Dele Alli flourishing as auxiliary striker without the burden of defensive duties
At the beginning of this season, Dele Alli set himself the modest target of beating his tally of 10 goals from last term. In 19 games, he has already done it. Alli's double against Chelsea on Wednesday took him to 10 league goals, including seven in his last four games, and one in the Champions League.
It's an excellent return for a midfielder, but then Alli isn't really a midfielder anymore. Against Chelsea, particularly between the time he doubled Tottenham's lead -- a second clinical header that any striker would be proud of -- and that when he left the field to choruses of "We've got Alli," he was playing as a second striker next to Harry Kane.
Alli's advanced role is not particularly new. Last season, Mauricio Pochettino initially tried using him as a holding midfielder next to his friend Eric Dier, but the Spurs manager soon realised that Alli was at his best without the burden of defensive duties and so he pushed him into Tottenham's attacking trio behind Kane. Alli was the player closest to Kane -- no one player assisted a teammate more frequently in the league -- and was tasked with running beyond him. His well-taken goals against West Brom and Everton were examples of his ability to make dangerous runs into the box, earning comparisons with Frank Lampard.
Pochettino's shift to a 3-5-2 formation, used in the wins against Watford and Chelsea, has liberated Alli even more from defensive duties. He is still pressing and running hard -- only Christian Eriksen ran further than him against Chelsea and only Pedro made more sprints -- but with everyone barring Kane behind him, he doesn't have to worry about tracking back.
Pochettino has also experimented with 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3 lineups this season, the latter with Alli on the left-wing, where Jay Rodriguez scored 15 goals for the manager's Southampton side in 2013-14.
"I have a bit more space to work and be higher up the pitch. The strikers we've got have great movement, so it gives me a chance to, if not get in behind, then have space in the pocket to have a shot or whatever," said Alli in October.
His comments felt like a less-sophisticated version of Thomas Muller's wonderful turn of phrase from a from a few years ago. "Ich bin ein Raumdeuter," said Muller ("I'm an interpreter of space").
Alli's improved return is also down to him. Pochettino has frequently spoken of the 20-year-old's newfound "maturity" since last season and he is clearly working on his game all the time.
"I could have been in double figures by now with the chances I've been missing," Alli told ESPN Brasil in October after scoring his second goal of the season against Manchester City. "It's important to get in the right positions but I need to start being more clinical."
Against Burnley, Southampton, Watford and Chelsea, he scored with his only shots on target -- seven shots on target, seven goals -- in stark contrast to his profligacy earlier in the campaign. After Alli scored but missed two glorious chances in the frustrating 1-1 draw at West Brom, Pochettino said: "He had a big chance in the first half and he needed to score. He needs to improve." He has.
It's not clear if Pochettino will stick with the current formation for the rest of the campaign, but he will surely continue with Alli next to Kane, which is bad news for Tottenham's summer signing Vincent Janssen.
The England international has spoken of a desire to emulate Lampard, but while the former Chelsea player scored five goals in his first 52 Premier League appearances, Alli has scored 20. His stats also compare favourably to Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Steven Gerrard.
It is telling that the only midfield players to reach the milestone quicker are former Spurs player Rafael van der Vaart, who managed it in 44 appearances, and Matt Le Tissier in 50 outings for Southampton. They were both auxiliary strikers for their teams and Alli, increasingly, is too.
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.