The rise and rise of Dele Alli
The Tottenham midfielder ended Chelsea’s 13-game winning streak with two perfect headers in Spurs’ 2-0 victory at White Hart Lane on Wednesday, which only served to shine the spotlight brighter on a player who has rapidly become one of the Premier League’s poster boys.
This, remember, is a young man who, less than 20 months ago, was playing for Milton Keynes Dons in League One. Now he’s one of the hottest properties on the planet.
Alli’s goals were both headers, as his stock continues to rise after taking the league by storm. He made his Premier League debut just 20 months ago, after joining Tottenham from MK Dons.
His transition from a stand-out prospect in English football’s lower leagues to a top flight star with international caps has seemingly been an effortless one, with the 20-year-old finding his feet from day one.
It took him just three substitute appearances, which included a goal against eventual champions Leicester, to earn a starting spot in Mauricio Pochettino’s side last season, and he has been on an upward curve ever since.
His stunning form has seen him mentioned in connection with a host of top European clubs and, just two years on from his bargain £5million move from MK Dons, and has led many experts to insist his transfer value has now increased 10-fold.
The supporting evidence is overwhelming.
As well as becoming a Premier League star, Alli has now won 15 caps at international level.
He’s scored seven goals in his last four games, has already equalled his tally of 10 Premier League strikes from last season and has scored more than any other player, under the age of 23, in Europe’s major five leagues since the start of last season.
Furthermore, he’s either scored or assisted a remarkable 30 goals in his 52 top flight appearances, since making the step up in 2015, and has outdone Premier League royalty along the way.
Alli has reached 20 goals at breakneck speed. He’s done it 22 games faster than Paul Scholes, 38 quicker than David Beckham, 88 sooner than Frank Lampard and a remarkable 117 before Steven Gerrard managed to. To even be mentioned alongside such established names at the age of 20 is an achievement. Smashing their records is something else.
Alli made his Tottenham debut as a substitute, away at Manchester United in August 2015. His first goal came on his very next appearance, as he struck for Spurs away at Leicester.
But Alli is far more than a set of statistics, however, impressive they are.
His effortless style and youthful enthusiasm makes him easy on the eye, a joy to watch and a nightmare to play against. He plays football with a smile on his face. It’s hard not to admire both his talent and his style, wherever your allegiance lies.
Despite all that, like all good midfielders, he also has an edge to his game which has occasionally landed him in trouble. Just this season, Alli dived to win a penalty against Swansea and enraged CSKA Moscow as he almost scored while returning the ball after a treatment break, in addition to the 31 yellow cards he’s picked up during his short career to date.
But Pochettino doesn’t want his young star to change his ‘naughty’ ways, and why should he, given his stunning output?
Sir Alex Ferguson has compared Alli to former Tottenham midfielder Paul Gascoigne.
Alli’s efforts in his first season saw him win the PFA Young Player of the Year award.
“Dele Alli is Dele Alli because he’s a little bit naughty,’ Pochettino said in December. “Don’t cross the line, but this is a little bit his identity,’ he added. “It’s who he is.”
Sir Alex Ferguson has described Alli as the best midfielder since Paul Gascoigne, quite the billing, but the Tottenham playmaker has proven time and again he can cope with every pressure and label put on him. He still comes out smiling.
The only barrier between him and superstardom, according to Graeme Souness, is himself. He has managed to keep his feet on the ground despite a whirlwind two years and, if he can continue to do so, the Scot sees no reason why he can’t become one of the world’s best.
The reigning PFA Young Player of the Year may have made a faster start to life in the Premier League than the best to play his position, but the quartet of Scholes, Beckham, Lampard and Gerrard sustained their performance levels well into their 30s and won major trophies at home and in Europe.
Having put himself in such esteemed company, they will now be the players Alli is judged against for the rest of his career as he looks to add the honours to match his growing reputation. That, ultimately, is what he will be judged on when all is said and done.
Whether they come at Tottenham remains to be seen.
He follows Gareth Bale as Tottenham’s great hope, a player plucked from further down the football pyramid and turned into a star. But for all the goals, highlights, statistics and memories, the Welshman left White Hart Lane trophyless as he joined Real Madrid in 2013.
Alli’s form saw him handed two new contracts during 2016, the latter of which sees him tied to the club until 2022, signalling major commitment on both sides as the club prepare to move into their sparkling new home in 2018.
It’s scary to think Alli’s peak years are still the best part of a decade away. If he can continue his recent form and remain grounded, the world really is at his feet.