What went wrong for Dele Alli?
Young footballers failing to fulfil their potential is nothing new, but in the case of Dele Alli, there is an extra sense of what might have been.
Once English football’s golden boy, Dele’s career is now drifting into obscurity. At 27, there is still time to salvage something from it as he battles an injury at Everton, the club who appeared as a last-chance saloon when they signed him from Tottenham in January 2022, only to loan him to Besiktas a few months later. His time in Turkey was suitably forgettable, summing up a fall from grace that should stand as a warning for anyone who thinks that breaking into the elite is enough. In some ways, that’s the easy bit; the challenge can be staying there.
It would have been difficult for Dele not to believe his own hype at some point along the way. His early career was all rise, beginning in League One with MK Dons before Spurs won his signature in 2015. If he or anyone thought there would be a bedding in period, or Dele would get lost in the system as so often happens when talented players move up the divisions, they’d be mistaken. Dele was a mainstay for Tottenham in the 2015/16 and 2016/17 campaigns, scoring 28 goals in 70 league games as Spurs genuinely went close to the league title.
Dele was a different breed of midfielder; he was extremely technical, but not explosive or full of flair and pace like many other in his position. He was compared to Frank Lampard because of his goalscoring exploits. His timing was excellent, but he used his physicality to his advantage, becoming a real threat in the air. In short, he has everything to get to the very top. Every summer for four years, Spurs were fighting tooth and nail to keep him at the club.
Son Heung-min and Harry Kane have become one of the most revered partnerships in modern football in the years since, but at the time it was Dele and Kane who were Tottenham’s key men under Mauricio Pochettino. The next season, nine league goals followed; it wasn’t progress, but that couldn’t be taken for granted and the fact it perhaps was at the time spoke volumes about his talent. Spurs dropped off as a team, never really recovering under Pochettino or the subsequent managers. Dele, though, fell further than most.
The decline wasn’t obvious, then. He still played a crucial role for England, for whom he’d become a key player, at the 2018 World Cup. On the run to the last four, he scored a crucial header in the quarter final win over Sweden.
Jose Mourinho replaced Pochettino in 2019 and his love of Dele was clear. Insight from an Amazon documentary showed as much; in a conversation with chairman Daniel Levy about how to revive Dele’s career, he stated that Sir Alex Ferguson suggested he sign him for Manchester United. A more famous clip from the documentary, this time a conversation between Mourinho and Dele himself. In it, he’s warning him that life moves quickly and he shouldn’t take his career for granted. The clip has resurfaced lately after Dele’s return to Everton.
Initially after Mourinho’s arrival at Spurs, Dele hit some form. He scored in the first game at West Ham and there were glimpses of his best form. But it soon passed and he began to drift again, featuring less and less under the Portuguese coach.
Dele left Spurs eventually under Antonio Conte, but he should have gone a lot earlier. He never really recovered his form after Pochettino left and now it feels like he never will.
Chances have come and gone for Dele to get himself back on track and now it feels like he never will. He was a player who could have done what he wanted, but now he’s having to come to terms with what might have been.
His career must stand as a lesson to everyone coming through. Even being the next big thing at Premier League level doesn’t mean your career can’t go backwards without the right approach throughout.