Jose Mourinho, niggling injuries or too much Fortnite? Where it all went wrong for Dele Alli with the 'future of English football' now stuck in limbo
Dele Alli is currently in a state of footballing limbo. Although his loan spell at Besiktas has been terminated early, Everton are unable to register him for their relegation run-in - even if he was to recover in time from his injury.
This literal sporting limbo is a continuation of the incredible drift that Dele's career has been on in recent years.
Once tipped to dominate the Premier League long into the 2010s, he now has not scored a top-flight goal since August 2021 - and it's increasingly difficult to see that wait coming to an end any time soon.
Recently, Dele's stagnating career has increasingly been put down to his poor attitude, lack of focus and unprofessional approach to training.
Does this tell the full story, though? GOAL reflects on Dele's eventful spell in the public eye...
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A cut above the rest at MK Dons
Dele began his career at MK Dons, and after making his first-team debut aged just 16, it soon became clear that he was a cut above those he was facing week in, week out in League One.
Evidence of his supreme confidence came early on too, with the midfielder's first ever touch as a professional being a cheeky, back-heeled pass.
At the time, manager Karl Robinson reflected: "I was going to throttle him. I can't say what I said but it was along the lines of 'the cheeky little something or another'. It was 0-0 against a team from non-league [Cambridge City]. In the replay, he scored from 35 yards, and I knew the kid had something."
He became a regular for MK Dons in the 2013-14 season, with Dele registering six goals and three assists in 33 league games.
The following campaign was his true breakout year, though. In 39 appearances, Dele, playing either a shuttling No.8 or as a No.10, scored a staggering 16 goals - all of which came from open play. Unsurprisingly, he was crowned Football League Young Player of the Year at the end of the season.
He headed into the summer with a move to Tottenham already sewn up - spending the second half of the campaign back on loan at his hometown club - and few could have predicted the incredible impact he would have in the Premier League.
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This Premier League lark is easy
Dele might have been expected to take some time to adjust to the best league in the world - he was only barely out of his teens when the season ended. The step-up in quality was no problem, though.
After impressing Mauricio Pochettino in pre-season, Dele appeared as a second-half substitute in Spurs' first game, a 1-0 Premier League defeat to Manchester United. His first top-flight goal would come before August was out too, as he scored a back-post diving header in a 1-1 draw with eventual-champions Leicester City.
Dele eventually broke into the starting XI for his team's trip to Sunderland in September - and he would not be displaced for the rest of the season.
His campaign was exceptional. Used in a few different roles, Dele was insanely productive, playing with a youthful arrogance that helped force Spurs into the title race. He was particularly adept at arriving in the box at precisely the right time, as typified by outstanding volleys against West Brom and Everton.
No goal summed up Dele's season more than his audacious strike at Selhurst Park, though. Taking down a header from Christian Eriksen on his chest, he waited for Joe Ledley to engage on the edge of the box, before looping the ball back over the Welshman's head and firing an unstoppable strike past Wayne Hennessey in the Crystal Palace goal.
Remember when @dele_official did THIS?! 🤯#GoalOfTheDay @SpursOfficial pic.twitter.com/EWiILIgtum— Premier League (@premierleague) December 19, 2019
Dele beat out competition from Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku and Philippe Coutinho to win the PFA Young Player of the Year award at the end of the campaign. The only thing that ruined a near-perfect season was his involvement in England's doomed Euro 2016 squad that summer.
However, it wasn't all negative on the international front. A few months before that Iceland debacle, Dele netted against France on his full Three Lions debut, rifling an effort into the top corner from outside the box.
Simply put, in the summer of 2016, he had the world at his feet.
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A generational talent?
After such a thrilling first campaign, expectations were sky high for Dele ahead of the 2016-17 season. Did he feel the pressure? Absolutely not.
Dele's second season in the big time followed the pattern of his first, only this time he scored more, assisted more and became even more instrumental for club and country.
A run of three successive Premier League braces against Burnley, Southampton and Chelsea over the festive period was particularly spectacular and ramped up speculation that he could make a big-money summer switch to one of Europe's biggest clubs.
By the end of the season, Dele had plundered 22 goals and 13 assists in a mammoth 50-game campaign. Those performances ensured that he had more Premier League goal contributions than Cristiano Ronaldo, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard before his 21st birthday.
Towards the end of that season, Pochettino made a now ominous prediction: "I think Dele Alli has a completely different personality to Neymar. I think he's a special player too. I don't know if he's in this level yet - but the potential will be to be like him or better. I think Dele is an unbelievable player, great player, still very young and his potential is massive. We'll see what happens. He has the potential to improve a lot."
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'He is a little bit nasty'
For all of his otherworldly talent, there has always been another side to Dele, something that Pochettino would admit partway through the 2017-18 season.
"Look, there are a lot of positives from Dele. Of course, he's not perfect. Nobody is perfect. Of course, he is a clever boy. He is a little bit nasty," the Spurs boss reflected.
The Argentine's comments came after Dele was booked for simulation in a 2-2 draw with Liverpool, during a period where the midfielder's propensity to go down easily in the box led to much pearl-clutching in the media.
This was far from the first, or the last, controversy of his burgeoning career either.
Back in April 2016, Dele was retrospectively banned for punching West Brom's Claudio Yacob - a decision that cut his season three-games short.
One year later, he was dismissed in his side's Europa League last-32 second leg tie against Gent for a sickening high tackle. It was petulant, an angry reaction to not having a decision go his way seconds earlier, and it effectively ended his side's chances of progression to the next round.
It also meant that he missed Spurs' first three Champions League group-stage games the following season, depriving him of a headline meeting with Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu.
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Turbulence away from the field
Dele's complex and unsettled upbringing may offer some indication into his uneven temperament on the field.
In a 2018 interview with the Evening Standard, he said: "I got into the wrong crowd from an early age. Football was a great distraction from the path I was heading down. I’m very lucky to have met people who helped through the hardest of times and have helped me grow into the person I am today.’
The player has also made it clear that he does not want to discuss his "complicated" relationship with his birth parents, and in 2016 he made the decision to remove Alli from the back of his shirt.
"I wanted a name on my shirt that represented who I am and I feel I have no connection with the Alli surname. This is not a decision I have taken without a lot of thought and discussion with family close to me," he explained.
Dele spent his formative years in the family home of MK Dons youth team-mate and 'brother' Harry Hickford, who has since acted as his de-facto manager.
It is always important to remember this context when criticising Dele for problems he has encountered both on and off the pitch.
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Tasting a World Cup
Despite becoming an increasingly divisive figure in the media during the 2017-18 season, Dele still produced some standout performances for Spurs, coming mightily close to racking up double figures for both goals and assists during that particular campaign.
A brace against Real Madrid at Wembley, followed by two assists in Dortmund proved Dele remained comfortable on the grandest stages, while another two goals against old rivals Chelsea in April played a big role in securing Champions League football for the following season.
Despite this form, Dele's place in Gareth Southgate's 2018 World Cup was not quite set in stone before the tournament. He missed two friendlies through injury and featured only as a substitute in two of the Three Lions' other three warm-up games.
Fortunately, an assist in England's final pre-World Cup meeting against Costa Rica was enough for him to take his place in the line up for Southgate's side's opener against Tunisia. They triumphed in that contest due to a late strike from Harry Kane, and despite being ruled out of the other two group games through a niggling injury, Dele returned to the fray for the dramatic last-16 victory over Colombia.
A goal in the quarter-finals against Sweden followed, and he played the full 120 minutes as England crashed out in the last four to Croatia after extra time.
This wasn't a case of Dele taking the world by storm - far from it. But few could have imagined that he would not even be considered for the 26-player squad that competed at Euro 2020 just three years later.
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Injuries and off-pitch trauma take their toll
After an almost uninterrupted rise to stardom, Dele began to feel the strain of niggling injuries during the 2018-19 season, missing 13 Premier League games.
He did, though, still manage to poke the ball through for Lucas Moura to score Tottenham's most iconic ever goal at Ajax, which booked them a place in a maiden Champions League final.
Some have suggested that his patchy appearance record after the 2018 World Cup has been the result of him playing so regularly in his teens, while more cynical onlookers have commented that it highlights his inability to follow the ultra-professional lifestyle now required to consistently produce at the top level.
It is likely more of the former than the latter.
The issue of young stars playing too much football has come to the fore recently, largely due to the incredible amount of miles that Jude Bellingham, Pedri and Gavi have racked up in their teens. Dele is rarely mentioned in these conversations, which seems unfair.
Before he turned 22, he had already made close to 250 club appearances. In the five years that have followed, he has only managed a fraction over 130.
From the start of the 2018-19 campaign, eight separate knocks sidelined Dele for Tottenham, and he also went through a traumatic event in the pandemic, being held up at knifepoint as burglars stole possessions from his home in May 2020.
Prior to this horrific crime, Dele had been one of Tottenham's most impressive performers under Jose Mourinho, registering nine goals and six assists before the pandemic brought football to a screeching halt.
He even recovered from an explosive incident during his side's 1-0 defeat to RB Leipzig in February 2020. Dele reacted angrily to being subbed in the second half, refusing to acknowledge Mourinho and hurling a water bottle on the floor. It would prove to be a prophetic moment in the pair's tumultuous relationship.
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Is Jose Mourinho to blame?
