It’s easy to forget that in a couple weeks Dele Alli will turn just 22 – and as he starts to reflect on his 21st year on this earth the Tottenham Hotspur man might very well surmise that it has been his toughest yet as a professional footballer.
As a swashbuckling 20-year-old Alli netted 18 Premier League goals, but he has scored just half that amount at the age of 21 and has just two games left, against Chelsea and Stoke City, to improve on that tally before he blows out the candles on another birthday cake.
But could his best present come in the form of team-mate Harry Kane being forced to endure a spell on the sidelines with an ankle injury?
Any side would miss a striker of Kane’s ability, and Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino opted for Son Heung-Min in the No.10 role when England’s great World Cup hope went off against Bournemouth following his clash with goalkeeper Asmir Begović.
The South Korean stepped up to the task admirably and scored twice, but now is the chance for Alli to prove his doubters wrong.
Alli answered the call when Kane missed four games towards the end of last season through injury. Cashes against Southampton, Burnley, Swansea and Watford saw the former MK Dons man net three times, he also added a further two assists.
Having a hand in five goals across 360 minutes of action meant Alli was involved in a Spurs goal every 72 minutes, way better his 2016/17 Premier League average of either scoring or assisting every 121.8 minutes.
It was almost as if Alli was relishing the chance to prove he was a capable goal-getter in Kane’s absence, something highlighted by the fact he started to take more shots on goal (from 2.8 per 90 minutes to three).
And while we have yet to see the best of Alli in an England shirt, in a Tottenham one he appears to relish the big occasion.
When the mighty Real Madrid came to Wembley back in October, Kane was not 100 per cent fit having been rushed back from a minor hamstring injury. So up stepped Alli who helped himself to two goals in a 3-1 victory over Zinedine Zidane’s star-studded side.
It was Alli’s first Champions League appearance of the season after big forced to sit out the opening three games due to a red card he picked up in the Europa League last term. And he was clearly eager to make up for lost time as he ran Madrid’s defence ragged.
Yes, his second goal that took a huge deflection on its way in was somewhat fortunate, but Alli deserved his luck that evening as he led the line for Spurs in place of an off-kilter Kane.
However, Alli wouldn’t break out another elaborate handshake in celebration of a goal until Boxing Day, and despite netting again a week later, he would be forced to endure another barren spell until he broke that duck against Bournemouth last time out.
But what was so telling about his goal against the Cherries? It came just a minute after Kane was forced off injured.
The best 21-year-old in Europe?
Sure, the numbers all point to Alli struggling this season compared to previous campaigns. It doesn’t make for pretty reading that his goals per 90 minutes in the Premier League has dropped from 0.53 in 2016/17 to just 0.22 this term.
However, last season he recorded seven assists, he already has nine to his name this term. And what’s more Alli is making more key passes per 90 minutes this season in open play (1.83 compared to 1.33) and is enjoying more touches in the opposition’s box (5.1 versus 4.34). He has also created more ‘big chances’ at 0.47 per 90 compared to 0.14.
Alli’s struggles clearly aren’t for the want of trying. And let’s not forget he is still only 21 years old, something his manager was keen to remind everyone in a recent press conference.
“When you compare him, Dele Alli, a 21-year-old, with all the players in the world, I think he is the best in his age,” Pochettino said. “In his form, assists, everything. For me Dele Alli, in his age, is the best – that’s it.”
Since arriving at Spurs as a fresh-faced teenager from MK Dons for £5million back in 2015 Alli has played 99 Premier League games and has chipped in with 34 goals and 25 assists.
Only five players – all out-and-out strikers in the form of Robbie Fowler, Chris Sutton, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and Romelu Lukaku – had scored more goals before their 22nd birthday. And the only stars with more assists to their name at the same mark were Cesc Fábregas, Rooney and Ryan Giggs.
All is also outshining his peers in Europe. His 59 direct goal involvements by players under the age of 22 since August 2015 is 11 more than his nearest rival, Timo Werner of RB Leipzig. And that list also includes Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembéle, who have been involved in transfers that comfortably exceed £100million, and Premier League duo Leroy Sane and Anthony Martial.
Pochettino was telling the truth when he leapt to Alli’s defence, it is now time for the 21-year-old to repay the favour and fill the sizeable shoes left by Kane during hisenforced spell on the sidelines.
Dele has done it before. Everyone of a Tottenham persuasion will be hoping he can do it again.