The four-thousandth article called “The strange case of Dele Alli”

4 Mar

Identity theft’s all the rage these days.  And why not, right?  I’d far rather spend your money than mine.  Otherwise, what the hell else are we all voting Labour for?

But in most cases of identify theft someone at least has the common decency to pass themselves off as a person. This week some blighter is pretending to be my car.

Two penalty charge notices came crashing through the letterbox on Monday. Both for driving through closed-off roads.  The reg plate checked out, but if you look closely at the grainy images, that’s not my Corolla.  Small silver car, sure, but what about the shape of the back windscreen?  And where’s my aerial?  It’s a ghost car.  Someone’s tickling my chassis here.

Where this ends is anyone’s guess.  At the very least, I assume these penalty notices will keep coming, sending my well-marshalled credit score into a tailspin and leaving me on the street when the time comes to re-mortgage.  And that’s assuming no-one’s lining up a bank robbery or drive-by shooting with this doppelgänger wagon.  So best case scenario I’m homeless; worst case I’m staring down the barrel of fifteen to twenty.

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You have to feel Dele Alli would have some sympathy with this.  Someone stole Dele’s footballing PIN number a long time ago.  Identity cloned and talent vaporised as if he’d dribbled headlong into the world’s biggest phishing scam.  Only the husk remains of England’s most exciting prospect from four years previous.

It certainly can’t be described as a blip anymore, that’s for sure.  Dele has barely put a foot right since the 2018 World Cup.  Valuation soaring somewhere north of £80m, all of a sudden the sky went black and the birds fell out of the sky.  A whole cycle has passed since then of innocuous displays and increasingly little game time. 

It’s a sad state of affairs if, in fairness, one entirely of his own making.  Few seem prepared to stand in Dele’s corner at the moment.  And when you have Spurs royalty like Glen Hoddle getting hot under the collar about something as silly as the clothes Dele wore at his Goodison unveiling, you get the sense there’s a back story about general levels of professionalism being alluded to.

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It will surprise no-one that Dele’s first touch in professional football was a back-heel.  And listening to his own analysis in interviews, Dele talks a lot about needing to express himself, about the conditions being right for him to show people “what I can do”.  There’s a relationship of artist and paintbrush here, of football as a solo pursuit in which Dele is tasked with coming up with a beautiful solution.  Which is all well and good, except there’s 38 games to be played each season and it’s no use winning five of them 12-nil if you lose all of the rest.  Like the insisted-upon coitus of Valentine’s Day when the spark has long gone from a relationship, Dele needs to learn to put a shift in. 

Expressing yourself is an indulgence.  This is the premier league, Dele; we’re not here to fuck spiders.  Burnley away, 90-mile-an-hour stuff, Sean Dyche completely hoarse within ten minutes of kick-off.  We’re not painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, we’re flogging NFTs of baby chimps to children.  Piling them high and selling them cheap, my man.  Some days you’re Kurt Zouma.  Some days you’re the cat.  The trick is to make the best of both situations.

Case in point, Manchester City have one of the best left-sided attacking midfielders in the world.  But what does the mad Spaniard do?  He plays Phil Foden centre-forward and tells him to bloody well get on with it.  Rather than cry foul over his tainted oeuvre, Foden crashes through 14km a game and creates bags of chances for his team.

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In the long run, focus and discipline invariably beats talent.  No-one can teach Dele Alli to be self-starter in life except Dele Alli.  Some people sit at home and sulk on Champions League nights if their team didn’t qualify.  Some people dust themselves down and get burgling the houses of the players that did qualify.  It’s high time Dele showed the world he’s at least prepared to shackle a terrified wife and child to a radiator and bag up the jewellery.

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The baton now passes to Frank Lampard to winch Dele out of the abyss.  It’s tempting to conclude, from a positional sense at least, there’s no-one better placed in football management to help Dele.  But the issue has never been one of ability.  The challenge for Lampard is to man-manage a player whose focus, not unlike Prince Andrew’s recollection, just seems to drift on occasion.

So how do you teach humble?  What elixir of modesty do you use to refloat a container ship-sized ego that has run aground? At the bare minimum, a few character-building turns as draft excluder on defensive free-kicks can’t hurt.  There’s also the nuclear threat of letting Dominic Calvert-Lewin pick out an outfit for Dele every time he’s voted worst in training, albeit being made to wear some truly dreadful clothes might not immediately strike Dele as a form of punishment.

Whatever approach Lampard takes to raising Dele off the rocks, you have to hope – against all the odds now, it must be said – he succeeds.  When all’s said and done, at his peak, Dele is the reason why you watch football.  He’s a goal out of nowhere; a hand grenade with the pin long removed.  The sort of madness-maker who wins back-to-back Young Player of the Year awards and celebrates by punching Claudio Yacob in the stomach, promptly ending his season early in suspension.  Unmarkable. Unplayable.  Unmanageable.  Not indispensable, though.  No-one ever is.  And it’s an awfully long road back from here.

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Can’t fault your bravery, Glenn.

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