Dele Alli: A flawed genius


As humans, we are obsessed with succession, and with creating links between the past and the present.

I’ve heard in recent months that Conor McGregor is ‘the Muhammad Ali of MMA,’ and Ben Woodburn’s first goal for Liverpool earned him comparisons with Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler.

It’s a topic which is discussed brilliantly by Ronan Mullen on this website, while he assesses the rise of  British boxer Anthony Joshua.

This is not a new phenomenon. The Romans were so taken with the works of Homer that Virgil decided that Romulus and Remus – the founders of Rome – were descendants of those who escaped the burning city of Troy.

We strive to make comparisons and links between past and present, and football is no different.

Fans, pundits, managers and the media are overly eager to proclaim each new promising player as the next Steven Gerrard, or the next Frank Lampard, so it was little surprise to find Dele Alli being compared to the former last season.

The 20 year old made an instant impact in the Premier League last season after joining Spurs from MK Dons, and won the PFA Young Player of the Year Award in the process.

The midfielder bagged ten goals and seven assists in his debut season at White Hart Lane, and played a crucial role in Spurs’ ultimately unsuccessful title tilt.

Alli struggled to perform during Euro 2016, but has shown signs of returning to his best form this season. In typical fashion, the English media have wasted no time in proclaiming that Alli is the future of English football.

It is possible that the weight of expectation and comparisons to former stars is more a hindrance than a help, but Alli needs to learn to behave accordingly under the spotlight.

He is the closest thing to Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard’s English successor. He has a long way to go to come anywhere close to the level of those midfielders, but there are elements to his game which he needs to stamp out,

Alli received a three game ban last year for punching Claudio Yacob in the stomach, and was extremely fortunate to escape punishment after a naughty off the ball kick against Fiorentina in the Europa League in February, after which Mauricio Pochettino admitted that the youngster has a lot to learn.

Those hot-headed moments, however, are more forgivable than other elements which have crept into his game.

After a difficult few weeks, Spurs returned to winning ways on Saturday with a 5-0 drubbing of Swansea, and Alli was at the heart of the majority of Spurs’ good play.

However, the English international found himself attracting attention for all the wrong reasons.

His shameful dive won Spurs a first half penalty, which Harry Kane converted to put the hosts 1-0 up. The dive was blatant, and Alli was criticized by several pundits for his actions.

It goes without saying that Alli is far from the only player in the league who dives, but it’s not the first time that the fiery midfielder has courted controversy. He has been booked for simulation before, and has been accused of doing it on more than one occasion in recent weeks.

Alli is earning an unwanted reputation, and it’s something which former Spurs midfielder Jermaine Jenas feels Alli needs to nip in the bud:

“Bale went through a little phase at Spurs where he was diving a lot, and he had that situation where referees weren’t giving him anything anymore, and that’s probably what’s going to happen to Dele.”

Such incidents will detract from Alli’s good play, and the last thing the youngster needs is a reputation as a cheat. 

Of course, his situation is not unique.

Alli’s idol is Steven Gerrard, who freely admits that he lacked maturity in his younger years, and was involved in several similar episodes. Despite the convenient comparisons, Alli has a long way to go to emulate Gerrard, who matured into a world class midfielder and a natural leader.

The Premier League is a steep learning curve for any young player, but the expectations on Dele Alli’s shoulders will mean that he attracts more attention than most.

He just needs to let his football do the talking.


David Smith