An injury kept Dele out of the Project Restart matches, but he was far from a busted flush by the time the 2020-21 campaign kicked off.
What he needed was a manager who knew how to get the best out of him. An arm around the shoulder maybe? Instead, he got Mourinho.
Dele being substituted at half time during Tottenham's opening-day defeat to Everton set the tone for a season of confrontation with the Spurs boss. After that humiliation, the midfielder would not start another Premier League game until March - a 1-0 victory over Fulham.
Much was made of a clip from the Amazon's 'All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur' documentary, filmed during the 2019-20 season, in which Mourinho seemed to question the player's lifestyle and wondered why he wasn't more consistent. In another clip, he also referred to Dele as "lazy" in training.
Despite being left out in the cold for almost an entire season - one in which he was supposed to entering his peak years - he refused to blame the manager.
"The only person I blame is myself," he told GOAL in an exclusive 2021 interview. "I should be performing at a level where it is difficult to not put me in the team or not play me. I don’t blame anyone but myself. Working with Mourinho was a great experience and one I learned a lot from."
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Lampard was never the answer
Mourinho's departure could have offered Dele the chance to make a fresh start. And at first, that seemed to be the way things were going.
He started each of Nuno Espirito Santo's first six Premier League matches in charge, netting the winner against his manager's former club Wolves, as well as providing an assist against the same team in the Carabao Cup.
However, Antonio Conte's arrival spelled the end of Dele's time in north London. The Italian never fancied him, which culminated in his sale to Everton in the January transfer window, with new Toffees' boss Frank Lampard playing a key role in convincing Dele to make the switch.
Tellingly, the player himself said the transfer was motivated by his desire to "be happy playing football" once again.
Dele would be far from happy at Goodison Park, however, failing to register a goal or assist as the Toffees limped over the finish line to just about secure Premier League survival.
In retrospect, the move was clearly not the right one. Parachuted into a crisis club who scarcely registered over 50 percent possession in games, it was always going to be difficult for Dele to influence proceedings - particularly when he was so low on confidence.
He cost a pretty penny too, with Everton forking out up to £40 million for his services. Fortunately for the Toffees, the majority of this fee was dependent on performance clauses, which will surely now never be met.
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A difficult time in Turkey
After two underwhelming cameos to kick off the new season at Everton, Dele was shipped out on loan to Besiktas in the Turkish Super Lig - a division which struggles to shake its reputation as a footballing wilderness where European stars go for one final payday. Dele was just 26 at the time.
As one might have expected, this turned out to be a less than ideal place for him to rebuild his reputation.
His time in Turkey was punctuated with criticism from the supporters and even the club itself. In December, he was booed by fans after being hauled off half an hour into a Turkish Cup tie against third-tier Sanliurfaspor.
Dele responded defiantly in the immediate aftermath, posting on social media that "football saved his life" the following day.
This was not a turning point for his fortunes, though. In March, there was a bizarre saga where Besiktas manager Senol Gunes claimed Dele failed to report to training - while English media reports counter-claimed that his absence had been sanctioned.
A few weeks later, it was confirmed that his loan deal had been cut short. Besiktas will not be activating their purchase clause, and Dele cannot be registered to feature for Everton, leaving him in footballing limbo until at least the summer.
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Reacting to the news that Dele would be returning to Goodison Park, Everton manager Sean Dyche said: "You can only guide people with what you think is good for them. Eventually players have choices, so we recommend they make good choices.
"But behind that, he's factually injured. He's come back with a proper injury that's going to take some time to get sorted out, so he'll use that period wisely, I hope.
"He is not here. He has an injury which will keep him out for some time. Some of the stuff reported - they know what they should and shouldn't be doing. As a manager you cannot control everything in their lives. Should we be following them all day? You can only guide them."
He didn't say it as many words, but the 'choices' Dyche referenced referred to images circulated on social media which showed Dele using nitrous oxide, which has been dubbed 'hippy crack' by the tabloids.
It wasn't a good look and perfectly fed into the narrative of Dele being a party-boy who has little interest in resurrecting his career. Throughout his time in the spotlight, his occasionally-turbulent love life and obsession with video games like Fortnite have often been used as a stick to beat him with.
Perhaps his interest in football is wavering, but if he does opt to knock things on the head over the summer to pursue other activities - he has been involved in various fashion enterprises and has had success as video-game streamer - it would be a wholly unsatisfying end for one of the brightest English talents in recent memory.
Before things began to unravel, Dele overcame adversity in his early life to become an elite attacking midfielder, capable of turning a game on its head in a second.
Hopefully his time away allows him to refocus ahead of the summer transfer window. Under the right guidance, there's no doubt Dele can rediscover his best from and, most importantly, his smile.