It has been quite a week for Dele Alli. The precocious Tottenham attacking midfielder turned 21 and was then given the perfect birthday present: a nomination for PFA Young Player of the Year.
It is, perhaps, an injustice that he was not also nominated for the PFA Player of the Year – he has been more impressive than Alexis Sanchez this season – but winning the Young Player award will surely suffice.
Everyone that watches Alli agrees that he has developed into one of the finest young players in world football, and his meteoric rise appears set to continue apace in Mauricio Pochettino’s exciting, dynamic team.
It is quite amazing to think that Alli was playing for Milton Keynes Dons just two seasons ago. How Spurs were able to sign him for just £5 million remains a mystery; he is probably the best Premier League bargain since Eric Cantona moved to Manchester United for little over £1m.
Much like Cantona, Alli defies categorisation. He is not really a midfielder, nor is he an out-and-out striker; Alli has scored 16 goals this season, the same amount as Sergio Aguero and two more than Eden Hazard, while he has also provided six assists.
He has tailored his game to fit Pochettino’s ethos; the Argentinian takes pride in players who are both multifunctional and dynamic, and Alli is so good that he can play in a deep midfield two or as a shadow striker behind Harry Kane or Vincent Janssen.
Alli’s versatility is demonstrated by Opta's Expected Goals (xG) model, which measures how likely a particular shot is to be scored based on distance to the goal, angle to the goal, assist type, whether or not it was headed and a variety of other factors. This assigns an xG value between 0 and 1 that reflects how likely the shot is to be scored. So, for example, 0.3 xG means a shot will typically be scored 30% of the time.
Alli has an xG score of 0.3 over 90 minutes, meaning that he averages an expected goal every three games but has actually scored at a rate of one every two matches. Alli’s goal against Watford, a dipping, curling long-range drive emphasised the England international’s ability to create something out of nothing.
Similarly, his Expected Assist (xA) stats prove that Alli enjoys scoring perhaps more than he does creating. The xA model measures how likely it is that a completed pass becomes an assist based on factors such as pass type, distance to goal before and after the pass, and pass length.
He averages just under 0.1 xA a game, but when combining xG and xA his numbers improve to nearly a goal or assist every other game.
When compared to Europe’s wunderkinds – the likes of Kylian Mbappe at Monaco, Ousmane Dembele and Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund and Timo Werner at RB Leipzig (all of whom have superior combined xG/xA numbers, as do Bordeaux’s Francois Kamano, Madrid’s Marco Asensio, Atalanta’s Andrea Petagna and Genoa’s Giovanni Simeone) - this may seem somewhat unimpressive but it must be remembered that Alli has played the most minutes of all in domestic competition.
Alli’s stats are drawn from 2,438 minutes on the pitch, compared to Mbappe’s 980, and Dembele’s 1,625. Alli has better xG numbers than Dembele – the Frenchman averages a goal every three games – but lags behind the freakish Mbappe, who has 0.4 xG and 1.1 goals per 90.
His assist numbers are also at the lower end of the spectrum, with the likes of Asensio and Pulisic boasting much better numbers, but the pair are natural midfield players, while Alli prefers to drift between the lines, probing and awaiting the telling opening.
Alli’s stats, thus, can be explained by his need to straddle two positions under Pochettino; Alli is far and away the most trusted player of his age in the Premier League and he is reaping the rewards.
He is able to score goals and also bamboozle defences with a quick drop of the shoulder; perhaps only Mbappe can truly match his ceiling.
Much speculation has raged over who could be the first £100m player, and a lucid argument can be made for Alli; he is a brilliant footballer and also stands out as a potential marketer for the big brands. He is young, he is cool, and he has the world at his feet.
Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich should be salivating over the prospect of luring Alli away from White Hart Lane; Spurs fans, meanwhile, should just enjoy him while they can as they continue their title challenge, as Alli is perhaps the most gifted English player in a generation.