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Getting to know Dele Alli | The wildcard, the maverick

We talked to Tottenham blog Cartilage Free Captain about the Toffees’ latest signing

Leicester City v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

While Everton have been in a tough spot for long stretches of this season so far, the end of the winter transfer window might very well be the start of something new at Goodison Park. Hiring former England international and former Chelsea player and later boss Frank Lampard to replace Rafa Benitez was a good and thoughtful hire in my mind, and both of his first two signings are exciting players too.

While the young Dutch international and former Ajax starlet Donny van de Beek, still just 24-years-old, is coming to Merseyside from Manchester United, it is the 25-year-old English international Dele Alli that is the subject of this piece.

Having signed Dele Alli on a permanent deal from Antonio Conte and Tottenham, we had a chat with Dustin George-Miller, the Managing Editor of SB Nation’s dedicated Spurs site Cartilage Free Captain, to discuss what kind of player Everton are getting from north London, and what the player will provide this club going forward.

RBM: First off, it was not so long ago that Dele Alli was considered a very important piece to the puzzle with both Tottenham and the English National Team; how has he fallen out of favor so quickly in north London and elsewhere at still only 25-years-of-age?

I think it was a combination of factors. Things really started going off the rails when Mauricio Pochettino was sacked — the whole team seemed to lose its way a little bit, and although everyone expected that Dele would be one of the players who would benefit from Jose Mourinho, that turned out to be far from the truth. In hindsight, Pochettino was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to Dele — he was played in a position where he had the freedom to express himself, and that emphasized his strengths.

That was generally as a second striker, making runs in from deep positions to get onto through passes. By contrast, he got sidelined under Mourinho, was played deeper and out of position under Nuno Espirito Santo, and never seemed to find his role under Antonio Conte. By the end it really seemed like he had almost fallen out of love with football. You could see it in the way he played — he just didn’t look comfortable out there, and it showed.

RBM: The connection that Alli seemingly had with former boss Mauricio Pochettino has been conspicuous in its absence; why do you think the player played so well under his old manager, and what kind of leadership is needed to get the most out of the player going forward?

Pochettino knew what he had in Dele and was able to put him in positions that both played to his strengths and allowed him to express himself. The thing I remember the most about the early Dele years at Spurs was the joy he played with. It was infectious. He had this panache, an almost unbridled way of playing football that transcended tactics. He was the wild card. The maverick. He was never the star, but was able to squeeze himself into the spaces left unoccupied by Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min.

Poch put him in the best possible position for him to succeed, and Dele was able to capitalize on that freedom while still being able to play the way he wanted to play. I think Pochettino’s absence really affected him. Under Mourinho, Dele looked like a shell of his former self, and that carried over into the Nuno era. Nuno tried to repurpose him into a deep lying pressing 8, but he never looked comfortable, and Conte demands that you become subservient to The Patterns (tm). It was never a good fit.

RBM: What are some of the weaknesses that new boss Frank Lampard will have to work on and around now that he has Dele Alli?

Dele excels at making runs into space, at pressing, and at finding pockets in the channels and between the lines. But he’s not an especially good passer, he doesn’t create his own shot, and he’s not an especially good trainer. If Everton is going to rely on Dele to be The Guy who creates shots and makes things happen, it might be a disappointing tenure. However, Dele is the quintessential “glue guy.”

He isn’t someone you build a team around, but he will make everyone around him better than they would be otherwise. The trick to getting the most out of Dele is to put him around people who are able to understand what he can bring to the table.

He won’t necessarily score 15 goals, but he’ll help create the conditions around which others can score. He’ll crash the box with a well timed run, but someone will need to play the final pass to him. He’s a piece that makes the other pieces around him work better. But if those pieces are off, he could get sulky.

RBM: And of course, what are some of the positive strengths that you believe the player brings to his new club?

I love Dele. I always will. He’s up there with my all-time favorite Spurs players in the time I’ve been a fan, which goes back to 2007. Dele is a player who, given the opportunity, can make a good team better and a great team incredible. But he’s not The Guy.

Put him in a position where he can succeed and he will work tirelessly. He’s able to create moments of magic out of virtually nothing, given the opportunity. By contrast, stick him in a defense-oriented system and he’s going to struggle. He’s a flair player, capable of moments of absolute brilliance, but if things aren’t clicking around him, he’ll struggle. He needs quality players around him that can complete a mind-meld and work with him to make the team as good as it can be.

I really hope, for his sake and Everton’s, that he’s able to make the most out of his opportunities and a fresh start. But it’s not a given.

Our thanks to Dustin for his time.