The England squad was announced on Tuesday and there was uproar on social media as Jack Grealish wasn’t included in Gareth Southgate’s 25-man squad. However, there was barely a mention of Dele Alli missing out. This is a player that started four of the Three Lions’ 2018 World Cup matches and scored in the quarter-final against Sweden. At the age of 24, he should be cementing himself in the team, but he has been out of the squad for close to a year.
The upcoming season is crucial for Alli. He burst onto the scene as a teenager, as he scored 28 Premier League goals in his first two years at Tottenham. The midfielder was averaging 0.46 goals per ninety minutes, which is incredible for a young player learning his craft in the top-flight. It was a good indicator of the huge amount of talent that he possesses and the decline since has been a little overstated.
During the previous two campaigns, Alli has contributed 13 goals and seven assists, with a goal involvement every 184.4 minutes. This is still impressive, but it isn’t at the level of his first three seasons, in which, he was involved in a goal every 87.7 minutes. If he maintained that level, he would be talked about as one of the best players that this country has ever produced.
There was always likely to be a decline, but it has been accentuated by Tottenham’s struggles as a team. The final stages of the Mauricio Pochettino era saw a decline in almost every player in the squad. Jose Mourinho spoke positively of Alli when he was appointed. There was an immediate improvement in his returns, with four goals and three assists coming in the first five matches under the Portuguese coach.
This was seen as the return of Dele Alli, but across the rest of the season, he only contributed three goals and a single assist in 23 matches across all competitions. Although some niggly injuries played a part in this, the performances and returns will worry Mourinho ahead of the new season. Following lockdown, he started only once and there were signs that the head coach was going in a different direction.
The work rate of Lucas Moura and dynamism of Son Heung-min was preferred in the wide attacking roles. Meanwhile, Giovani Lo Celso emerged as one of the first names on the team-sheet, as he offered tactical versatility on a game-by-game basis. Across three matches against Arsenal, Newcastle United and Leicester, he was used as a number ten; a central midfielder in a double pivot and as part of a midfield three.
For all of his qualities, Alli doesn’t offer the same versatility in midfield and in Mourinho’s eyes, he will be more difficult to fit in. At his best, the 24-year-old played an advanced midfield role and got close to Harry Kane in a 4-2-3-1, but the personnel in the squad doesn’t suit that set-up now.
Alli is a very intelligent player and his movement creates space for others. At his best, he takes up dangerous positions and puts the opposition defence under threat. If Mourinho manages to find a balanced set-up to start him alongside Kane and Son, Tottenham will pose a huge goal threat.
The signing of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg is designed to change the formation, with Mourinho looking to field his favoured 4-3-3 formation. The former Southampton player will anchor the midfield and Alli could partner Lo Celso in front of Højbjerg. If this is how they choose to line-up, it could free Alli to get further forward and get close to Kane. At times following lockdown, Kane was isolated in attacking areas and this formation change could rectify that.
The 2020/21 season looks to be the most important of Alli’s career to date. He isn’t in the England squad and there are doubts about his place in the Tottenham team. The talent has never been in doubt, but the 24-year-old now needs to show the mentality to bounce back from a couple of disappointing years. If he manages to do that, there is no doubt that he remains one of England’s best and a place at the Euros is still attainable for him.