FourFourTwo's 59 Best Under-21 Wonderkids in the World: 10-1
1. Dele Alli, 20 (Tottenham)
What a blur. Young players should always be treated with care and so, when Dele Alli made the quantum leap from Stadium:MK to White Hart Lane in 2015, it was to the sound of gentle applause. Alli had a name and a reputation, but he was a third-tier player and, in this age, supporters clamour for bigger names and want the reassurance of larger fees.
But then it began and the mood started to change. His first Tottenham season would start with cheek and impudence, but end with the Young Player of the Year award. A first Premier League goal at Leicester had warmed the coals, a classy European debut against Qarabag lit up that match, and Alli would spend that first year burning ever so brightly. By its end, everyone knew what David Pleat had first seen in him and why Spurs had worked so hard to bring the teenager to north London.
A thoroughly modern footballer, but one with anachronistic traits: Alli influences games in short, sharp doses. Rather than being a stable attacking presence, his best moments tend to appear from nowhere. He can be anonymous, but then with a flash of those feet or one of those instinctive late runs, he can change a game's texture in a heartbeat. His balletic goal against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, for instance, was an unlikely exclamation point in a thoroughly unremarkable performance. That is the Alli calling card, though, and the precious trait of a match-winner.
But if his ability is rare, so is his mind. Behind that choirboy smile lies teflon self-belief. From MK Dons to Tottenham, and then onto England within the space of year: that kind of rise doesn't happen without fearlessness, and all of his delicate technique would be worthless if it couldn't survive the pressurised air of the Premier League.
It's that capacity for expression which lies at the heart of the goals, the runs and the velvet-slippered touches. Ultimately, it's that same quality which will one day elevate him into the game's stratosphere. SSB