Viewing football matches through the prism of individual players can be a mistake. Often poor individual performances cannot be divorced from the context of a team’s performance and collective problems. Spurs have turned in three stodgy performances in the league so far this season, though they do remain unbeaten which could be seen as a good sign. Some pundits have focused on the travails of Harry Kane and Dele Alli, neither of whom have scored a Premier League goal. The pair were an integral part of an effervescent Spurs unit last season, but have struggled to make the same impact this term. Though Alli was very lively after coming off the bench for England against Slovakia, his performances in a Spurs shirt have been scrutinised.
It is important to understand what Alli can and can’t do. Though he is a multi-talented midfielder with tremendous scope to improve further, he is not a player who gets involved in the intricate business of building attacks from deep. In his three league appearances so far this season, Alli has made just 89 passes. You would typically expect a midfield player in a possession based team such as Spurs to get close to that total in 90 minutes. He is an ‘impact’ player, who wants to be on the end of attacks in and around the penalty area rather than constructing them in their early stages.
This is not to say that Alli is a player without great technique or skill, but Pochettino does not want him getting bogged down in the middle of the pitch getting too many touches of the ball. Moussa Dembele is the conduit through which Spurs move from defence to attack, and the Belgian’s absence due to suspension has really held Spurs back. Christian Eriksen likes to drift inside, and he and Dembele were the twin conductors of Spurs attacking play, allowing Alli to focus on what he does best. Alli needs the freedom to make runs past the striker without the ball, and put all of his energies into making the final pass or shot on goal.
Alli relies on having players around him who can look after the ball, which became all too apparent during the European Championship this summer. England do not possess the equivalents of Eriksen or Dembele which resulted in Wayne Rooney acting out an unconvincing impression of a midfield playmaker by way of compensation. England struggled to shift the ball through the three thirds of the pitch quickly and effectively which meant they had difficulty breaking down deep-lying defences. Both Kane and Alli were starved of oxygen and endured disappointing tournaments.
Spurs fans might not like this comparison, but Alli is very similar in style to Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey. The Gunners have found it difficult to find a role for Ramsey where he is not stifled by tactical responsibility with and without the ball, and England and Spurs face a similar challenge with Alli. Wales gave Ramsey a free role in the Euros, either behind Gareth Bale or alongside Bale behind Hal Robson-Kanu, and the Arsenal man was outstanding. Many will say Alli is best in a ‘No 10’ position, but he does not play this role in an orthodox way. He is not a player who is always available to receive the ball between the lines, in the mould of Mesut Ozil or David Silva, but a player who wants to run into goalscoring positions just like Ramsey.
The return of Dembele will benefit Alli immensely, though the situation at international level is much more complex because of England’s lack of ball-playing midfielders. Alli is one of England’s brightest prospects, but he is not Superman and has strengths and weaknesses like any other player. He is not at his best when playing in small spaces in the middle third, he wants the freedom to play on a much bigger canvas. He will not, for the short to medium term at least, be a midfielder who completes 100 passes per match and dictates the pace of a game. Alli needs at least one ball hoarder in close proximity of him so that he can wreak havoc further up the pitch.
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