Dele Alli is a player of supreme quality. His role in the growth of Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham cannot be understated, and it has led to him becoming a certainty in England’s line-up.
Alli has won consecutive PFA Young Player of the Year awards as well as appearing in the PFA Team of the Year in the last two seasons. He is 21 years old, he has 21 full England caps, and has scored more Premier League goals than any other midfielder since the start of 2015/16.
The explosion of hype around Alli has been relatively limited. His Spurs team were in the shadow of Leicester in 2015/16, and his form in 2016/17 was perhaps not given its true credit as Spurs outperformed Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Manchester City to keep pressure on Chelsea late into the season.
Alli is seldom mentioned alongside Ousmane Dembele, Kylian Mbappe, Marco Asensio and Gianluigi Donnarumma as one of the best young players in Europe. Marcus Rashford, Gabriel Jesus and others with comparatively minor track records enter the fray, but Alli’s quality is perhaps forgotten.
His role is not as a creator like Asensio, an electric winger like Dembele, or a match-defining shot-stopper like Donnarumma. Alli will not be dominating highlight packages very often, his play is not focussed on individual moments of skill, sublime passes or devastating acceleration. It is about movement, smart touches and intelligent decision making.
Dele Alli’s productivity makes him one of the players with the greatest potential of any under-23.
Ranking footballers – particularly those who operate in different roles – is an impossible task. Comparing Gianluigi Donnarumma and Rashford with any sense of objectivity is challenging at the very least. Same would go for Daniele Rugani and Leroy Sane or Joshua Kimmich and Presnel Kimpembe.
Defenders do not enter the conversation very often, even if Rugani, Kimpembe and Kimmich are going to play significant roles in three of Europe’s best teams this season. Attacking players attract attention, but Alli is a relative exception to this. His productivity should make him one of the players with the greatest potential of any under-23, yet he is a cog in Pochettino’s perfectly built Spurs machine, and therefore forgettable in a Lilywhite blur.
For sheer excitement value, Mbappe or Dembele are kings of the under-23s. Their blockbuster summer transfers only add to that Hollywood angle, and the two Frenchmen will continue take the world by storm. Rashford’s confident ball-carrying and penchant for vital goals make him the great hope of English football, while Jesus’ stunning Premier League arrival is fresh in the mind. Alli’s brand of diagonal runs and opportunistic finishing is comparatively bland.
However, the former MK Dons man is one of the best under-23s around. It is a rare moment when an English youngster is underrated, but what Alli has done and continues to do deserves widespread plaudits. His effectiveness – albeit in a less glamorous second striker role – should not be ignored. Very few players at his age are contributing on such a frequent basis to a team competing in the upper echelon of a top European league.
Dele Alli is often at his best when he is hardly noticed?
Defenders are often at their best when they are hardly noticed. There are similarities with Alli. Some of his best performances have been without a goal, an assist or a viral piece of skill. His link-up with Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane has been a cornerstone of this Spurs team, and that justifies recognition in itself.
The list of exceptional under-23s is long. Several have been mentioned already, but there are plenty of names who could be thrown into this gifted mix. Alli, however, has proven over the past two seasons that he has the potential to be the best of the lot. Few have delivered performances and numbers like the Spurs midfielder has since his arrival in the Premier League, and he continues to grow under the ideal manager.
Not the most exciting nor most sought after, Dele Alli perhaps suffers from overfamiliarity. No league is publicised like the Premier League, and it is hard to get quite so enthralled by players who you see so frequently, and so frequently perform.
Gareth Southgate and Pochettino are well aware of Alli’s quality. Although, it may take a Champions League run for Spurs or a dazzling World Cup for England for that to be truly appreciated amidst a freakishly strong upcoming generation.