Why Dele Alli could take on a strange new role at Tottenham this season

Dele Alli Tottenham

Perhaps an experiment was ended after its greatest success. As squads get bigger, one section of Tottenham’s is smaller. Harry Kane is the sole specialist senior striker left. There is no Vincent Janssen, belatedly sold to Monterey more than two years after his last Spurs goal. There is no Fernando Llorente, whose final strike for Tottenham went in via his arm and hip, eliminated Manchester City from the Champions League and facilitated a surge to the brink of European glory.

There was a case for calling Llorente, whose four Spurs goals included efforts against Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund and City, the ideal cover for Kane; a bit-part figure turned big-game scorer. Kane’s understudies were first underused, expensive adornments to the bench, yet while now his injuries can feel an annual affair, a month or six weeks on the sidelines usually caused by his dodgy ankles, the position seems to have been abolished.

Instead, it is Dele Alli who is sidelined now, probably missing the start of the campaign (opens in new tab) with a hamstring injury. And yet it is tempting to wonder if Kane’s sidekick could double up as his deputy. In one sense, there is no vacancy. Spurs may have the best of both worlds, abolishing the role of the back-up striker at a point when they have two prolific wingers who can excel through the middle.

Son Heung-min has 59 goals in three seasons. He can seem more liberated and more lethal in the England captain’s absence. He scored in four consecutive games during the first of the Englishman’s spells on the treatment table last season.

And yet Lucas Moura emerged as his most spectacular stand-in, his treble against Ajax taking Tottenham to Madrid and his own tally to 15 goals for the season. If Spurs can get the best part of 40 goals from wide men who can operate infield and finish like centre-forwards, no wonder the substitute striker feels an endangered species.

But there are reasons to believe Alli could have a secondary role as the alternative to Kane. The profile of Spurs’ squad has changed: fewer out-and-out forwards, more midfielders.

Alli was deployed deeper at times last season, partly because of Spurs’ injuries – but Tanguy Ndombele’s arrival changes the equation. It is not merely his £54 million fee, the ball-carrying capabilities that make him the belated replacement for Mousa Dembele or the sense he could be a cornerstone of the side for a decade. It's that he joined after breakthrough years for Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko when, contrary to many expectations – including his own – Christian Eriksen remains at White Hart Lane, and when there is the possibility of Giovani Lo Celso being added to the midfield mix.

In short, if Mauricio Pochettino uses a midfield three, he has so many options that Alli may be found in the front three. His goal return has declined, from 22 in 2016/17 to a mere seven last year. He has recognised a need to remedy that shortfall. “I want to bring them [goals and assists] back into my game,” he said last week. At a point when Eriksen has retreated deeper, to act as the playmaker, Alli could be shifted further forward.

If Spurs are short of strikers, they scarcely have a surfeit of wingers. Erik Lamela apart, the quality alternatives to Son and Moura are few and far between. Plus, lacking full-backs as dynamic as Kyle Walker and Danny Rose were three seasons ago, it is more imperative they have pace on the flanks.

It all suggests a Kane-less forward line could feature Son and Moura flanking Alli as a false nine with a difference; a runner from deep who could enable a fluid formation whereby the wingers are sometimes the most advanced figures, but with the aerial ability of a target man. For all the comparisons to Frank Lampard that have long surrounded Alli, he may have a sideline as the new Llorente. 

It is only a theory, albeit one advanced by his deployment at times in pre-season, but that combination of heading, finishing and pace could render him the replacement when Kane is out.

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Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.