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Why is Dele Alli in Tottenham exile – and what is next for him?

Dele Alli
(Image credit: PA Images)

Given some of the things its executive committee of largely disgraced and discredited men who determined Russia and Qatar should host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups have done, it is scarcely FIFA’s worst act in the relatively recent past. It does rank, however, among the more surprising.

Last week, Dele Alli was named among the top 55 players in the world by FIFA and FIFPro. It prompted the obvious response that Jose Mourinho often does not consider him one of Tottenham’s 18 best. Come Premier League games and when Alli is not on the bench, it is rarely because he is on the pitch. He owed a status among the substitutes at Crystal Palace on Sunday to Gareth Bale’s absence. His cameo took his tally to 26 minutes of league football since being hauled off at half-time against Everton on the opening weekend. 

Tottenham face Merseyside opposition again on Wednesday, and normally some of the build-up would have revolved around Alli. Liverpool and Tottenham: this would have been his kind of game. He was the irrepressible scamp who seemed to get better on the major occasion. He has scored six goals against Chelsea, three against Manchester United, and two against Real Madrid, who he has only faced twice. This season his only goals have come against Israeli and Austrian opposition; he didn’t even start those matches either. He has not played 90 minutes against anyone.

It is unlikely that, as they used to, anyone will be digging out the statistics to show that Alli has more goals than Steven Gerrard at a certain age, and not least because, at 24, the Liverpudlian captained and inspired his hometown club to Champions League glory.

Such comparisons now feel intrinsically unfair, but they are the consequence of Alli’s precocious excellence. Now he feels the Mauricio Pochettino protégé stuck at the wrong club at the wrong time under the wrong manager. Jose Mourinho initially latched on to Alli, sensing his magnetism, seeming to rejuvenate him. Alli marked Mourinho’s Tottenham debut with a brilliantly improvised scooped pass when on his backside against West Ham. He scored in his second, third and fourth matches in charge.

A year on and Tanguy Ndombele appears the inverse Alli: scapegoated at first, trusted now. Alli may suffer from Mourinho’s stricter definitions. Pochettino left a lopsided squad, one which suited his fluidity and flexibility, but which had four players competing for one place in Mourinho’s preferred set-up: Alli, Christian Eriksen, Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso. Eriksen is gone, leaving Alli last in line now.

The Argentinian is a reason why Alli is not even on the bench at times: he is the third-choice No.10 in a team where, actually, his old sidekick Harry Kane assumes many of the No.10’s creative duties anyway and Son Heung-min has taken on his mantle as the other main scorer. He has been rendered surplus to requirements by old allies, newcomers and a different manager alike. Spurs’ success so far means that, in the event of a setback, there will be no outcry for Alli.

It is tempting to wonder if he is simply a great Pochettino player. Or was, given that his peak came in his brilliant, 22-goal, 2016/17. But Gareth Southgate dropped him even before Mourinho’s appointment. At 24, Alli can feel a man out of time; with the skills to operate in several positions, yet clearly a No.10 at a point when ever fewer sides field one.

That Paris Saint-Germain were interested in the summer illustrates how potent he was; that they probably looked at him as a cut-price back-up indicates the plight of the sidelined. There are few obvious destinations and certain complications if he looks for a January move: Tottenham surely would not loan him to a rival while, should Harry Winks get a move sooner, Mourinho probably would not let them both go. And so Alli, a catalyst in Spurs’ best team for at least three decades under Pochettino, may have a watching brief for much of what could prove their best season in 60 years.

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