The hidden depths of Alli’s wonder strike
By the end of Saturday, it is a fair bet that anyone in the world with even a passing interest in seeing Dele Alli’s goal against Crystal Palace had done. The videos were pinging across the world within seconds, despite the efforts of the Premier League’s copyright department.
Match of the Day showed it 12 times. The peculiar internet cottage industry that consists of finding unusual things and pairing them with a sensational headline went into overdrive: “Tor des Jahres!” (Goal of the year, Germany). “Semua Puji Gol!” (All praise the goal, Indo
nesia). “Goal d’extraterrestre!” (Outof-this-world goal, France).
Less than 48 hours after the ball hit the net, Alli’s goal was no longer a fresh experience but an ossified fact, a thing that happened once.
This has consequences. Not only does the initial incredulous reaction give way to a premature ennui, but it shears Alli’s goal from its wider context. The temptation is to see those four seconds purely as an outrageous piece of skill, a moment of genius: a bolt from the blue that will launch Alli as a global star, the future of English football, and so on.
When he goes through a rough patch, as 19-year-olds inevitably do, it will be held as evidence of his inexorable decline. The point is not to play down what was clearly a wonderful goal, nor to understate Alli’s immense gifts. But even the most explosive of achievements have a genesis, a gestation. Alli’s goal did not come out of nothing. So from where did it come?
Well, evidently you need some talent, and Alli’s was evident from the moment he made his professional debut for MK Dons at the age of 16, scoring a 25-yard screamer. But talent is not enough, as Mauricio Pochettino explained. “It’s a combination,” the Tottenham head coach said. “It’s impossible to have quality and not a good mentality. This is the combination that makes a great player like Dele Alli.”
At Tottenham they will tell you that Alli is one of the club’s hardest workers and fittest players. His goal came after 84 minutes of solid run- ning against a Palace defence that had scarcely budged all game.
Yet he still had the athleticism to be in the right place, the agility to wriggle past Mile Jedinak, the strength to strike the ball with sufficient pace to beat the goalkeeper. None of this is any accident. But even that is not enough.
Talent and dedication are all very well, but you need a stage on which to perform. You need a club that looks after young players and a coach who trusts them fully. What other club of Tottenham’s size would give a teenage midfielder 30 games before the end of January?
But even that is not enough. You need a culture where young players are encouraged to try such things, even at critical moments. Would Alli have had the mindset to do what he did if he were at relegationthreatened Aston Villa, or Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United?
“We try to inspire the players, and push them to do whatever they want,” Pochettino said. “They have the natural skills to, and you need to show a professional side, but you cannot stop the quality they have.”
Then you need a pinpoint Harry Kane cross, Christian Eriksen to cushion his header perfectly and Scott Dann not to block the shot. If any one of a thousand things go wrong, that goal does not get scored. That, surely, is what makes football a far richer game than a four-second video can ever convey.