The terminal decline of Dele Alli: Countless opportunities squandered at Spurs means January cannot come soon enough

Jim White
·3 min read
Dele Alli looks frustrated - SHUTTERSTOCK
Dele Alli looks frustrated - SHUTTERSTOCK

Thursday night was not a good one for Dele Alli. As Tottenham laboured against a tough, organised, resolute Royal Antwerp side, for the third time in just four starts this season the England international was substituted at half-time. And it is hard to argue that a visibly furious Jose Mourinho was wrong to replace him.

Alli drifted through the first 45 minutes almost entirely peripheral to the action. His only memorable contribution was at one point to advance with the ball into Antwerp territory and attempt to play Carlos Vinicius through on goal. But his pass was woefully under hit and easily read by the Belgian team’s defensive organiser Ritchie De Laet, who intercepted and strode upfield leaving Alli adrift and on his heels. It was a moment that seemed to sum him up: at 24, the age he should be running games, he appears instead to be running on empty.

Dele Alli plays a poor pass - GETTY IMAGES
Dele Alli plays a poor pass - GETTY IMAGES

The decline in Alli’s form has been stark. Two summers ago he was playing in a World Cup semi-final, a critical part of Gareth Southgate’s England team. But since then, like his colleagues that night John Stones and Jesse Lingard, a player apparently central to club and country has gone into reverse. 

And his decline now appears to be terminal. It is hard to see him starting another game for Spurs, even in the Europa League. Not least because tactically he has no place in Mourinho’s pattern of play. A No 10, playing off the front man, Alli’s best days were under Mauricio Pochettino, when his role was to provide the ammunition for Harry Kane to fire. Mourinho prefers Kane to be his own No 10, the plan to link him up playing just behind the pacey wide men Son Heung-min and, when he returns to full fitness, Gareth Bale. With three defensively-minded midfielders playing behind that trio, it is impossible to see where and how Alli might fit into the manager’s plan. Especially given that he has now so clearly squandered the opportunity to demonstrate his indispensability.

And there was opportunity there. In his press conference ahead of the game, Mourinho had talked about the pain he experiences when he leaves someone like Alli out of his side.

“Every time I don’t play a player, I feel very hurt,” he said. “I feel very sorry because they work so hard.”

Jose Mourinho is furious with Tottenham's performance after the match - GETTY IMAGES
Jose Mourinho is furious with Tottenham's performance after the match - GETTY IMAGES

It is safe to say, after watching him perform so abjectly, the manager will no longer be quite so uncomfortable making his selection decisions. Asked directly what he thought about Alli’s performance after the game, Mourinho tried to remain unspecific. 

“I don’t want to analyse individually,” he said. “What I expect from the players, especially when you are a player with ambitions to be a first choice, to start every match, you have to show. It is an obvious thing. I like to think that the players deserve an opportunity, we have a big squad, it is my responsibility to give them opportunity. But it is also their responsibility to catch the chance with both hands.”

For all his attempts not to personalise, Mourinho could not have been more direct. He was talking about Alli even as he claimed to be speaking in generalities. Not least when, sounding ever more like a disappointed headmaster chastising an underperforming pupil, he concluded his observations with this telling analysis. 

“You always ask me why this player or that player is not playing. Now maybe you know the answer. After tonight my future choices are going to be very easy.”

The hard truth is, under the current management, Alli is unlikely ever to reclaim his pre-eminence at Tottenham. For him, January cannot come soon enough.