Long read: Dele Alli interview – "I focus on the football; not getting wound up as easily"
Among those tactical experiments was the recent switch to a back three that helped to kickstart Dele’s season. Picking an extra central defender not only allowed flying full-backs Kyle Walker and Danny Rose more freedom to attack; it also saw Dele adopt a more advanced role than he had for much of the first half of 2016-17. He was almost playing as a second striker. Suddenly, the goals began to flow freely.
“Against Chelsea and then in a few of the games after that, I was playing a little bit higher than the No.10,” he says, then jokes: “Maybe I was a 10-and-a-half. I was still in midfield, but playing off H [Harry Kane] a bit more.” Spurs beat Chelsea 2-0 in January thanks to their midfield dynamo’s two headed goals.
The nearer he and Kane play to one another, the more goals they score. Dele started off last season in a deeper role, too, before a move forward coincided with an upturn in form for himself and the striker. Often the pair dovetail perfectly, exchanging flicks and passes that leave opposition defences with their heads in a spin. In 2015/16, Dele assisted seven of Kane’s 25 league goals – a division-high combination.
“He’s a fantastic player,” he says of Kane, his team-mate for club and country. “You know that if you play the ball through to him, then nine times out of 10 he’s going to find the back of the net. It’s an honour to play with a striker like that.
“His all-round play is fantastic. He holds the ball up and can bring other players into the game as well as score. He works so hard, too: if you do play him a bad ball, he’ll work hard to make it a good one.
“We always speak about the opposition before a game. We tell each other what we’re going to be looking to do, then try to put it into action.”
The manager showed me and Eric [Dier] clips of him when he was playing at Espanyol: some were of him scoring goals, some others were of him clattering people
But while the pair cause headaches for Premier League defences, they were unable to do adequate damage in the Champions League.
Having been drawn into a group with Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen and CSKA Moscow, Spurs were expected to progress to the knockout stages. But defeats at Wembley – their temporary home for European games – to their French and German rivals ended their hopes of staying in the competition, much to the frustration of Dele and his team-mates.
“As a kid, everyone wants to play in the Champions League so it was an honour to be in it,” he says of his first dalliance with Europe’s premier cup competition. “I used to listen to that music on TV when I was growing up, so to hear it as we lined up at Wembley felt unreal.
“We’re kicking ourselves that we didn’t do better. We are confident in our ability as a team and we probably expected to go a bit further.
“A lot of people were saying ‘the Wembley factor’ had a negative effect on us, but as a team we can’t look anywhere else – all of those fans turned up and we simply didn’t put in the performances that we knew we should have done.”
But another disappointment is more fuel for the fire inside, and Dele sees returning to the competition in 2017/18 as crucial to both his and his team’s overall development. And that’s just for starters.
“Obviously everyone wants to be there,” he says. “There’s tough competition in the Prem but we fancy ourselves against anyone, so it’ll be disappointing if we don’t get back in there. We have the team to achieve a lot of great things. We want to be up there with the best teams in the world, but to do that we have to be in the Champions League, playing against them.
“It’s important that we’re ambitious. We know where we should be, and we know what we can do as a team. When we are on form and playing well, I don’t think there’s anyone in the Premier League that can beat us. There are no boundaries; there’s nothing we can’t do if we play as well as we know we can.
“When you’re winning games but not winning things at the end of the season, it’s hard. We’ve got to learn from every game. Hopefully in the future, maybe even this season, we’ll start winning trophies.”
If he maintains his mantra of learning from every setback, then the best young player in the Premier League could soon become one of the best players in the world, full stop.
“Hopefully people can see I’ve grown up and learnt from mistakes,” he says, reflecting on how far he has come in the past 12 months. Now he just needs to stop leaving his shoes out for Hugo to destroy.
Photography: Shamil Tanna. Stylists: Rachel Gold, Daniel Rhone. Hair and makeup: Victoria Reynolds.
This feature first appeared in the April 2017 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe!