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Dele's career hangs on a knife edge but Alli and Lampard's Everton could be a perfect match

9:00 PM MYT 03/02/2022
Dele Alli Tottenham 2021-22
The former Tottenham man was once considered one of England's most exciting talents but he has arrived at Goodison Park with plenty to prove

There is nobody quite like Dele Alli, which it turns out is both a blessing and a curse; the reason the rise was so spectacular and the fall so sudden, the reason his departure from Tottenham Hotspur was necessary and yet hurt supporters deeply.

Dele accrued 19, 25, and 19 Premier League goal contributions in successive seasons between 2015 and 2018. In the following three-and-a-half years, he has scored or created 21 in total.

It is a remarkable decline. 

When Dele first broke into the first team in north London, his unique style gave him an edge. There was a rawness to his game, a playfulness, a sense that something unexpected could happen at any moment.

He lit up dull matches, confounded opposition expectations, and sprinkled Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs with a bit of magic.

But it was always difficult to define exactly what Dele did for long periods of matches, when he would disappear from the game only to re-emerge with a deft touch or a clinical finish (even in the 2016-17 season, when he scored 18 goals and Spurs won 86 points, Dele ranked 11th at Spurs for passes made). 

It was also difficult to grasp what Dele’s best position was or how he really fit into the system.

It is that side of his uniqueness that has led to four years in the wilderness as successive Spurs managers struggled to work out what to do with him.

That uncertainty or distrust – from Jose Mourinho famously calling him “f*cking lazy” to Nuno Espirito Santo trialling him as a box-to-box midfielder – has seen the energy drain out of a man who once played with so much joy.

In an interview with Sky Sports on transfer deadline day, Dele was asked what motivated the move to Everton.

Tellingly, and a little heart-breakingly, Dele simply said: “I just want to be happy playing football.”

In that respect, he could not have picked a better transfer.

Linking up with Frank Lampard is the perfect opportunity to get back to enjoying himself because, whether the new manager is a success or failure at Everton, it will most certainly be an entertaining, attack-minded ride with Dele centre-stage.

Lampard’s Chelsea were pretty chaotic, attacking in a free-form way that seemed to ignore the modern need for detail and structure when in possession.

Much like Lampard the player, his teams roamed about individualistically, improvising their attacks by surging forward in high numbers and pressing their nearest man.

When confidence was up, the sheer force of Chelsea’s attacking talent led to high-scoring games and big wins. 

But for the majority of the time the absence of balanced scaffolding, a tighter positional sense to how Chelsea held the ball, meant it was easy to poke holes in the team on the counterattack.

What’s more, the pressing was so disordered (the forwards might rush at the ball while the midfielders scramble backwards) that opponents were given the freedom of the pitch once they evaded the first wave of pressure. 

Contemporary Premier League football requires the same things on the ball as off it: pinpoint accuracy in where to stand and when to move, drilled on the training field to create a balanced formation and compression between the lines. 

It leaves little room for teams who wander, who dip in and out, and who are allowed to follow their creative instincts.

However, unless a new backroom team – led by Carlo Ancelotti’s long-time assistant Paul Clement – marks a sudden departure from what we saw at Chelsea, that is exactly what Lampard’s Everton will do.

That is perhaps bad news for the Toffees, a team without the financial and technical insulation of a ‘Big Six’ club to allow for tactical slack. But it might just be very good news for Dele.

The 25-year-old’s defining trait is his capacity to make unseen runs beyond the centre-forward, playing as a second striker who hovers around the action, ghosting into pockets that are very rarely used in the modern game.

In the last few years, Dele has stopped making these runs altogether as he is gradually moulded by successive counterattacking coaches into a deeper midfield player. This plays to none of his strengths.

Mourinho and Nuno both deploy low blocks, and from such a conservative starting position Dele does not have the capacity to make late runs into the box or to play those delightful one-touch passes between the lines.

He needs a free-flowing buzz of attackers around him to feel at home. Lampard will no doubt provide that for Dele, whose old scoring rate and tendency to pop up in the box aligns neatly with how Lampard saw the game as a player.

He will encourage Dele’s risk-taking and his eye for goal; will encourage pot-shots and runs into the six-yard box.

What’s more, Everton will look to deploy a high defensive line that allows Dele to start as a 10, but burst beyond Dominic Calvert-Lewin, in a 4-2-3-1 (a formation Lampard used often at Chelsea and Derby County). 

In theory, it is a “perfect match”, to use Dele’s words, and yet it would be naive to assume Lampard’s attacking tactics alone will help a player so susceptible to the psychological state of the club he is at.

Dele’s problems at Spurs coincided with the downfall of Pochettino and he never recovered. There is a sense that he might be a 'luxury' player, or at least one who struggles for form unless the atmosphere is right.

Consequently, should Everton struggle under Lampard, then so too will Dele. After all, the attacking side of the game does not exist in a vacuum. 

Everton have a very leaky defence and a porous midfield, playing in a hopelessly decompressed system under Rafael Benitez and making countless individual errors.

It is hard to see how Lampard’s coaching, or lack of it, will work once an initial new-manager bounce wears off, especially as he will require the centre-backs to defend high up the pitch and play out from the back. 

On a personal level, Dele’s intelligent pressing and hard work off the ball stand him in good stead, although if he and Donny van der Beek start, then Everton’s central midfield could be alarmingly light when opposition counterattacks begin.

Should Chelsea’s glaring flaws re-emerge at Everton, they could yet be dragged into a relegation battle, in turn ensuring that Dele once again drifts tentatively on the fringes, lost amid the chaos.

That was always going to be the danger of signing such a unique player, someone so charismatic and yet so fragile. 

Dele’s career hangs on a knife edge, with as much chance of failure and success.

However, it is hard to think of a better match for his untameable attacking style than Lampard, a manager with no interest in putting a leash on his most creative players.