A fit and focused Dele Alli could be the catalyst for success Spurs have been crying out for, writes Ryan Baldi.
The return of familiar faces was the theme as Tottenham travelled to take on Wolverhampton Wanderers last Sunday.
New Spurs manager Nuno Espirito Santo was going back to the club at which he’d overseen promotion and consolidated a Premier League place for the first time since departing at the end of last season. And Harry Kane, starting the game on the bench, was set to make his return to competitive action for the first time since attempting to manufacture a move to Manchester City.
But it was another return that proved most impactful – the return to form of Dele Alli.
Exhibiting the energy, guile and ruthlessness that once marked him out as one of Europe’s most promising young talents, the England midfielder – uncapped since 2019 – won an early penalty and, with Kane yet to rise from the bench, dusted himself off to score it.
“Dele did a very good job and he worked very hard,” said Nuno after Alli’s ninth-minute spot kick was enough to secure all three points for Spurs. “He scored in the beginning of the game and in the last minutes of the game he was running all over the pitch so that shows the level of fitness that he has and the belief that he has. A huge, huge help.”
Tottenham have only lost one of their 45 Premier League matches in which Dele Alli has scored. [Premier League] pic.twitter.com/FqnQ04wxgC
— The Spurs Web (@thespursweb) August 22, 2021
Alli made just seven Premier League starts under Jose Mourinho last season. The midfielder had been a trusted regular fixture in the line-up under previous manager Mauricio Pochettino, even if his form had begun to slide in the latter months of the Argentinian’s reign.
But the Portuguese tactician coaches by confrontation and often nominates a high-profile scapegoat when taking charge at a new club as a way of asserting his ultimate authority. At Real Madrid, it was Iker Casillas. At Manchester United, it was Luke Shaw.
At Spurs, it was Alli.
The former MK Dons man fell so far from relevance that, having starred in England’s run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, he was left out entirely from Gareth Southgate’s Euro 2020 squad. Most damning of all, no one was surprised by his omission.
Just two games into the 2021-22 season, though – and with Mourinho out of the picture, having been sacked and since taken over at Roma – Alli is showing signs of being restored to his former self.
He has played every minute of Tottenham’s 1-0 wins over Manchester City and Wolves to kick off the new Premier League campaign, in which he has shown levels of discipline, drive and box-to-box energy rarely seen since the Pochettino era.
“My game has been a little deeper this season,” Alli assessed on his recent improvement under Nuno, “allows me to get in the box later which is what I like to do.”
The opening rounds of fixtures of the new season have shown that Spurs appear to have already assimilated to how Nuno wants them to operate. At Wolves, the Portuguese former Valencia boss masterminded promotion from the Championship and two impressive top-flight seasons with finely drilled defensive tactics that could frustrate even the best sides and an ability to counter-attack quickly and efficiently.
5⃣1⃣ Premier League goals for Dele Alli!
That puts him level with Gareth Bale and Christian Eriksen. Comeback season. ???? pic.twitter.com/WvhWl2Um6g
— 90min (@90min_Football) August 22, 2021
It wasn’t always pretty, but it was undoubtedly effective. And Tottenham’s back-to-back single-goal victories bear the same hallmarks.
For this approach to be a long-term success and for Spurs to claw their way back into contention for a top-four finish, a back-to-his-best Alli – with all the dynamism, creativity and goal threat from which he once forged a fearsome reputation – would be an enormous asset.
“I want to make this year one of the best I have had,” Alli said in pre-season. “A lot of people have said I need to find the form I was in a few years ago.
“For me, I don’t even want to get to that, I want to go past that and reach my full potential to be the best player I can be.
“It has been a tough few years but I have been working hard and analyzing what I need to do to get better. I have been training a lot on most days of my holiday. I didn’t feel I needed much rest, so it is just training the whole way through.
“Everyone is looking for that extra few per cent, so you have to keep up. I am feeling good and the best I have felt in a long time.”
Still only 25, Alli has time on his side, a point to prove and no shortage of determination.
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