D-day for Dele to define his place on world stage
The best 21-year-old footballer in the world was a title recently bestowed on Dele Alli by his manager at Tottenham Hotspur and it is the kind of judgement that tends to follow a footballer around in a World Cup year when, for better or worse, the answer will be definitive come the summer.
Certainly Mauricio Pochettino has faith in his player and Dele, as he now wishes to be known, is one of those players whom it is easy to forget is still very young – 22 next month and the youngest of all England’s likely starters in Russia bar Marcus Rashford. Like many young English talents he arrived with a fizz and a pop, neutralising Morgan Schneiderlin at Wembley in November 2015 and then dispatching his first England goal on his first England start.
By his 22nd birthday, David Beckham had five caps for England and no goals.
At 22, Frank Lampard had one cap and no goals and would not reach Dele’s current mark of 22 caps until that breakthrough game against Croatia at Euro 2004, aged 26. Even so, those international careers were long burners and if Dele is to start against Italy on Tuesday then it will be a chance to re-establish himself as a fixture in an England team where the competition is starting to look fierce
He has been around long enough now that you suspect come the build-up proper to Russia, Dele will be one of the faces of the tournament for the corporations who own the World Cup and that brings with it some considerable pressure. He is only in his third season of top-flight football, a star of the Premier League at his first World Cup finals and the pressure is relentless. Whether Dele is a certain starter for England is another matter.
For those who observed the substitutes bench at close quarters in the Johan Cruyff Arena on Friday night there was a notable lack of focus on the game among those in Southgate’s reserves. They were slow to get up when told to warm-up, if at all; some with one eye on the crowd and one player was more preoccupied with fetching himself cups of tea from the dressing room -which probably said just as much about his World Cup prospects. Certainly it was a long way from the discipline and focus that Pochettino demands of his substitutes and staff at Spurs.
That might be one reason that the Dele who came on in the second half did not look like the best 21-year-old in the world for the final 22 minutes of the game against Holland, far from it, although he was not the only substitute who played that way. He hardly needs telling that at the World Cup this summer it will be those post-hour-mark substitutes who managers will hope, Southgate included, can tip games their way when the margins are fine and heroes are made in the space of minutes.
Dele is not accustomed to being a substitute at Spurs but the England team has changed a great deal in its previous three friendlies, and Southgate’s pursuit of a 3-4-3 formation against Germany, Brazil and now Holland suggests that he is wedded to very few individuals as definite starters. Harry Kane, John Stones and Kyle Walker would most likely fall into that category, but few others. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has supplanted the undercooked Adam Lallana. Jesse Lingard’s willingness to run in behind defences is an attractive option.
It will be intriguing to see where Southgate thinks Dele is best used in an England team that currently does not play with a conventional No 10.
Southgate may play him off the left side, as he sometimes operates for Spurs. He may play him just behind the main striker as he does with Kane. Dele is a midfielder with striker’s instincts, a classic modern hybrid of goalscorer and ball-winner but he is not likely to be indulged any more or less than any other player. The combination of Lingard, Rashford and Raheem Sterling worked for England on Friday in Amsterdam and Southgate will want to maintain that system.
Dele’s goalscoring last season, 18 in 37 league games, almost one every two games over all competitions, was always going to be tough to replicate. This season he has six goals in 29 league games, and he averages one in four over all matches. The competition is getting tougher: Sterling has 15 goals in 26 league games, even Lingard has eight in the same number. Dele missed the games against Germany and Brazil in November with injury and his last goal of two for England was 17 months ago.
What has changed in recent years with England, over Wayne Rooney’s gradual decline and subsequent retirement is that there are few players who can be assured of a place in the team no matter what. Kane is probably the only attacking player to whom that applies although it does not feel like a career-long guarantee. The days when the team’s shape was adjusted to the personnel are long over and it is still possible that Dele could start the World Cup finals as a substitute.
When he turned 21 last April, he had a better combined total of goals and assists at that age than Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard and Beckham and with that has come the inevitable expectation. He has made the wrong decisions at times about staying on his feet or going to ground, but then that seems to be an affliction suffered by many of the young attacking players who come through in the Premier League.
Dele has reached stage two of the prodigy’s development, when the initial buzz subsides and the serious business of building a career begins. The rewards are enormous, but there can be no opportunity that is ignored, certainly not for England, even if it is just 22 minutes.