The Return of Dele Alli and His New Midfield Role

dele Alli

Dele Alli was back amongst the goals for Tottenham on Sunday, earning a penalty before subsequent dispatchment. He has delivered two solid midfield performances to start the season, and can once again be counted as a first-team starter.

But it is his ‘reinvention’ as a deeper centre midfielder that has many excited with the changes. Even from a more withdrawn attacking position, the thought of Alli performing at his best again is a tantalising prospect.

The welcome return of his flair and vision is one thing. But coupled with a more rounded acumen, replete with defensive responsibilities, the new Dele Alli could blossom into a key part of Nuno Espirito Santo’s Tottenham team.

The Return of Dele Alli and His New Midfield Role

Athletic Enhancement

In the past, it was almost a certainty that Dele Alli would be substituted off before full-time. That came in a more advanced position under Mauricio Pochettino, with fewer defensive responsibilities. And yet too often, he faded physically, his creativity seeming to excuse poor cardiovascular longevity.

From his early performances this season, there has been a marked transformation in his physicality. His stamina has improved, lasting the whole 90 minutes in a more exerting position. But the role he has been asked to fill has seen his strength physically bolster too, out of necessity.

It’s not a case that he was ever notoriously weak or lightweight. Indeed, the brute force of Adama Traoré caught out stronger and more experienced defenders in Eric Dier and Davinson Sanchez. Judging Alli against the juggernaut of Wolves would be an act of unfair conflagration.

His performances against Manchester City and Wolves demonstrated a level of footballing maturity so often missing. He exuded intelligence in his tackles, both in technique and selective timing. There was no hint of a ‘striker’s challenge’ or any degree of recklessness in his tackles.

Deeper Role

Dele has developed defensive poise, a knack for winning balls off of opponents and intercepting passes. It’s important to note that this doesn’t resemble anything like the defensive capabilities of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Oliver Skipp. But then he doesn’t need to match them.

He began his footballing life with MK Dons as a central midfielder, so this new positional play should not be a complete surprise. Indeed, he was brought to Tottenham in such a role, only gravitating further forward as other youth prospects fell by the wayside.

The manner in which Santo has developed the midfielder means Dele Alli does not need to undergo complete reinvention. The midfield three acts more like a triangle with a flat base of Højbjerg and Skipp.

But it also provides room for fluidity, utilising Højbjerg’s attacking potential as and when the situation arises. In such cases, Alli can provide cover, acting as another body in the midfield to block oppositional attacks.

Dele Alli Has Rediscovered His Attacking Prowess

The freedom to roam, coupled with a deeper starting position, also provides greater scope to play of his own volition in attack. Much has been made of the interlinked, fluid plays between Heung-min Son, Steven Bergwijn and Lucas Moura so far. The counter-attacks launched against Manchester City, including Son’s goal, were perfect illustrations of how it could function.

It remains to be seen whether this is a temporary solution to a Harry Kane-shaped conundrum. Waiting for his future situation to transpire, or indeed for a replacement to materialise, Santo may be making the best of the resources at his disposal.

Be that as it may, this seems to be the preferred tactical set-up for now, and it may be a case of Kane (or a replacement striker) fitting into such a system. And with such a system, the deep-lying nature of Alli’s positional play provides an extra impetus, a fresh wave of attacking threat to any play.

Defences may be preoccupied by the leading triumvirate, allowing a hitherto unnoticed Dele Alli to exploit oppositional flaws. As he did to win the penalty on Sunday, he can make piercing runs in behind. He can also provide balls to the front three, and act as a fourth attacker in the leading interplay.

Overhyped Return, or the Real Deal?

Whether the journey from Jose Mourinho’s bullying victim to fully fledged midfield star can be fulfilled is unknown. With the wealth of attacking talents at Gareth Southgate’s disposal, his recall to the national side is almost certainly a while off.

Nonetheless, Tottenham fans will be hoping that a newly invigorated Alli shines in such fresh positionality. New defensive responsibilities need not contradict a reinvigorated attacking freedom. The task for Santo will be maintaining his showings throughout the season, and improving them further still.

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