During the 2015 season when Tottenham Hotspur were still acclimating to Mauricio Pochettino and the methods of the Argentine and his staff, Spurs were going through quite the renovation headlined by a then-youngster named Harry Kane. While there were growing pains during Pochettino’s first year relating to shifting out some members in the squad, it became pretty clear that Poch had Spurs clicking and trending in the right direction. At the conclusion of the January transfer window, Spurs paid £5 to MK Dons, then in League One, for their star youngster Dele Alli. Spurs loaned Dele back to his boyhood club for the remainder of the season where he finished by winning the PFA Young Player of the Year award.
The two seasons that followed — Dele’s first seasons at Spurs — saw his emergence as of one of, if not the, most budding talents in all of Europe. Spurs beat out Liverpool and others for his signature at the time, and Dele came into the perfect situation for him that featured a youthful, talented and energizing side that was coached under Pochettino to play high-powered, pressing, attacking football.
The transition from League 1 to the Premier League almost was too seamless for Dele, as he immediately became a key figure in Pochettino’s methods and tactics. He was able to win the Young Player of the Year award for a second consecutive season, the first time in over a decade that a player had done so. That immediate successes in those first two seasons was evident in his goal contributions — 19 (ten goals, nine assists) in the 2015-16 season and 25 (18 goals, seven assists) in the 2016-17 season.
In 2017-18, Dele was played in a hybrid role playing as a mix between a second striker and a central attacking midfielder behind Kane, and he continued to excel, albeit not in the same manner as the previous season. This was a player who was then one of the best players in the league at the age of 21, doing things that had not been done by a player at his age since Frank Lampard. Special was only the first adjective to describe Dele at that time. It felt like Tottenham had perhaps the most expensive talent in the league, at his precipice.
Fast forward four years and that Dele we all remember is gone. It feels like those years are complete glimmer in the past. So, where did it all go wrong?
More recently, some have claimed that Dele made his life outside of the sport more important to him. In All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur series on Amazon, this was examined in a sit-down between then-manager José Mourinho and Dele; Mourinho stated that Dele should demand more from himself.
Since reaching arguably the peak of his career as one of the best talents in the Premier League and starting for England at the national level, Dele has absolutely made his brand more prominent with various endorsements and advertising campaigns. But many football players also have off-field personas they have grown while still being able to cope with the rigors demanded from them on the pitch.
While motivation may be a small factor, Dele’s fall from grace cannot entirely be attributed to his desire or passion, given the amount of work he has done on re-tooling his body. Prior to last season, Dele looked to be in the best shape of his life and looked determined to break back into Spurs’ side with consistency. Eventually, after three seasons of mediocrity and four different managers (including interim boss Ryan Mason), Dele was unceremoniously sold to Everton last January.
I have decided to write about this today because of recent rumors of Dele possibly joining Besiktas in the Turkish Süper Lig. No offense to Beşiktaş, of course, but surprising is the only way you can describe a player formerly seen as a generational talent joining a team outside of the top 5 leagues in Europe at just 26 years old. So, is Dele’s downfall due to the aforementioned reasons or could it be that the expectations placed on him guided us fans into thinking he was better than he was?
As we look toward the tail-end of his Tottenham career, the truth is that there a variety of reasons why Dele was and could never be again the player he was in his first 2-3 seasons.
2018-20 under Mauricio Pochettino
After an up-and-down 2017 season, Dele was quickly re-signed in October, 2018 to a new six-year deal. Almost immediately, his season was characterized by a number of injuries, mostly to his hamstrings. While Dele was a key part of the run to the Champions League final that spring, it became apparent that Spurs were in need of a squad refresh. Many new additions were brought in hoping to be part of Pochettino’s next iteration of Spurs. Key players such as Moussa Dembele, Kieran Tripper, and others had left the club or were on their way out. Spurs completely floundered out of the gate the following season as the squad just no longer felt aligned with the ethos Pochettino preached.
Spurs became much more of a long-ball side and failed to get any consistent form going. While Dele was a reliable option for Pochettino, he was deployed in a deeper role away from the opposing net. The poor form continued through the first three months of the season and Daniel Levy, choosing to bet on the players instead of the manager, sacked Pochettino in November.
2019-20 season under José Mourinho
The switch from Pochettino to José Mourinho at first looked like it would be quite impactful for Dele and gave reasoning that he could still offer plenty to the squad. 23 at the time, Dele looked rejuvenated playing for Mourinho, and was once again deployed in an advanced position. The immediate returns were fruitful with Dele once again banging in goals. As soon as that run of form got going, however, COVID-19 put a huge pause on the season.
