Perhaps Dele Alli is just unfortunate but it seems Nuno Espirito Santo has reached the same conclusion as Jose Mourinho and decided this Tottenham team is better off without him. It is just the latest problem for the one-time wonderkid of English football.
Alli played 90 minutes in the Europa Conference League defeat to Vitesse. Just like last season, he now finds himself on the Thursday night rota. He was an unused substitute in Tottenham’s last two Premier League wins. Another opportunity is passing him by.
The statistics are well known but perhaps worth revisiting for those who might now wish to portray his talent as having been overblown. His impact on the Premier League after joining Spurs from MK Dons was dramatic and the numbers underline that point.
Alli ranks sixth on the list of players to have been involved in the most Premier League goals before turning 22, just ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo, Romelu Lukaku and Raheem Sterling.
Frank Lampard was 26 when he scored his 50th goal in the competition. Alli was just 23 – the same age as his Tottenham team-mate Harry Kane, the man being tipped by many to break Alan Shearer’s record of 260 Premier League goals.
“I thought he was a young Roy Keane in terms of his mentality when I first started working with him for England,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports when reflecting on Alli’s gifts.
“Aggressive, box-to-box, could score a goal, was nasty, could take the ball, make a pass, he seemed to have all the qualities you would want in a football player.”
But the longevity, the records that looked set to tumble, no longer seems likely let alone inevitable. It is almost three years now since Neville first suggested there was a problem, imploring him to rediscover his hunger. The struggle has lasted as long as the success.
What has gone wrong remains a matter of conjecture. Keane himself has talked of distractions off the field, Alli forgetting what made him so good in the first place. What is a matter of fact is the numbers no longer look as impressive as they once did.
When he scored 22 goals in all competitions in the 2016/17 season, that set the standard but he has not scored that many in the last four seasons combined. His last Premier League goal not scored from the penalty spot was against Norwich in January of last year.
Alli might point to a lack of opportunity. After being hooked at half-time on the opening weekend of last season, Mourinho only picked him once in a Premier League game thereafter. But Spurs coach Ledley King has offered a more worrying explanation.
“If you asked Dele he would say that a lot of that was down to himself and his application towards things,” King told Sky Sports. “He went away in the summer, worked hard, and he wanted to come back this season and really impress. He has found it difficult.”
Nuno’s appointment brought the chance of a fresh start and Alli did not miss a minute of the first five Premier League games of the season. But he was withdrawn at half-time against Arsenal at a time when Spurs had conceded nine goals without reply.
The Premier League team, as opposed to the reserve line-up consigned to Arnhem, has looked better ever since. Oliver Skipp has come in to form that double defensive pivot alongside Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg in midfield and it has brought a modicum of control.
In defence of Alli, for all the talk of a lack of appetite, he actually covered more ground than any Tottenham player in each of those first five matches of the season. Perhaps the intensity is not what it once was, but the statistics suggest he is getting around the pitch.
The problem, as it is perceived by those who have worked with him, like Neville and King, is that he is being asked to do his work in the wrong areas. That puts an emphasis on other traits and Alli has never been an elite distributor of the ball. It is not his strength.
“He has got to get back to doing what he was doing,” says Neville. “He has got to simplify his game. He was an instinctive player who recognised that his job was to get into the box on every attack, make that run into the box from deep, running past Harry Kane.
“He is now basically getting involved in build-up, thinking he is a player and he is not a player. He is not a Thiago or a Jorginho. Do not get involved in the build-up, Dele. He has got to remove himself from the build-up and get involved in the game in the final third.”
It is not just Alli’s goal return that is down but his entire output in the final third. He is shooting less, creating fewer chances and having fewer touches of the ball in the opposition penalty box. At 25, his is a game trending in the wrong direction and that predates Nuno.
Being asked to take on a No 8 role of late might not have helped, of course. Perhaps conscious of his own reputation as a cautious coach, it was an attempt by Nuno to find a way to play Alli and Tanguy Ndombele alongside only one holding midfielder.
It did not work because it left Tottenham without a solid base and no build-up play to their game. The feeling persists, as articulated by King, that Alli must be used further forwards.
“I personally think his best role is as a No 10 where he can attack the box, we know he has got great energy, he has got an eye for goal, that is his strength and that is where we want to see him. We have got to find a position that suits him and gets the best out of him.”
Yet, that No 10 role was precisely where he was deployed against Vitesse. Harry Winks and Giovani Lo Celso were the deeper-lying midfielders, the formation mirroring that of the first team. This was a chance to show he could compete with Ndombele for the role.
It was not good enough, a performance laced with loose touches, an unconvincing press when out of possession and little threat inside the area. Alli has taken to hanging back when crosses come into the box. The runs beyond the forward have long since ceased.
It made for a sad sight and does little to persuade anyone at Tottenham that Alli is worthy of a recall. The outlook is bleak as he heads back to the bench against West Ham. The seemingly forlorn hope he can one day return to his best wanes still further.