Talented Dele Alli reaching a turning point at Tottenham
Dele Alli is at a crossroads. The 21-year-old has the ability to become one of the dominant midfielders in the Premier League. He can help Tottenham Hotspur win trophies and make a mark on the international scene with England. Decision time is looming, though. What sort of player does Alli want to become?
This season, Mauricio Pochettino has pushed his young prodigy forward; at times, Alli has been operating like a second striker. It has been effective for Spurs because Harry Kane, the main forward, has stepped up to a new level. In September, Kane scored 13 goals in eight matches for club and country. The plaudits have poured in for the 24-year-old.
Alli is very much the junior partner in the relationship, and the month was not quite so good for him. The former Milton Keynes Dons player scored just once, in the EFL Cup against Barnsley. He also had to sit out two Champions League ties after picking up a suspension for a dreadful challenge in the Europa League match against Gent in February. Then September started badly for Alli, and his offensive gesture during England's 2-1 World Cup qualifier victory over Slovakia earned him a ban for the match against Slovenia. The month ended with a dressing down from Pochettino for a blatant dive in Tottenham's 4-0 win over Huddersfield Town.
Young players invariably hit plateaus during their development. It would be too much to expect Alli to continue his spectacular form of the past two seasons, but the opening weeks of the campaign point to wider problems. Playing in a more attacking role -- one that often sees him closer to the opponents' goal than Kane -- nullifies some of the attributes that propelled Alli to prominence. Although ranging toward goal shows off his thrusting power and physicality, it means that other parts of his game are neglected.
The two-time Young Player of the Year has the touch and passing range to vary the tempo in the midfield and define the pace of matches. Too often, though, Alli appears to be operating in overdrive. The Premier League does not encourage subtlety, but the most effective players are artful as well as aggressive. The Tottenham man can do both, but it would be a shame if a player with Alli's deft technique should come to rely mostly on power and blunt force.
There have been off-the-field distractions, too. Alli recently parted company with his longtime agent, and some of sport's most prominent player representatives (including "superagents" Jorge Mendes and Mino Raiola) are vying to steer the Spurs player's career. Talks about improving his wages to £100,000 per week have already begun; Tottenham are very keen to secure their stars and ensure the team is still together next season when the new White Hart Lane stadium opens. The likes of Kane and Alli will attract the attention of some of Europe's biggest clubs next summer. The foreign interest and transfer speculation add to the pressure on young players.
Alli seems to be feeling the heat, though it's a process that some of the best players go through. Even Steven Gerrard, the man Alli is most often compared to, went through a sticky patch in his early years with Liverpool. During the early 2000s, Gerrard acquired the nickname "Stevie Me" from some sections of the Anfield crowd. At a similar age to Alli, Gerrard appeared to care more about his own performance than that of his team, but as he developed, the man from Huyton matured and became one of the enduring heroes of his club. Those early days have been almost erased from the Kop's collective memory but there was a time when Gerrard was not quite as loved by the matchday crowd as outsiders believed.
Alli is undergoing a similar period of questioning from parts of the Tottenham fanbase. Does he need to have the team built around him? Is he committed to the long term? In the next few months, he will have to answer these questions, and while few people doubt Alli's ability, his focus, approach and discipline will come under scrutiny.
He has the talent to become as enduring an influence as Gerrard for club and country, but he needs to restore a sense of momentum quickly.
Man City still need Sergio Aguero
Pep Guardiola had a small sideswipe at Sergio Aguero after Manchester City's 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge. The City manager praised Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling for their pressing of Chelsea's defenders and midfielders. According to him, the trio's industry allowed his defence to play a high line, and it was true. The front three allowed Chelsea very little time in possession and harried the home side for the entire 90 minutes.
Aguero will chase down one defender and amble toward the next when the ball moves on, but if it is passed to a third opponent, the Argentina striker tends not to bother.
City's system works better with the three energetic youngsters up front except in one key area: scoring. Chelsea were outplayed but remained in the game until the final whistle. For all their excellent approach work, Guardiola's side created surprisingly few gilt-edged chances.
In close games, Aguero can make the difference. It's hard to imagine Saturday's game at Stamford Bridge being so close if the striker had not injured his ribs in a taxi crash. You may not be able to rely on Aguero to chase down defenders, but you can certainly rely on him to find the back of the net.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.