“Project restart” — post-COVID lockdown
Dele unfortunately found himself in some interesting situations ahead of the resumption of games after the COVID break. That February, a video of Dele mocking an Asian man over the potential of contracting COVID surfaced — which once again brought up discussion of his maturity. Months later in May, he was robbed at his home via knifepoint and beaten by burglars. He came back to Spurs for the “Project Restart” games in June of 2020 and no longer was in the form displayed prior to lockdown. Spurs became a much more “counter-attacky” side and frustrations mounted between Mourinho and Dele through the end of the season. Dele was an influential figure in the dressing room at the time, and his frustrations towards the team being counter-attack predominant were evident in the All or Nothing series.
2020-21 season under Mourinho
The underlying feud between Mourinho and Dele continued at the start of the season. He quickly became a figure on the outside looking in for Premier League match squads and his opportunities were restricted mainly to the Europa League. Dele was given some more opportunities once Mourinho was sacked, but once again never established a run of form.
2021-22 season under Nuno Espírito Santo and Antonio Conte
As mentioned, Dele came back for this season looking determined to make good on Spurs’ investment. He returned to Spurs pre-season in excellent physical condition, but under Nuno was relegated to a “runner-like role” where he was deployed more centrally. Perhaps in large part due to Nuno’s tactics, Spurs’ attacking threats were extremely dull. He did put away a penalty against Wolves early in the season in a grim 1-0 victory.
Once Spurs sacked Nuno and brought in Antonio Conte, Spurs became much, much more guided by Conte’s specific patterns of play. Unfortunately, Dele was never a good tactical fit under Conte, as the Italian preferred deeper midfielders and the demands of his midfielders became much more focused on winning the ball and recycling possession. It became clear during the FA Cup match against Morecambe last season that it was just never going to work for Dele at Conte at Spurs.
Dele has been a passenger in an Everton side that has become much more concerned with their league position than their identity. Everton has been awful for two full seasons now, and, like with Conte, Dele was never a good tactical fit in Lampard’s side. 11 appearances for the club later, the Toffees look keen on moving on the former England starlet. And since he never reached 20 appearances at Everton, Tottenham are not owed any transfer fee but will receive 20% of any future transfer or loan fee if he is moved on.
Now that we have years of examples to use and different situations to compare, my take is that Dele’s fall from grace is just as much due to the situations and environments he was placed in as anything he has done on the pitch. He’s clearly been susceptible to other things in football that some players fall victims to — poor runs of form, managerial departures, injuries, off-field situations. Even so, Dele is partially responsible for his own downfall. Looking back to when he was a star at Spurs, Pochettino’s methods brought out all of the strengths for Dele and really glossed over some of the negatives in his game that would be exposed years later. It was Dele’s ability to successfully play in the half spaces and arrive late in the box that made him so resourceful for Pochettino and vital to Spurs’ attack.
As Spurs moved away from becoming that uber-attacking team, under Pochettino, Dele’s influence waned. His game never evolved to the point where he became multi-faceted. His technical ability became exposed when Spurs were no longer that energizing side under Pochettino. He was no longer able to linger around the box and make use of his movement via combinations near the box with other teammates. This was especially felt under Mourinho as Spurs transitioned to a counter-attacking style which demanded more passing. As he dropped deeper and deeper away from the opposing goal, these flaws that were covered up under Pochettino were brought out and emphasized. To his credit, he tried out a new role under Nuno, but — like many others in the side at the time — fell victim to the pragmatic, grey play style. The fall from grace continued under Conte when the Italian demanded his side to be quite technical. That uniquely talented, hungry identity mixed with entrepreneurial capability from Dele was no longer valued and as the chances and opportunities lessened, so did his confidence.
Compare that to Kane, for example, whose game has evolved in a couple different dimensions since emerging under Pochettino. On top of the goals and his continued excellence in the box, it seems that each season Kane continues to find something new in his locker. In more recent years, it has been his passing ability and his comfort with dropping deep, holding up and linking play while being the x-factor in maintaining the flow of Spurs’ attacks.
There is, of course, a motivation and attitude angle to all of this, but it is not so simple to ascribe that as a sole explanation for Dele’s descent away from being one of the best talents in the Premier League. Often, I think we all forget about a player’s psyche because we see them as footballers first and foremost. This was a player that truly had it all at such a young age. Perhaps some of it was influenced by immaturity, but there is no denying that there have been a variety of factors that has led him on his current path. Still at just 26 years old, there is plenty of time for a career resurrection. And should it happen in Turkey or at Everton, I will be a fan. Not because he was a Spurs player, but because he, like any other footballer, deserves any chance they get to prove others wrong.
Follow me on Twitter @RyanSRatty.