror’s football pullout shouted ‘GERRARD + LAMPARD + BECKHAM = ALLI’. It is as if the dam has burst. Let the fantastic comparisons begin!
There is an understandable reticence amongst many to shower any young English player with significant praise. You only have to examine the responses to any journalist or writer who lauds any domestic sportsperson under the age of 25 to witness the accusation. ‘Same old story, build them up to knock them down’.
It is a charge of which many have been guilty. You would struggle to find two more different personalities than Paul Gascoigne and Tim Henman, but both suffered from the same fate. For so long in British sport, the worst thing you could show was potential because failure to match the hype became a crippling disappointment. The last generation had grown up on a diet of sporting glory, and we wanted to be fed.
In football, the urge to resist hope becoming expectation is particularly strong. Having been bitten by the World Cup ‘86, Italia ‘90, Euro ‘96 and then the Golden Generation, supporters and journalists are now several times shy. Expect the worst, and then anything else is a lovely surprise.
We must find a balance, however. ‘Expect the worst’ might be a face-saving mantra, but it risks underestimating those who do offer glimpses of a bright sporting tomorrow and is just as unhelpful as the ludicrous comparisons. It would be a pretty miserable existence if we deliberately shunned excitement and hope for fear of what might be around the corner. If you aren’t going to enjoy the destination, at least enjoy the ride.
There is English football’s handbrake in a nutshell. Most stay quiet, not wanting to tempt fate. A few write their predictions of grandeur on an albatross and hang it around the necks of young players. The rest of us desperately try and cling to the words nobody really wants to hear: ‘Wait and see’.
What is certain is that in Dele Alli, Tottenham and England has a special talent, one that we must cherish rather than chide. It’s impossible not to think of the potential destination of such a talented 20-year-old, because to wonder is to dream, but let’s enjoy the present rather than dwelling for too long on the future, positive or negative.
In any case, Alli has all that mapped out too. “I’m extremely grateful for everything that’s happened so far, but I’m still just looking to improve,” he told FourFourTwo last April.” In the next five years, I want to be a regular starter for England and I want to win the Champions League with Spurs.” I dare you to doubt him.