Dele Alli: The archetype of soccer’s changing landscape

Photo credit: AFP.

Photo credit: AFP.

At times, football lulls us into a stupor. A certain style of play can become so dominant that it is easier to match it than to innovate around it, easier to accept greatness than to challenge it. The year 2015 was the time of tiki-taka’s coronation. Although the foundations of possession-based football looked to be faltering in 2014, 2015 underlined tiki-taka’s place in the pantheon of great footballing philosophies. With a few twists from Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola to maximize the penetration of their possession based sides, Total Football once again prevailed over the counterattacking styles of Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid (a side who enjoyed less than 31% possession in their 5-0 aggregate victory over Bayern Munich in 2014).

The year 2014 looked to be an anomaly, just like 2010. For a brief moment, grit triumphed over style but the victory seemed temporary. Atletico soon lost their way in La Liga while Inter Milan, the ultimate pragmatists, fell apart after Jose Mourinho’s departure.

Success at the highest level is near impossible to sustain for years at a time, even for football’s greatest forces. Every once in a while the underdog will triumph. Or so people said.

If 2010 and 2014 are to be considered anomalies in the footballing world, 2016 was a revolution. Much has been made of Leicester City’s triumph and Atletico Madrid’s revival, however, pragmatic football has manifested itself in more veiled ways. In La Liga, the hotbed for possession based football, Atletico, Villarreal and Bilbao all finished the season with an average of less than 50% possession. These teams finished third, fourth and fifth respectively with Bilbao winning the Spanish Supercup over Barcelona and Villarreal advancing to the semi-finals of the Europa League.

Of the top five possession based sides, Rayo Vallecano (fifth in the possession table) were relegated and Las Palmas (fourth in the possession table) finished 11th. In contrast Bilbao, Atletico and Villarreal were 9th, 10th, and 15th respectively in the possession table. Incisive football became the watch word for these sides. Instead of trying to replicate the masters, they looked to pace up front (Griezmann for Atletico, Bakambu for Villarreal) or in wide areas (Munian and Williams off the bench for Bilbao) to create opportunities. Their creative outlet no longer proved to be a roaming playmaker in the mold of Riquelme or ex-Valencia man Pablo Aimar, a cerebral force devoid of physical gifts. Atletico’s and Bilbao’s creative hubs are filled by industrious midfielders (Koke, Saul, and Raul Garcia), not luxury footballers. Forgoing fluidity and style for pragmatism and incision proved just as telling for the Premier League’s top brass.

The Premier League sells itself as the champion of football’s physicality, of risk taking in the final third that provides cutting edge and top-class spectacle. The great Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea teams of the late 2000s overwhelmed opponents with blistering, if not intricate, football. As Spain and Barcelona slowed the game down at the turn of the decade, Premier League sides lost their way. That urgency in attack was blunted, and a passive brand of possession-based football took its place. Arsenal and Louis van Gaal’s United provided bland replications of the tiki-taka masters in Catalonia and Bavaria. Fear of the counterattack lead to little urgency in the final third and fewer chances being created. It was a sad reversion from the end-to-end spectacle of old.

But 2016 proved to be ripe for the taking, with the old guard stumbling into offensive mediocrity and the moneyed middle class of the Premier League buying into top continental talent, chances began opening up for the teams willing to attack and willing to take risks in the final third. Footballing talent in this day and age seems to be measured by ability to keep possession, to recycle the ball with comfort and class. There is a surplus of top class central midfielders and a dearth of predatory strikers and jet-heeled wingers.

Bayern Munich chairman Karl Heinz Rummenigge bemoans the “over-coaching” of young prospects. He feels the perfect environments in which they are reared, translates to one-dimensional football and an inability to adapt to different styles or different conditions. Football is becoming too stagnant in its quest for perfection. The once valiant attempts of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruijff to build teams which transcended the laws of football – to forgo the philosophy of compactness and organization, of positions and roles, to build a team that could out-pass as well as out-score their opponents- has been warped. The emphasis on possession has rendered its significance near obsolete. Only in the feet of the game’s mind-bending deities does this brand of football fulfill its prerequisites, only then does it capture the beauty of simplicity.

When Dele Alli came off the bench for his debut for MK Dons away to Cambridge City in the FA Cup First Round, he didn’t focus on keeping things simple. The impish 16-year-old pulled off a back-heel with his first touch of professional football. The 2015 League One Young Player of the Year wasted little time in showing off that same passion for the unexpected this season for Spurs. His goal against Palace especially caught the eye, with Alli opting to perform the spectacular instead of consigning himself to the ordinary and reasonable. Most would have controlled Eriksen’s header with one touch and played it back to the Danish playmaker. However, Alli had other ideas, flicking the ball over the onrushing Jedinak before smacking it into the back of the net.

His risk-taking won Pochettino’s men three points when the balance of the game suggested they only deserved one. Throughout the campaign, as Spurs charged up the league table in hot pursuit of Leicester, they won plaudits for their possession-based brand of football. In the season where possession had so little bearing on league placing (Leicester had the third least possession of any team in the league), Spurs were maintaining a razor sharp edge while still opting for style over graft. Alli provided the creativity that broke the mold of predictability and sideways passing. He changed the significance of possession.

It was no longer possession as a philosophy – possession for the sake of style, a consecration of the beauty of football – but possession with a purpose; a results football of the highest caliber. Alli only completed three of every four passes, in contrast to fellow attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen who completed more than eight of every ten. Yet Alli provided in terms of goals, scoring ten and setting up another nine. His incision and unpredictability wreaked havoc on opposition defenses, although they reflected relative ineptitude in possession by modern football standards.

By these same standards United’s Juan Mata is a prototypical attacking midfielder. Mata occupies a similar role to Alli, drifting to the right of United’s attacking midfield three in a 4-2-3-1. Alli occupies the same role but on the left for Spurs. Mata maintained a passing percentage of 89%, yet in terms of goals, he scored and created half of Alli’s total.

So what gives?

Mata was reared in Real Madrid’s youth academy, schooled in a possession oriented system. Above all, retention of the ball is paramount. Alli was schooled in the MK Dons academy, and played on the streets of Bradwell in Milton Keynes. He was taught football as a measure of audacity and graft, not as an art form. Karl Robinson, the manager of MK Dons during Alli’s tenure at the club, describes his technique as impeccable but his zeal for attempting the unexpected as what sets him apart. Robinson recalls a moment when Alli came off the pitch to meet a journalist. As he was walking he spat out his chewing gum, trapped it on his knee, and then flicked it back into the air and into his mouth.

This cheekiness defines Alli’s playing style and makes defending against him so difficult. He has no qualms about trying anything, and no fear of failure in attempting the spectacular. In a preseason friendly for Spurs against Real Madrid he nutmegged Luka Modric. Then he was still a relative unknown on the big stage, but his comfort and belief in his ability showed.

After his exploits this season Sir Alex Ferguson likened his ability to that of Paul Gascoigne, but that comparison doesn’t do justice to Alli’s tenacity in possession. While Gascoigne coaxed the ball, creating moments of brilliance with his velvet-like touch, Alli attacks with verve and urgency. Coming on as a second half sub versus Watford in February, Alli provided an immediate impact. Spurs won the ball deep in their own half and attacked down the left wing. Dembele made a surging run with the ball to the edge of the Watford box but was closed down by two defenders. Alli was in support, making a lung busting run that started from near the top of his own box. Played in by Dembele, Alli picked Trippier out with the outside of his boot to give Spurs a vital victory.

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