What is Dele Alli’s Best Position at Spurs?

Jul 29, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Dele Alli (20) and MLS All Stars midfielder Fabian Castillo (11) of FC Dallas chase the ball during the second half of the 2015 MLS All Star Game at Dick
Jul 29, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Dele Alli (20) and MLS All Stars midfielder Fabian Castillo (11) of FC Dallas chase the ball during the second half of the 2015 MLS All Star Game at Dick /

Dele Alli earned his first start for Spurs Sunday against Sunderland, and for good reason. In three substitute appearances prior, the 19-year-old has impressed enough to justifiably put him at the top of a relatively long list of players who could conceivably understudy Christian Eriksen as the Danish playmaker recovers from a knee injury.

That he was given those chances to impress to begin with is a testament to how highly Mauricio Pochettino and Spurs’ back office rate the young English midfielder. It’s not often that a player as young as Alli is given a shot with a Premier League first team, much less a player whose highest level of experience is League One.

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To be fair, his time spent helping MK Dons earn promotion back to the Championship was close to spectacular. In 39 appearances for the Dons last term Alli scored 16 goals and assisted 9 others, stats made all the more impressive by the fact that he played mostly from central midfield.

League One is, of course, not the Premier League. It is a competition so mined for talent that naturally able players like Alli often appear only in fleeting glances before they’re snatched up by teams in the Championship and Premier League. Nevertheless, that at 18-years-old Alli could be capable and reliably make his way around grown men who have likely been in the game for most of his life is at the very least suggestive of immense promise, if not yet present ability.

So how does Pochettino translate that latent skill into something useful at Spurs’ level? Thus far it’s been by playing Alli in advanced midfield positions, usually relying on his precocious skillset to have him weave around – and through – opposition defenders in driving the ball up the pitch. It’s hard to find a direct analogue to his playing style in the Spurs squad. At his best, he’s a combination between Mousa Dembélé and Eriksen: a player with the legs and positional intelligence to run forward into dangerous positions, but also one that has significant vision for both the pass and the goal.

Let this highlight reel make that case more clearly.

The question then becomes: is letting him start from such advanced positions in the Spurs lineup actually helping his game or hurting it? Many of those highlights make it clear how much Alli relies on losing his mark by running forward into the opposition’s backline. His midfield marker might be reluctant to track back that far for fear of opening up space in midfield while anyone who might pick him up in defense is likely already occupied with another player. That transitional zone between midfield and defense is where Alli can thrive.

Of course, the best and most recent example of how effective this kind of play can be is Ryan Mason’s goal for Spurs against Sunderland on Sunday. It was the kind of goal that Mason tries for, often when he’s starting from the center of the park. A weaving run from deep, dropping his mark as he moves into space for a well placed pass to find him. That goal relied on the fact that Sunderland, so resolute to keep Spurs’ four-man attack from finding space, weren’t necessarily looking for Mason’s run from central midfield when it came.

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Alli should be given the chance to prove how capable he is with precisely the kind of goal Mason scored. It wouldn’t be fair to say he’s wasted in attacking midfield positions though. For the time being, given the way Pochettino has lined his Spurs side up and how well both Mason and Eric Dier have played in central midfield, there’s little room for Alli elsewhere. The time he gets on the pitch for the time being will continue to be in positions just behind the striker.

In the future there’s every chance we see Alli drop deeper into a role similar to what Mason has played so far this season however. An all-rounder, capable of distributing from midfield while also fancying runs forward into space when it’s available. Alongside a more mature Nabil Bentaleb, this could be a legitimately scary Premier League midfield.

For the time being, though, Alli will learn the more attacking aspects of the game as he subs in for and occasionally starts in place of more direct players. None of that will change the fact that his destiny remains in Spurs’ central midfield.

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