From Iceland to indiscipline, Dele Alli takes inspiration from the past
As you listen to Dele Alli talk about playing for MK Dons' under-13s side, it takes a few minutes to remember how relatively recent that was. Alli only turned 21 a few weeks ago and so, as he was negotiating the lower rungs of his first club's youth system, current England colleague Jermain Defoe was already on his fifth transfer.
Almost everything beyond Alli's youthful appearance and birth certificate suggests he is much older than his years. He looked completely at home the moment he stepped on a Premier League pitch, after moving to Tottenham from League One, displaying an assurance that would make a new observer assume he'd been at that level for years. Now, he is one of the key players in Gareth Southgate's England team.
This maturity has partly come about because he's been forced to grow up so quickly. Alli made his Dons debut aged 16, then had three years of toughening in the lower leagues. But before that, he benefited from careful guidance and a positional change. He started in that Under-13s team as a striker but then his manager Dan Micciche,, who subsequently left to join the FA, dropped him into defensive midfield; not to improve the chances of the team, but to allow Alli's gifts to flourish.
"I wasn't as big as the other boys back then," says Alli. "He did it so I could get more space and didn't have to worry about physical battles. I could focus on my strengths which, at the time, was getting on the ball and passing."
When the time came to graduate to the seniors, he began to evolve into the attacking force we see today.
"I started understanding again the attacking play, the runs the strikers would be making," says Alli. "Who knows where I'll end up."
Those formative experiences continued after his move to Tottenham and with the England side. After bursting into the Premier League and impressing everyone almost instantly, Alli found himself in a title race, as Spurs pressed Leicester until nearly the end of the 2015-16 season. Their rather spectacular fall in the last few games provided another lesson for Alli.
"The start of [last] season was quite slow. After winning young player of the year, people started to recognise me a little bit more so I had to change up my game a little bit."
That he returned to a level which saw him win that award again suggests he was aware enough to change pretty quickly, though he claims discussion about that process and Tottenham's implosion, were minimal.
"(Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino) didn't really need to say anything," says Alli. "He knew me; he knew I just needed to get back out there playing again. You have to talk about it in order to improve, but once you start playing again you don't want to think about it too much."
There was a similar process at the international level. Alli was one of the players who so limply failed in England's abject humiliation against Iceland at last summer's European Championships, a performance bad enough to still inspire flashbacks in those who watched it, never mind those actually on the pitch.
"You go one up and everything looks fine and everybody's playing," Southgate's assistant Steve Holland said this week. "Then suddenly 'bang, bang!' It's 2-1 and then you are looking round at the players thinking 'bloody hell, they have gone.'"
That mental fragility is something that Southgate and Holland have been working to cut out since they took their respective jobs full-time.
"It still makes your heart go," says Alli, recalling the Iceland game. "We were shocked at the situation we found ourselves in at the time and maybe as a team we hadn't worked enough about how to deal with that sort of situation. It's something on we're working on now, to make sure it won't happen again."
Easier said than done. That game still looms large and was brought up more than once as members of the England set-up spoke this week.
"I'm sure Gareth's aware of how hard it is for us to talk about, as it was such a low point in our careers," says Alli. "But it's important we go to those dark places to talk about it. Even now, you get a lump in your throat but I think it's important, as a team, to go through it and see what happened and where we went wrong."
It is a reminder of how quickly he is learning -- or perhaps being forced to learn -- about the problems and challenges that come with top-level football. Another concerns his temper: "I knew you were going to say that," he says with a grin when asked about his disciplinary record.
"I know there are a lot of mixed opinions, but that's the player I am," he says, giving an answer that treads the line between avoiding false contrition and diminishing what could become a serious problem in his game.
"It's been in my game since I was a youngster and it's not something I'm looking to change," says Alli. "The West Brom one (an off-the-ball punch on Claudio Yacob that resulted in a retrospective three-game ban), I regretted that straight away and I haven't done that again.
"There was also the challenge in the Europa League (a reckless tackle on Gent's Brecht Dejaegere, for which he was sent off). I know it looked really bad -- and it was a really bad tackle -- but I also know I would never go out to hurt someone. To be doing a challenge like that is horrible, and it was horrible for me as well, to think about it. I apologised and I've learned from it.
Alli insists that "you have to look after yourself" and that it's "important to stand your ground." Speaking of which, his answer to the question of what else he can improve also refers to the physical side of the game and the way he deals with opposing defenders.
"You have to think a lot more about what you're doing and be a little bit more clever about being in possession," he says. "I'm nowhere near complete yet. I've been doing a lot of work on the training field and in the gym, physically.
Given he scored 18 times in the league last season, which was more than any other midfielder, Alli's admission that "I also need to score a lot more goals" might come as something of a surprise. Then again, so high are the 21-year-old's standards and ambition that such a comment is simply indicative of someone who has handled everything he has encountered without having to change the way he plays.
"Maybe I wasn't expecting it to happen so quickly," admits Alli, "but you can't wait for time and when you get chucked in at the deep end, you have to make sure you take the chance."
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.