There was a fascinating moment during Tottenham Hotspur’s 4-1 shellacking of Liverpool at Wembley on Sunday; a moment made all the more so by the fact it didn’t involve Harry Kane gorging himself, flesh‑eating zombie-style, on some poor dawdling defender, Son Heung-min leading another brutal counterattack or any of the other stuff that took up most of the highlights reel.
Midway through the second half Emre Can came chugging through the centre circle with time to look up and pick a pass. Except, something else happened. Dele Alli had been caught upfield chasing a break. As he sprinted back he skirted around Can’s left side, stretched out a leg and removed the ball from Can’s stride with surgical precision. In the same movement Alli spun through a full circle and began to dribble back the other way.
Nothing much came of it. Tottenham were 4-1 up in any case but it was a stunning little moment of total midfield play. Probably not the kind of last-ditch positional band-aid you’d want your central midfielder pulling off in every game but as a piece of athleticism, skill and basic talent-arrogance – the conviction that yeah, Germany international, whatever, you’ve got this bloke – it sounded its own elite footballer klaxon.
Some sports people can do this. Watching a certain kind of cricketer there are times where suddenly the boundaries just seem too small, the opposition too human-scale, an entire contest thrown out of shape by one player’s skill and power. Alli is not finished yet, is still working out how best to apply his own wonderful talent but when he plays as a central midfielder – as he did when he first broke into the Spurs team and has too seldom for England – it is hard to avoid these glimpses of a potent future.
This may or may not be Mauricio Pochettino’s broader plan. The deeper role against Liverpool was brought about by the needs of the team. Pochettino had chosen to stick with the fast-breaking style that seems to suit more possession‑based opponents and the topography of Wembley. In this system it makes sense to have the speed of Son ahead of Alli. A corollary of which is that Alli’s craft and power are seen in that deeper position, often to great effect.
Alli had a good game on his return to the team. He scored a spanking goal. He covered a lot of ground, effortlessly, and passed well. He even had time to produce that party piece “flip-flap” close to the touchline, pirouetting with flypaper control away from Can, who had a tough match. More significantly perhaps, Alli also made more interceptions, blocks and tackles than any other midfielder on the pitch.
This will come as no great surprise to Spurs fans. Alli often played in central midfield when he first came into the team, the more progressive half of the double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 alongside Eric Dier or Moussa Dembélé. The switch to 3-4-2-1 moved Alli up the pitch more regularly, to brilliant effect. Last season he scored an astonishing 22 goals.
Again, no surprise here. Alli is a wonderful footballer, a player who can basically do anything on a football pitch, but he has other gears too. As Paul Pogba’s price tag shows, in modern football there is a rarity value to a player of his gifts operating in that all‑purpose midfielder role, and it is here Alli looks a thrilling prospect at times.
English football does have a history of pushing its better players forward, in search always of more tangible impact. Two England matches spring to mind in this regard, also two of the most impressive performances of the past 20 years. In Munich in 2001 England beat Germany 5-1 with Steven Gerrard playing as a supremely athletic, telescopically aggressive deep midfielder alongside Paul Scholes. England never started a game with that same central midfield again.
In March last year England also beat Germany, this time 3-2 in a friendly in Berlin. On that occasion Alli played as a supremely athletic, telescopically aggressive deep midfielder. He hasn’t started in the middle since for England, who went to Euro 2016 three months after Berlin and fell to pieces, lacking most obviously a ballsy, driving high-class central midfielder.
No doubt this tendency is in part to do with a lack of confidence in the talent available, the assumption that greater defensive “insurance” – an inferior, less ambitious player – is required in central midfield. Gerrard was plonked back into deep central midfield but only when the necessary snap and speed and agility had gone, and found himself exposed at times by its demands.
Pochettino can hardly be accused of a lack of boldness, just as the evidence of Wembley is that Alli will still score goals from deep, and may even prefer to attack with space in front of him rather than with his back to goal. Either way he looked refreshed. It has been a tricky third season for Alli as a first‑team regular, with a few snags to be untangled, some adolescent gripes to be overcome. Before Sunday he had not scored in the league since the end of August and had one assist this season.
Again this is no great surprise. Alli has taken a different road to this point. A sporting adolescence spent outside the clone army of Premier League academy products is one of his strengths, but it will come with a little rawness. Pochettino’s management has been the perfect balm to this, a combination of bristly paternalism and an invigorating faith in his players’ talent.
There are only pluses here for Tottenham. The one element Pochettino wanted to add to that hard-pressing team of the past two years was tactical variation. That he should find it by drawing greater depth and range out of the best young English player in the league is another intriguing subplot.
The Guardian Sport