Dele Alli: Great Expectations
Fending off rival bids from Newcastle United and Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur secured a deal for MK Dons’ Dele Alli, at the eleventh hour on transfer deadline day. It is believed that Spurs paid £5million for the 18 year old, and agreed to immediately loan him back to Milton Keynes. If Alli even lives up to half of the expectations expert pundits are showering him with, then Spurs have made a shrewd investment. The question posed then is will he?
Any amateur statistician could analyse Alli’s goals to game ratio from this year and be impressed, especially considering he plays in a central midfield position. Currently sitting on 13 goals in 34 games, Alli has been a constituent part of MK Dons’ ferocious firepower – they are League One’s top scorers. It is also all too easy to watch a compilation video on the internet and get drawn into the hype. Watching these videos can make anyone a desktop scout, but these highlights are no substitution for watching 90 minutes of League One football week in week out. There is no question that Dele Alli possesses many of the attributes needed to make it to the very top: pace, physicality, passing, heading and shooting. However, what stands out most is the touches of class all too rare in some League One encounters.
This is precisely the point though. Many of the opposition Alli has faced thus far in his career leave a lot to be desired, especially considering he will be looking to break into a top Premier League side’s first team. I by no means wish to do a disservice to League One; I have watched hundreds of games at this level and many of them have provided great entertainment, some with genuine footballing quality. Unfortunately this does not happen on a regular basis. Sides towards the lower end of the table are no match for the distinctly better sides in the top six. This year is no exception and there is a vast chasm between Bristol City, Swindon Town, Alli’s Dons and the majority of the rest of the league. Therefore can we judge Alli based on what he can do against some fairly mediocre sides or should we reserve judgement for what he can do against the “bigger” boys?
On this premise, Alli has actually fared well. The “big” boys of his league are Bristol City and Swindon Town. Against the latter Alli scored in a 2-1 win, and despite a disappointing first match against Bristol City, his display in the home tie was a real advert for League One football, as the best sides in the division played out a thoroughly entertaining stalemate. This is without even mentioning his role in one of the finest moments of MK Dons’ short history – a 4-0 trouncing of Manchester United in August. Unusually for Alli and the MK Dons of 2014/15, he did not score or even get an assist against the Red Devils. Boss Karl Robinson selected him in a deeper role for this cup tie, where he was largely successful in nullifying United’s albeit inexperienced midfield. This deeper position aptly demonstrates his versatility, an invaluable asset for an aspiring player.
Of course, this argument that we can only judge players based on the standard of the opposition is inherently limited. Many top Premier League players of past and present have come from much more humble beginnings in the game than Alli. The Premier League of yesteryear contained a certain Ian Wright who started in non-league before signing for Crystal Palace. Today Palace have Yannick Bolasie on their books, who was just named in the African Cup of Nations squad of the tournament. Bolasie originally plied his trade at, amongst others, Hillingdon Borough. The current joint highest English scorer in the top division is QPR’s Charlie Austin – a former bricklayer and semi-professional at Wessex League side Poole Town. This highlights how talent can shine through no matter the league in which one plays. In fact, in some respects this can be beneficial. A player exposed to hours of physical first team football by 20 years of age is arguably more developed than a 20 year old fresh faced from a Premier League academy side. What would normally go in favour of the academy graduate is technical ability. However, Alli is technically very sound, and this coupled with this exposure to the demands of regular first team football in League One presents him the best of both worlds.
Only time will tell if Alli lives up to the great expectations placed on his 18 year old shoulders. He will see out the remainder of the season at his hometown Milton Keynes, and will hope to be a part of a successful promotion campaign before moving onto the promised land in North London. In theory he’s got it all: the attributes are there, the experience is there, the multi-million pound price tag is there. The rest is up to Alli.