Dele dilemma

How does Alli best fit in to English sys­tem?

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - SAM WAL­LACE CHIEF FOOT­BALL WRITER

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 judg­ment that tends to fol­low a foot­baller around in a World Cup year when, for bet­ter or worse, the an­swer will be de­fin­i­tive soon.

Cer­tainly Mauri­cio Po­chet­tino has faith in his player and Dele, as he now wishes to be known, is one of those play­ers who it is easy to for­get is still very young – 22 next month and the youngest of all Eng­land’s likely starters 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 start for the na­tional side.

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 look­ing fierce.

He has been around long enough now that you sus­pect, come the build-up proper to Rus­sia, that he will be one of the faces of the tour­na­ment for the cor­po­ra­tions who own the World Cup, and that brings with it 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 Gareth South­gate’s re­serves.

They were slow to get up when told to warm up, if at all, some had one eye on the crowd and one player was more pre­oc­cu­pied with fetch­ing him­self cups of tea from the dress­ing room.

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 why 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, South­gate in­cluded, will hope 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 have changed a great deal in their pre­vi­ous three friendlies and South­gate’s pur­suit of a 3-4-3 for­ma­tion against Ger­many, Brazil and Hol­land re­spec­tively sug­gests that few are 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 who cur­rently do not play with a con­ven­tional No 10.

South­gate may play him off the left

‘When he turned 21, he had a bet­ter to­tal of goals and as­sists than Cris­tiano Ron­aldo’

side, where 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.

The com­bi­na­tion of Lin­gard, Rash­ford and Ra­heem Ster­ling worked for Eng­land in Hol­land and South­gate will want that main­tained.

Dele’s goalscor­ing last sea­son, 18 in 37 league games, al­most one over 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 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.

The of­fi­cial score from the Am­s­ter­dam po­lice was 100-2 – in that 100 English fans were ar­rested around the friendly in Am­s­ter­dam, and just two Dutch. Eight of the English have been held for vi­o­lence against po­lice, and 94 fined.

For those who might seek to point the fin­ger at the Dutch po­lice tac­tics, deputy chief con­sta­ble Mark Roberts, the Na­tional Po­lice Chiefs Coun­cil lead for foot­ball polic­ing, had this to say to the BBC: “The be­hav­iour of a large num­ber of Eng­land sup­port­ers was ap­palling. Any at­tempts to down­play it are wide of the mark. The sad fact is that the drunken mob’s be­hav­iour re­in­forces the neg­a­tive stereo­type of Eng­land sup­port­ers and will im­pact on treat­ment of all fans when they fol­low the team abroad.”

Stalling star: Dele Alli (right) did not look as if he had the world at his feet in a less-than-stel­lar sub­sti­tute’s show­ing against Hol­land

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