Sam Allardyce’s most significant decision as England manager, during his 67 days in charge, was to drop Wayne Rooney into midfield at the expense of Dele Alli, the country’s most talented young player, for the opening game of the country’s World Cup journey.
England scraped a stoppage time win against Slovakia and Alli did not get up from his seat in the dugout. Were it not for a pint of wine, a restaurant and a newspaper sting, Allardyce would still have been in charge.
You can picture it now: scraping to the Russia World Cup, then ordering captain Rooney to ping balls up to Andy Carroll. Alli would likely still be on the bench, the sort of player Allardyce doesn’t really understand.
But Gareth Southgate understands Alli. And Mauricio Pochettino understands Alli. And even if the general public often misunderstands Alli, the only thing to understand is that Alli is undroppable.
Decent in England’s first game for about half-an-hour until he strained his thigh, missed the next two, barely above average in the Colombia victory and for 58 minutes in the 2-0 quarter-final win over Swedentthat set up a last-four clash against Croatia, seemingly off his best once more.
But Alli is always a split second away from a goal, or of making something happen. No matter who the opponent, or how badly he has played. When Kieran Trippier went to cross then cut back, Alli assessed the space and the position of Sweden’s defenders who were compact and well-drilled, and when Jesse Lingard curled in the ball Alli lost his men to nod in and kill the game. He has a habit of that: assassinating matches. In doing so he became the second youngest England goalscorer at a World Cup, behind Michael Owen.
Even so, he believes there is far more yet to come. “Personally, I don’t think I played as well as I should have but the team were resilient, defended well and dominated the game,” he says.
For somebody who spends most of their time away from football playing PlayStation (he loves Fortnite and FIFA 18) Alli is a complex being. He hates anything paranormal, and can recall as a child sitting on a swing outside his school and being adamant a Scream mask was coming out of the bushes. He has a complicated relationship with his biological parents, deciding two years ago to drop their surname, with which he feels “no connection”, to wear ‘Dele’ on his back. He does not like to talk about it.
Alli dives and niggles off-the-ball, he is guilty of studs up challenges and whispers things in ears to wind opponents up. He does not consider it cheating, but gaining an advantage, and claims not to care what people think about him, as long as his close circle – his adopted family, his friends, his team-mates and managers – are behind him. He is England’s best young player, but, even at 22, is booed widely by opposition fans back home. So he is enjoying English supporters getting behind him, for a change. “It feels really good,” he says. “It gives me the shivers when I think about it.”
Alli is mercurial. You cannot leave him out because he turns games in a moment. Against Chelsea in April, with Spurs needing a win to prevent their rivals catching them in the top four and the score level, Alli had been quiet at Stamford Bridge for an hour. Then Eric Dier floated a ball over Chelsea’s back line from the halfway line and Alli took it down with one touch and scored. He scored the second four minutes later. It was Tottenham’s first win at Stamford Bridge since 1990.
He scored twice against Real Madrid in November. But then he always scores against big teams and in important matches. Since 2016, he has scored twice against Manchester United, twice against Manchester City, five times against Chelsea, once against Arsenal and once against Liverpool.
It’s almost as though he cannot be bothered to score against lesser teams. Someone else will score those goals – you know, Harry Kane, or Christian Eriksen or Lingard. He’ll score the big ones.
This World Cup saw the early departures of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and the sense that they are giving up the goat (Greatest Of All Time). There is space opening up for new contenders: Kylian Mbappe? Kevin De Bruyne? Alli? “There are times I think about how far I have come and you think ‘is it real?’” Alli says. “But every decision I’ve made and the work I’ve put in has been for this. I’ve worked hard to improve.”
Alli grew up quickly as a teenager amongst men but has never been afraid. Even now, he is still slight compared to counterparts, and has to rely on skill and guile over the brute and brawn of, for example, Ruben Loftus-Cheek. His low centre of gravity and strength of core belies his stature, similar to players such as Messi.
He might not have been Allardyce’s cup of tea, he might be unpopular, but you cannot drop him.