Dele Alli: Tottenham's future star a lot like young Steven Gerrard
Tottenham Hotspur held off interest from other Premier League clubs to sign MK Dons' highly rated midfielder Dele Alli for a 5 million pound fee on transfer deadline day. The 18-year-old, an England under-19 international, will be loaned back to his former club for the remainder of the season to assist in its bid for promotion from League One, but he will be hopeful of a future at White Hart Lane.
Alli was born and raised in Milton Keynes and played his early football for the local side City Colts. He was spotted and offered a trial at MK Dons but left of his own accord two weeks in after being denied the opportunity to take part in a friendly against Chelsea. He returned a year later at the age of 11 and quickly established himself as one of the prime talents in an academy with an increasingly impressive record of bringing through first-team players.
Dons coach Karl Robinson handed Alli his debut at the age of 16 as a substitute in a FA Cup tie away to Cambridge City. His first touch in professional football was a backheel, which offers a neat illustration of the confidence that underpins his game. He scored his first goal in the replay, but it wasn't until the following campaign that he became a first-team regular. This season, he has been an integral part of the side, which sits second in League One.
Scouts from across Europe were in attendance to witness his strong performance in the Dons' 4-0 thrashing of Manchester United in the Capital One Cup in August, in which he did not look out of place against an admittedly below-strength United side. The club moved quickly to tie him down to a new three-year deal after rejecting two offers in the wake of that match but it was always likely to be little more than a measure to protect his transfer value.
Liverpool have previously been linked, while Aston Villa and Newcastle both lodged bids during January -- with the latter last week considered the favourites to secure his signature -- but Alli instead elected to join Spurs on a five-and-a-half-year deal, with the prospect of working under coach Mauricio Pochettino clearly a key factor in his decision.
"I like the way the manager has been working, developing the youth and bringing a lot of young players in," he told the club's official website. "I wanted to come to a club where the manager puts a lot of trust into young players."
Alli's idol growing up was Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard and there is something of a young Gerrard in his all-action style. Tall and athletic yet technically sound, he is a true box-to-box midfielder, just as comfortable picking the ball up off of his centre-backs as he is making forward runs in support of those up front. His strong scoring record (12 in 27 league appearances this season) shows he is a real threat in the final third.
• tall and mobile
• positive in possession
• good eye for goal
• occasionally rash into the tackle
• positional sense can be poor
Tackling: Strong and committed into the tackle, but he does sometimes cross the line into recklessness. Such challenges are given a little more leniency in League One but this is an element of his game that he will need to refine before making the step up to the Premier League.
Marking:: Rarely constrained to a dedicated marking job in midfield, but he appears relatively switched on in keeping track of the movements of attacking players in his vicinity. He does, however, benefit from having Darren Potter, a more disciplined and experienced player, alongside him in the midfield two.
Heading: At 6-foot-2, he is certainly big enough to compete in the air and he does so competently. An aerial threat when he advances into the penalty area to get on the end of crosses.
Close control: Good for a player of his size, although his first touch can be a little loose at times. Relatively quick feet which, combined with his physical attributes, often allow him to work his way out of tricky situations. Strides forward confidently with the ball at his feet.
Passing: Assured in possession and always seeks out a forward option, although could do with adding a little variation to this part of the game. He passes crisply over short and medium distances, although inaccuracies can occasionally occur in his rush to get the ball forward. Has provided three assists this season and is certainly capable of dissecting opposition defences with angled through-balls or well-weighted passes over the top.
Positioning: MK Dons usually press quite aggressively in midfield and Alli is well-suited to such an approach. He can, however, sometimes be a little too enthusiastic in seeking the ball, and needs to build on his understanding of when to hold his position and when to step forward to intercept. In attack, his off-ball forward runs are generally well-timed.
Crossing: He rarely finds himself in crossing positions, as the majority of his forward runs place him within the width of the penalty area.
Finishing: His tally of 12 league goals this season, including a hat trick in the 6-1 win over Crewe, is higher than that of any other central midfielder in the English professional leagues. He strikes the ball cleanly from medium and long distance, and generally shows good composure inside the penalty area. Provided with license to get forward, he is a potent threat.
What the experts say
MK Dons coach Karl Robinson: "He plays football like he does on a school playground and I've gone past words now for him. I just think he gets better and better and he does all his talking with the football. The kid handles pressure like it's a walk in the park and at the highest level you have to perform under immense pressure."
Telegraph football correspondent Henry Winter: "In person, Alli is friendly, with a steady eye contact that has a hint of mischief and daring in it. A ball-winning, ball-using midfielder, Alli has the self-belief to know his career is developing well, and the hunger to keep it going."
Dele Alli, you can see why so many PL clubs like #LFC are chasing him. Passing and vision both hugely impressive. He's a real talent.- James Masters (@Masters_JamesD) October 18, 2014
His favourite artists include DJ Rusky and Drake, but he often goes for "something safe," like Ed Sheeran when the older players complain about his taste in music.
It always pays to be careful when discussing a young player as physically impressive as Alli. Early debuts for such players are not always an indication of future success. Yet while it was perhaps his athletic qualities that initially provided him with his opportunity, Alli has since shown that he has the necessary technical and mental attributes to make a career for himself in the game.
Pochettino has established a reputation as a coach who is willing to put his faith in young players -- having done so at both Espanyol and Southampton prior to joining Spurs -- which offers a clear incentive to those coming up through the Tottenham youth system or brought in from elsewhere. If Alli can show that he is up to the task, he will be provided with first-team opportunities.
He is only 18 and there are inevitably raw elements to his game that still need refining, but Alli has the right tools to be a success at Spurs if his development continues as expected. And a good start would be to help his hometown club MK Dons to promotion between now and the end of the season.
Nick Dorrington is a freelance football writer. Twitter: @chewingthecoca.