“Could he score more goals than me? He could do.”
It doesn’t look the greatest prediction of Frank Lampard’s punditry career. But it was 2017 when he described Dele Alli as “a special player” and it was not a particularly controversial assertion. As Lampard freely acknowledged, Alli was a better player than him at 20. He had scored more Premier League goals at various ages than Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes and Lampard. He had a habit of scoring them against the best. When Alli was 21, he condemned the reigning European champions Real Madrid to defeat with a brace.
At that stage, it was easy to imagine that, if he left Tottenham, it would be for a nine-figure sum, perhaps even bound for the Bernabeu. Instead, he has washed up at Goodison Park for no initial fee, meaning it is a moot point if he even counts as Lampard’s first buy as Everton manager. He has been discarded by Tottenham, plunged into a relegation battle.
At 25, he is Lampard’s player but perhaps not Lampard’s successor. His new manager’s record of 177 Premier League goals from midfield looks more secure. Alli has 51, but only one in 22 months and none in open play for over two years. Numbers can be deceptive but goals were Lampard’s currency. At his peak, they were Alli’s, too. He felt irrepressible, bounding into the box, popping up unchecked. Just his fourth in the top flight came at Goodison Park: in January 2016, Toby Alderweireld aimed a long pass over the Everton defence. Alli controlled it beautifully and dispatched it with a volley. From the off-the-ball running to his predatory streak, it showcased his strengths. He was still a teenager but he belonged on the big stage.
Now he has come to feel one of English football’s sadder sights, out of sorts or out of the Tottenham team, overtaken by a host of younger players in Gareth Southgate’s thinking, underperforming for three newer Spurs managers after he lost form under his champion Mauricio Pochettino. At an age when Lampard was reaching new levels, Alli’s enduring slump has suggested he is in terminal decline.
Lampard clearly thinks not. If he has staked much of his future on going to Everton, given the risk of demotion, signing Alli on what was literally day one feels another gamble. And, whether or not it works, it offers an irresistible intrigue.
Lampard did not reach the heights he scaled through ability alone: arguably he had less of it than Gerrard and Scholes. His understanding of his, and the, game helped him become so potent. His brief managerial career suggests he can prosper with kindred spirits, with attack-minded midfielders. Harry Wilson has an eye for goal, but has never scored more than nine in a season: except in Derby’s 2018-19 campaign when he got 18 for Lampard.
Mason Mount is the flagship success of his coaching career, an emerging figure Lampard believed in more than perhaps any other and who ended up being Chelsea’s player of the year in a Champions League-winning campaign. The paradox may be that the one shortcoming in Mount’s game was the lack of a Lampard-like ruthlessness in front of goal; otherwise, the new Everton manager has been richly vindicated. It can be forgotten amid how awful his season at Arsenal was but Willian excelled for Lampard in 2019-20. It is perhaps easier to remember that he struggled to get the best from Kai Havertz, though Thomas Tuchel has had some of the same difficulties.
If Alli has just left a club where others, from Giovani Lo Celso to Tanguy Ndombele, sometimes coveted the same role, he has joined one where Lampard has also signed Donny van de Beek, who can play in similar parts of the pitch. But it is notable that Lampard described Alli as a second striker years ago; perhaps his immediate future lies playing off Dominic Calvert-Lewin, with the Dutchman deeper. Maybe he won’t see Alli as a No. 8 who is a stranger to the box, as Nuno Espirito Santo seemed to. The chances are that he will at least attempt to use his greatest attributes in the final third.
Alli’s issues have not been just tactical; the last three years seem to have stripped him of his enthusiasm and incorrigibility, the cheekiness that reached its expression in nutmegs and improvised flicks. He was a player Jose Mourinho first latched on to, picked and encouraged but soon dropped and disparaged. Now his manager is Lampard, who elevated his game to a higher plane under Mourinho but whose initial faith in Mount drew criticism from his mentor. It can be a relatively small footballing world. For Alli, the former world-beater who Tottenham may have given away, his new manager is proof of what goalscoring midfielders can achieve. But over the last couple of years, Alli has not been the new Lampard as much as the anti-Lampard, the potent midfielder who lost his way and the route to goal.
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