Dele Alli scored twice as Tottenham beat Chelsea 3-1 to end their long winless run at Stamford Bridge. Here’s why his performance was a perfect response to his critics.
Dele Alli told Sky Sports he was “numb” to criticism in the build-up to Tottenham’s trip to Chelsea. The 21-year-old had just lost his place in the England team, putting his World Cup prospects in doubt and inviting another wave of unwanted media attention, but he shrugged it all off. “I’ve never worried much about what people think,” he said.
Out on the pitch at Stamford Bridge, where Spurs were chasing their first victory since 1990, he produced an even more emphatic response. Alli was Tottenham’s match-winner. His first goal completed the turnaround after Christian Eriksen’s stunning strike had cancelled out Alvaro Morata’s opener. His second made the result safe.
The victory was a momentous one for Tottenham – there was a sense that Mauricio Pochettino’s side needed a big away win against one of their top-six rivals, and the eight-point gap on Chelsea should now be enough to clinch them Champions League qualification for a third consecutive season – but it was even more significant for Alli.
For much of this season, he has been a victim of his own exceptionally high standards. Alli won back-to-back PFA Young Player of the Year awards in his first two years at Spurs, but from diving accusations to a drop in goals scored, his critics have found ways to get at him in his third. His omission from England’s recent friendlies only intensified the scrutiny.
There have been questions over his attitude and his record in big games in particular. In eight previous meetings against City, United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal this season, Alli had only scored once and provided no assists. He had “lacked focus and concentration” in those games, according to Gary Neville. “He’ll need to be on it today,” added the Sky Sports pundit.
Alli’s focus was evident throughout at Stamford Bridge but it was not until the second half that he exploded into life. For his first goal, he darted between Chelsea’s centre-backs from the left, inviting Eric Dier to launch the ball into his path. The movement was outstanding and so too were the first touch and finish. Alli executed it all without even breaking his stride.
He wheeled away cupping an ear to the Chelsea fans behind the goal in celebration and a few minutes later he was repeating the trick. It seemed Heung-Min Son had squandered the chance when he failed to find the unmarked Erik Lamela, but Alli was more alert than anyone to latch onto the loose ball, touching it onto his weaker foot and dispatching the finish.
Alli’s performance will be remembered for those match-winning moments, but his work-rate was just as impressive. Indeed, it was his perseverance which kept the ball alive in the build-up to Eriksen’s equaliser. According to Premier League tracking data, he made more high-intensity sprints (78) than any other player on the pitch.
Mauricio Pochettino was proud of his players against Chelsea
Pochettino praised his “great talent” afterwards, insisting he had nothing to prove to anyone at Spurs. “We need to understand him that younger players need to breathe,” he said. “There is a lot of pressure on their shoulders. Sometimes the expectation is so high, but Dele has character and personality.”
It was not the first time Pochettino has spoken about the expectations surrounding Alli, but for all the criticism he has attracted, it should be pointed out that he is now up to 12 goals and 14 assists in all competitions for the season. He may yet finish it with a combined total on a par with his efforts in the last campaign.
His overall numbers are even more impressive. Sunday’s game was Alli’s 100th Premier League appearance. With 36 goals and 25 assists, he has a combined total equal to Eden Hazard at the same juncture. His numbers are higher than those of Robert Pires, Juan Mata or Mesut Ozil. At just 21 years old, they are also a reminder of his pedigree.
“I saw the headlines on Wednesday after the England game,” added Neville after the game. “It was almost as if a challenge was there: Is Dele Alli at his best? I don’t think he has been at his best this season, but what I will say is that he is a good boy. He plays the game the right way, with heart, with passion, with skill.
“He’s going to have ups and downs, he’s going to have people questioning him because of his character and because of the way he plays, but he’s fronted up before this match, in terms of answering our questions, and he’s fronted up after it.”
For Alli, the challenge now is simply to finish the season as strongly as possible. “I’m sure people will still be disappointed with the way I’ve played,” he told Sky Sports after the game. “For me, it was just about helping the team as much as I can. Like I’ve said before, what people say, I try not to let it affect me as much as I can.”
It’s an attitude which appears to be paying off.
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