There was a moment during Tottenham’s 3-1 victory over previously unbeaten Chelsea last November that was quintessential Dele Alli.
With the hosts boasting a 2-0 advantage thanks in part to Alli’s opener, the England man and Jorginho nearly came to blows. The Italian midfield metronome was Chelsea’s new toy and the on-pitch embodiment of Maurizio Sarri’s tactics. For the first time in his relatively fresh spell in the Premier League, Jorginho was frustrated. Alli was not, and his self-satisfied grin was inescapable.
Accustomed to outpassing teams, Jorginho had a shadow in a Spurs shirt cloaking his every move. The near-brouhaha at the hour mark preceded a rash yellow card challenge on Alli a dozen minutes later that was emblematic of Jorginho’s grievances.
It was Jorginho’s worst performance of the season to date, and one of the best by the Mauricio Pochettino-era Spurs. Tottenham played a mature contest that was smothering, stifling, and disruptively annoying, and Alli thrived in displaying a devilish demeanor.
His showing in the Chelsea match offered a reminder of the virtues of a talented player who excels while playing on the edge. While some footballers are rattled by the heightened emotions associated with borderline tactics and deliberately leaving a foot in, others – like Alli – shine.
Sadly for Spurs, those performances have been few and far between.
Up until a fortnight ago, Alli’s milder displays were synonymous with a Tottenham side at a crossroads. Toby Alderweireld and Christian Eriksen had one foot out the door amid their respective contract impasses, defensive cornerstone Jan Vertonghen had fallen out of favor, and Spurs shockingly sat 14th, six points clear of the drop and in the bottom half in November for the first time since 2014.
Alli had become comparatively tame in disposition and a once-inspired Spurs team lacked bite.
Then Jose Mourinho was appointed to replace Pochettino, and almost immediately, Alli regained his vexatious mojo.
Before his dismissal, Pochettino said the return of Dele’s mean streak could help. “It’s still there inside of him. We spoke with him about improving different areas, but, for sure, the devil is going to appear again. I don’t know when, but for sure it will,” the Argentine predicted in October.
Alli repaid Pochettino’s faith in part with the crucial 86th-minute equalizer against a winless Watford that somewhat saved Spurs’ blushes during a rough stretch. It was Alli’s first goal since January 2018, and he scored his second of the campaign two weeks later in the draw with Everton.
Still, something was amiss.
In October, a Sky Sports panel featuring blowhards Roy Keane, Graeme Souness, and Gary Neville claimed Alli was “half the player (he was).”
If only it was that easy to accurately assess a player’s form. Even the emergence of advanced metrics in football has, at times, come at the expense of intangibles. Expected Goals and player radars have value, but so too do those abilities that are harder to measure.
Heart, gumption, and attitude matter, as do ambition and belief. These things can’t be tracked or outlined on a heat map, and Alli is at his best when he tables these intangibles with a side dish of piss and vinegar.
Hamstring issues dating back to the World Cup haven’t helped the 23-year-old’s case, nor have Alli’s deviations from a central attacking force during the latter stages of Pochettino’s celebrated reign. Once a marauding source of spirited attacks and tough tackles, Alli appeared to be a docile version of his former self.
Under Mourinho, that seems to have changed.
Alli is reborn under the touchline tactician whose own cantankerous and sometimes troublesome code matches that of Tottenham’s star No. 20.
From a tactical perspective, Mourinho is an ideal tutor for Alli. Often maligned as a defensive-minded manager, sides constructed around creative attacking midfielders are in fact a Mourinho hallmark. Spurs have thrived with Alli at the center of an attacking midfield three.
In the 3-2 victory over West Ham on Mourinho’s debut, the 37-time capped England international was bookended by Heung-Min Son and Lucas Moura in support of Harry Kane. Alli was irrepressible. He assisted Son’s opener, paired four successful tackles with countless menacing runs on the heels of Kane’s shadow, and played on the edge.
Alli was again the central showpiece of a 4-2-3-1 formation in the Champions League against runaway Greek league leaders Olympiacos days later, and again, Alli was stellar. He was the Swiss Army knife Tottenham have lacked since Mousa Dembele’s departure. He might play a different position than the Belgian, but he has a similar impact. Three tackles, a pair of successful aerials, and a goal highlighted Alli’s versatile performance, which drew frequent “oohs and aahs” from those in attendance at Tottenham’s opulent new ground.
The embrace and smile Mourinho and Alli shared when the latter was subbed off late was a testament to two people with a similar ethos enjoying their football again.
If the victories over West Ham and Olympiacos were a glimpse of Alli’s best, the 3-2 win against Bournemouth on the weekend was the calling card of an otherworldly player.
Alli’s villainous smile was on full display as he ripped the Cherries into a pulp. Again a source of contributions in front of goal, the Man of the Match honoree scored twice and completed seven successful dribbles in an infallible performance. It was his first two-goal outing since January 2017 and earned his third standing ovation in a week.
His second goal showcased all of his talents: pace, close control, strength, and the composure to apply the slickest of touches while heavily marked. It was his best performance for club or country in what seems like an eternity.
For Mourinho, Alli is again playing the way that’s expected in a spot on the pitch that maximizes his talents. “He plays in a position where he feels happy and comfortable,” Mourinho said post-match. “We also give him space for his creativity which he always has.”
Next up: a trip to Old Trafford to face Mourinho’s former employer Manchester United. The script writes itself.
Alli’s technical skills pair with an at-times devilish demeanor to craft the profile of a footballer who’s at his best when playing with a confidence and braggadocio that can verge on volatility.
“Sometimes players being a bit naughty makes that difference,” Pochettino said about Alli.
Pochettino knew what was needed to bring the best out of Alli, and Mourinho has manifested it. It’s early days, but it makes sense that a player whose footballing ideologies are so harmonious with those of his manager would shine under the new gaffer’s tutelage.