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Dele Alli Is Soccer’s Unicorn

The Tottenham midfielder is on a goal-scoring tear, and it is completely acceptable to start freaking out about his performance

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Back in early December, in the 15th minute of a 3–1 Champions League win over CSKA Moscow at Wembley, Tottenham midfielder Dele Alli sailed a near-miss over the crossbar. And that might’ve been just fine with CSKA winger Zoran Tosic, except that chip was right after a stoppage, when most players would’ve simply softballed it back to the goalkeeper. Tosic, fists clenched, got centimeters from Alli’s face in an effort to better suss out exactly what the 20-year-old England international’s problem was. Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino provided a rather serviceable answer after the game: “Dele Alli is Dele Alli because he’s a little bit naughty.” Shaking off how funny the word “naughty” is in the context of grown-ups doing stuff that is not sex, one reporter asked Pochettino if Alli — who promised he wasn’t trying to score, honest — plays better with “a devil on his shoulder.” The answer was yes — “Yes, yes, yes,” in fact — which kind of ties it all together. “Dele, dive in the box,” the little devil says. “Go on, Dele, ruin their day.”

Actually, come to think of it, Pochettino nailed the verbiage. This is sex.

On Wednesday, Chelsea went to White Hart Lane in search of their 14th win in a row, which would’ve snatched the single-season record for most consecutive Premier League victories from the Sega-sponsored, Sol Campbell–infused 2001–02 rendition of Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal. They also went in search of three points, which would’ve put them eight points clear at the top of the table — safely out of a surging Liverpool’s reach — and well on the path to hoisting the trophy in May. But none of those things happened, because Dele Alli.

When a fraught first half evocative of the slugfest at Stamford Bridge last May sizzled down to stoppage time, Christian Eriksen sucked in Gary Cahill, stretching Chelsea’s back three too thin. Alli was lurking near the penalty spot and then darted into the 6-yard box, catching Victor Moses in no-man’s-land. And by the time César Azpilicueta realized the right place to be was in fact, not clutching at the hem of Harry Kane’s garment, death was already upon him. Tracking Dele continued to be like grabbing hold of smoke for Chelsea’s back line, and it happened the exact same way in the second half. Only the second Dele header left Thibaut Courtois awkwardly astride the post in midair, and Moses and Azpi in each others’ embrace, probably thinking about where to go from here.

As an aside: Dele’s two goals were Tottenham’s only two shots on target. Really.

I have to, by law, heed against getting excited over a 2–0 win over the league leaders in January because Tottenham hasn’t won the EPL since 1961, so irrespective of current promise, history portends this season coming to a Spursy end. “Spursy” here meaning “fleeting happiness sure to result in brutal, agonizing failure.” You are, however, encouraged to absolutely lose your shit over Dele’s present run of form.

If you would like numbers, here are some numbers for you: With those two headed goals on either side of the halftime interval against the Blues, the Tottenham midfielder netted his third brace on the bounce. The first two came against Watford and Southampton. He’s scored seven goals in his past four games and 10 in total, equaling his goal tally from all of last season in only 19 Premier League appearances so far. His 20 goals since the start of the 2015 season are the most by any Premier League midfielder and the most of any player under the age of 23 across all the top five European Leagues in the same time frame. After Wednesday’s game, my colleague (fine, boss) Chris Ryan — whom I sometimes catch humming “Poor Scouser Tommy” to himself — said Dele looked like a young Steven Gerrard. Only it took Dele just 52 games to notch his 20th goal, and it took Gerrard 169.

What even is a “Steven Gerrard”?