Dele Alli was a wonderkid.
He made his Premier League and England international debuts within months of each other and at the age of just 19.
Yet by his mid-twenties, he finds himself on loan in Turkish football with his career dwindling.
So, what happened?
Dele was part of the MK Dons side that thrashed Manchester United 4-0 in the League Cup in 2014. Already, however, the 18-year-old was on the radar of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. It was the latter who struck a deal in January 2015, meaning that Dele had left his hometown club for London after an initial loan until the end of that season.
But when he arrived back at Spurs, his ascent was phenomenal.
Mauricio Pochettino had just started his second season at the club and Dele became a value straight away. He scored his first Premier League goal against Leicester in August and debuted in the Europa League by September and made his England debut in October. He scored on his first start for England too.
At the end of the 2016/17 season, Dele would be voted the PFA’s Young Player of the Season and for a brilliant bit of trickery and volley against Crystal Palace, he also won the goal of the season.Embed from Getty Images
So for several years, Dele did deliver on his promise.
In 2017/18, he was again voted Player of the Year becoming the first player since Wayne Rooney to win consecutive awards. He was also part of the Premier League’s team of the season for the second straight year. He and Tottenham were flying high.
At his pinnacle, Dele was a key part of Pochettino’s attack, whose productivity came from movement inside the box, instinctive finishing ability, and most often, an uncanny understanding with Harry Kane. He scored good goals, but really important ones too, and against big opposition.
But by the 2018/19 season, there were clouds on the horizon.
Dele had a spiky personality while playing and had already suffered suspensions as a result. The season before, he would also suffer a minor hamstring injury, the first of four over the next 18 months.
In fact, in a season that would end with him and Spurs finishing runners-up in the Champions League final, he would, all in all, miss 23 games because of those three hamstring strains, a thigh strain, and a broken hand.
In the famous game against Ajax, at the end of which Dele provided the clever flick for Lucas Moura to complete his hat trick, he can be seen wearing a cast to protect that hand.
And Tottenham’s downfall happened quickly thereafter.
Pochettino was sacked by the club and replaced by Jose Mourinho at the end of 2019 and initially, that change seemed of benefit to Dele.
In Amazon’s ‘All or Nothing’ documentary, Mourinho could be seen presciently warning the player about how quickly life passes and encouraging him to make the most of his youth.
For a while, that message appeared to resonate, utilised as a more attacking player and freed of midfield responsibility, he enjoyed a purple patch of form and goals during the late winter of 2019 and early 2020, but it was a false dawn and a rare high point in his relationship with Mourinho.
January 2020 would actually see him scoring his final goal from open play for Tottenham in the Premier League, some two years before he left.Embed from Getty Images
Well, the injuries we’ve covered and Tottenham’s failure to financially invest in a team that finished third in Dele’s first year at the club and second the year after was also complicit. Famously, they became the first Premier League team to fail during the summer of 2018, repeating the trick in the winter window of 2019.
The consequence was a team that got steadily worse despite that Champions League final and players, Dele included, who were used in unfavorable positions out of necessity. Whatever the case, the culture of improvement within the squad that had been so key to Pochettino’s success clearly waned.
Players who had complimented Dele’s style also left. Christian Eriksen’s passing ability was huge for him. So too was the pitch-stretching fullback play of Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, and the crossing ability of Kieran Trippier. Walker and Trippier were both sold, Rose grew disillusioned. Moussa Dembele also departed.
So it’s easy to depict Dele as a bellwether of sorts.
But according to The Athletic’s Jack Pitt-Brooke, the player holds responsibility for his decline too.
He noted a theory that “Dele grew distracted by his off-field interests”, and that was particularly damaging given “that his game was ultimately all about hunger. About his willingness to keep taking risks, to get on the end of things and make those late runs into the box.”
Pitt-Brooke also observed that “he’s largely stopped making those runs. And with that, he’s lost what made him such a dangerous player. He’s never been a midfielder who runs the game by dictating possession.”
It’s definitely a valid point. Even at his best, Dele would often be relatively peripheral in games, only to punctuate them with a telling moment. When those fireworks were gone, a player who was in 2018 ranked as the most valuable midfielder in the world by the CIES Football Observatory, barely resembled who he’d once been.
And as if to make that point, when Dele finally did leave Tottenham, it was on a free transfer to Everton in 2022, with only performance-related fees due.
Within the space of eight months and after fewer than 20 appearances, he was then loaned to Turkish Superliga side, Besiktas.
It’s been a career’s worth of ups and downs, and yet Dele was still just 27 years old, in April 2023.
Did he become demotivated at Tottenham? Was he damaged by repeated injuries? Was he a victim of the club’s general decline? And did he miss his perfect departure point? Or were those factors complicit and were they exacerbated by declining enthusiasm for the sport?
The truth is elusive and might not be revealed for many years to come, if ever. For now, Dele remains a great riddle of English football.