Dele Alli shows why Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham need his attacking creativity in Europa League romp

Perhaps this was the plan all along. As their domestic and European rivals buckle under the weight of their kamikaze fixture lists Tottenham unleash a box fresh Dele Alli, scorer of 50 Premier League goals, to rifle through the tiring field.

Jose Mourinho has his Mariano Rivera! What a masterstroke from the Special One!

Certainly as these two tiring sides played out a low stakes Europa League round of 32 second leg, the 67th fixture these two have played between in just over five months, Alli looked as though he had been transplanted from another stage of the season. Here he was freshly teleported from his substitution in the defeat to Everton on the opening weekend of the season, ready to make amends.

Of course there was no grand plan to get to this stage of the season with Alli still yet to complete a full 90 minutes. Indeed tonight’s exceptional display by him in a 4-0 victory over Austrian side Wolfsberger AC, in which he scored a brilliant opener and laid on further goals for Carlos Vinicius and Gareth Bale, served rather more as a critique of Mourinho. How can a manager have given up so swiftly on such an exceptional talent?

There may yet be a way back for Alli. He is certainly beginning to build momentum, tonight’s performance coming so soon after a promising albeit brief cameo against West Ham, a defeat for Tottenham that showed they need a degree more unpredictability against teams that sit off them. He certainly offered that but will Mourinho want a known unknown in a side so geared towards specific plans for specific opponents?

If this tie was not over before kick-off it certainly was after 10 minutes when Alli struck a timely reminder of the quality Mourinho has opted to do without for most of this season. The volley might have been an extraordinary moment but its build-up, with the No.20 at its heart, was typical of a player who was so integral to Spurs’ rise under Mauricio Pochettino.

Picking up the pass into the Wolfsberger half Alli held the ball up to draw defenders to him before immediately slipping a team-mate in with the reverse pass. As Steven Bergwijn found himself crowded out Alli slipped into space to keep the ball moving on to Matt Doherty. The cross was a poor one but he made something spectacular out of it, stabbing the ball into the ground and timing his overhead kick quite perfectly.

Whether it was better than Olivier Giroud’s against Atletico Madrid last night is a debate for art critics not football reporters though this individual is firmly on Alli’s side if only for the delicate thunk the ball made as it flew off his boot.

“The goal I don’t need to speak about, everyone saw it and I believe [it will be] around the world on all these sports TVs,” said Mourinho, who was keen to shine a light on other aspects of Alli’s performance. “People are going to watch it, there’s no need to talk about it.

“For me the globality of the performance is what matters. He played very well in every aspect of the game. Of course he’s not fresh. Of course you can feel that his performance — like in the first leg — from minute 55 to 60 is going to always go down, which is normal due to the circumstances: injured, not training for a long time, coming [back] for a couple of weeks.

“In this moment where we are going to play every three days and 10 matches in March [Mourinho noted that most of his squad could be involved in three international games in addition to their club commitments] to have Dele back at this level is amazing.”

Once one had recombobulated themselves to their surroundings after Alli’s moment of magic, it was impossible not to ask why our sightings of Alli had been so fleeting for so long, especially outside this competition. This was start number eight for the 24-year-old this season.  Six of them have come in the Europa League, where Jose Mourinho tends to deploy his fringe players.

There have been mitigating factors beyond just his performances. An injury sidelined him for most of January while Paris Saint-Germain were attempting to secure his services on loan. And for a time Mourinho might have needed just five words to explain why Alli was with what might be termed Spurs B. Tanguy Ndombele is playing better. It would never be put in such absolutist terms but the Frenchman won the battle of the mercurial talents and with Giovanni Lo Celso also available to play the attacking midfield role there was no space for Alli.

Yet it speaks to the conservatism of Tottenham’s approach that not until well over a year into his time with these players did he feel sufficiently confident in Ndombele to publicly express a willingness to play the Frenchman at the base of midfield. With his ability to beat the press and pick a pass it would seem clear to most that Spurs’ record signing was better further back but Mourinho is evidently loath to tolerate such risk taking in the engine room. 

Even now with Ndombele playing deeper Mourinho compensates with a more diligent option such as Erik Lamela or Lucas Moura. By contrast tonight offered plenty of evidence for why any manager might fear what they would get from Alli. His tracking back was diffident at best, his touch heavy and he tended to try but slightly overcook the difficult passes like an outside of the boot cross that flashed in front of Carlos Vinicius. Only Joe Hart regained possession more infrequently, none of the front four were as inaccurate with their passing. This, it should be noted, is not how he has to play. Under Pochettino he was the leader of the Premier League’s most relentless pressing machine.

Whether Mourinho can or will uncover that player — back-to-back PFA Young Player of the Year in 2016 and 2017 — remains as yet unknowable but what he has on his hands now is surely something that Spurs could do with. After his goal came another two moments of peerless quality that only come when a player is prepared to take risks that don’t pay off more often than not. Alli landed the ball on a dime for Vinicius to head home at the back post before dropping into space and playing the right pass at the right moment for Bale to stroke in Tottenham’s third.

It is precisely because of Alli’s willingness to fail that he succeeded for Spurs tonight. A manager caught in a rut of safety first football would do well to embrace the unpredictability that his returning star offers.

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