Dele Alli: Nuno has recast Tottenham role but goal-shy Spurs need his creative bursts

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·3-min read
Dele Alli: Nuno has recast Tottenham role but goal-shy Spurs need his creative bursts
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Midway through the first half of Tottenham’s defeat to Chelsea, Dele Alli moved into space and screamed for the ball from Eric Dier, his arms in the air to attract his team-mate’s attention.

In his formative years at Spurs, Dele made a habit of receiving the ball from the centre-backs, often darting behind the last man and on to the end of a raking pass.

But on Sunday, Dele had drifted not beyond Chelsea’s defence or even into a midfield pocket but into the left-back position vacated by Sergio Reguilon.

Dier chose to play the ball to the right and Dele moved forward, but the moment was another reminder that this is a very different Dele.

Once a brilliant goal-scoring midfielder, who came alive in the 18-yard box and had a knack for creating a yard of space, Dele has been recast by Nuno Espirito Santo as an industrious box-to-box “runner”.

Dele has always been capable of eating up ground. In Mauricio Pochettino’s hard-pressing team, Dele or Christian Eriksen almost always ran the farthest and, this season, the 25-year-old has covered more ground than any other Spurs player in each of Nuno’s first five League games.

What has significantly changed is where Dele is running. Under Pochettino, he was part of Tottenham’s high press and often the closest player to Harry Kane, occasionally playing almost as a second striker.

This season, though, most of Dele’s telling contributions have been in deeper areas, in the midfield or defending Tottenham’s penalty area.

Previously one of Chelsea's most feared opponents, with a knack for scoring against the Blues, Dele offered next to no attacking contributions on Sunday and was instead snapping into tackles and throwing himself in front of shots.

He was, on average, deeper than left-back Reguilon, as well as Kane, Heung-min Son, Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele.

Under Nuno, he has made 12 tackles and five blocks but managed just three shots in the League, including his winning penalty at Wednesday’s Carabao Cup opponents Wolves.

Dele Alli has played as a box-to-box midfielder under new Spurs boss Nuno (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
Dele Alli has played as a box-to-box midfielder under new Spurs boss Nuno (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

While Dele has performed his new role willingly and fairly effectively, the big question is whether Nuno is sensibly using a player who scored 18 League goals in 2016-17, particularly when Spurs have found the net just once from open play this season and have the lowest expected goals (xG) of any side in the top-flight: 4.4 in total.

Nuno’s Tottenham need more firepower and Dele may be able to provide it. Lo Celso, who has scored once in 49 League appearances, played higher than Dele against Chelsea, which felt like a strange use of both players.

On the other hand, perhaps finding a new role for Dele is an intelligent way to rejuvenate a player who has underwhelmed for two-and-a-half years.

After all, Dele has not scored a League goal from open play since January 2020 — although he barely featured last season — and the two players with the best knack for picking his runs, Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld, have left the club.

Kane, meanwhile, has developed his game, dropping deeper to occupy some of the space Dele might previously have filled. Would Dele still be so good in the final third? There were flashes of his former menace on the rare occasions he played under Jose Mourinho and in his burst forward to win a penalty at Molineux last month.

The Spurs head coach has said he wants Dele to be impactful at both ends and a box-to-box midfielder should be making a difference in the final third.

When Nuno has had more time at Spurs, maybe Dele will be a more well-rounded and dominant player. But at his best, Dele’s engine was an afterthought, a useful attribute for a player whose real value lay in goals and bursts of creativity.

For now, you wonder if Nuno’s goal-shy Spurs are just playing to one of his strengths.

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