What had you accomplished by your 21st birthday? You might have mastered the art of beer pong. or worked out the various different discounts on your student card. Perhaps you’d finally stopped buying fishbowls of brightly coloured alcohol at nightclubs or got your own Netflix password. Dele Alli at this age however, is an established Premier League star. He might even be the brightest young midfielder in Europe.
Having turned 21 on Tuesday the Spurs number 20 is a wunderkind no longer. As he moves deeper into his 20s more will be expected of Alli, with a certain maturity still to be instilled in him. But consider what he has already achieved and there is no reason to believe he won’t fulfil his potential as the greatest English talent of his generation.
Alli has had a hand in more Premier League goals before turning 21 (40) than David Beckham (12), Steven Gerrard (13) and Frank Lampard (15) combined. He’s netted 19 times in all competitions just this season. Spurs are mounting a belated title challenge, with Mauricio Pochettino closer to Premier League pace-setters Chelsea than anyone else, and Alli has been the driving force behind that challenge, particularly with Harry Kane sidelined through injury.
He is undoubtedly the most exciting young talent to call White Hart Lane home since Gareth Bale, with some suggesting that Real Madrid will soon identify Alli as their next Galactico just as they did with the Welsh winger four years ago. Barcelona have also been mentioned as potential suitors. That is the level Alli is expected to reach.
Of course, there’s still plenty for the former MK Dons youngster to achieve in England. Under Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs have yet to reach the apex of their upward trajectory. The Argentine has turned the Premier League’s perennial outsiders into title challengers in the space of just a few seasons. With some investment this summer Pochettino could take Spurs even further.
Alli should be in no real rush to leave White Hart Lane but to become one of the game’s true greats he will eventually have to seek a club with a higher ceiling. He needs a team that matches his own potential and even with Pochettino in charge Spurs probably won’t be able to do that.
Bale found himself in a similar position not so long ago. He too was part of an exciting Spurs team seemingly on the up but he was destined for even bigger and better things, just like Alli. So when the time comes for Alli to make the next, necessary step in his career he must follow the precedent set by Bale not just in making a move but in moving abroad.
Far too often young players are weighed down by all that comes with being a Premier League player. Playing in England stunts their growth on the continental stage. Bale became a great by escaping this, opening his mind to a new lifestyle, playing style and culture by swapping Islington for Iberia. He broadened his horizons and Alli should look to do the same, whether it’s in Spain, Germany, Italy or somewhere else.
Alli’s development has so far been seen through the prism of the Premier League but such is his quality it should be viewed in a wider context. By curling in the opener for Spurs in the 4-0 win over Watford on Saturday Alli notched the 26th Premier League goal of his career and his 16th of the season, meaning he has scored more league goals than any other player of the same age in any of Europe’s top five leagues.
It goes beyond goal return too. Of players aged 21 or under in the same five leagues this season only RB Leipzig striker Timo Werner (52) has had more shots inside the opposition penalty box than Alli’s 42. His shot conversion rate for the season stands at 21.1%, putting him ahead the likes of Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez.
The embodiment of the modern midfielder, Alli is a force of nature in the final third, with his late runs into the box reminiscent of the ones Lampard made his hallmark. He is an attacking hub of pure productivity, making more successful passes in the final third (398) than other player aged 21 or under in Europe’s top five leagues this season.
His technical ability, vision on the ball, eye for a pass, goalscoring instinct and high pressing game makes him the most promising young English talent in a generation. Not even Wayne Rooney was this polished at Alli’s age, with the Spurs man accomplished beyond his years. Bale was a trailblazer in joining Real Madrid four years ago, becoming the first British player since Beckham to play for one of Spain’s big two. When the time is right, Alli should seek to follow that trail.