Jose Mourinho was on a charm offensive.
The Portuguese complimented Tottenham Hotspur’s training ground, their academy, and looked delighted to be back in the Premier League. It was a stark contrast to his final days at Manchester United when he cut an angry and defensive figure.
It was vital for Mourinho’s reputation that things were different now, and the same was true of Tottenham. Mauricio Pochettino, the man that had at one time taken the club to second in the Premier League and the Champions League final, was gone, and this was his replacement.
“When it first happened, you just blame yourself, when you’re sad, and you don’t really look at the big picture,” said Alli, ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League match against Olympiakos. “It’s clear to everyone how much Poch meant to the players.”
Alli was undoubtedly someone in need of change. The 23-year-old burst onto the Premier League with Spurs in 2015 before he hit 18 league goals in his second season. Unfortunately, Alli’s goal-scoring has been on a downward trajectory since, costing him his place in the England squad recently.
“He had a desire to get in the box. He was always nasty, playing on the edge, getting sent off once or twice, but today he was non-existent,” Roy Keane said earlier in the season. “He’s been like that for a year or two.”
If Alli’s situation is as simple as restoring his edge, Mourinho will have an easy task.
The Portuguese has thrived countless times by building a siege mentality. He has also worked well with number 10s, the position where Alli plays his best football. Deco, Wesley Sneijder, and Mesut Ozil performed well under Mourinho at Porto, Inter, and Real Madrid respectively.
The key components are there, but is that all that has impacted Alli?
A piece earlier in the season looked at whether the player’s influence had waned. Was he getting fewer touches or fewer passes? No, is the short answer. Instead, Alli’s drop in form is mostly down to factors he had next to no control over.
Karl Robinson, Alli’s manager at MK Dons, not only pointed to fatigue but also injuries. A thigh muscle strain in March cost Alli a dozen games. The 2018/2019 season was blighted by small, momentum sapping injuries.
When Alli was on the pitch, he was also asked to play a variety of roles. Alli has played attacking midfield, central midfield, and wide left while at Spurs, with each role having different demands. Alli became trapped, at least tactically. His best form had arrived while he was in a more advanced position, but he joined Tottenham as a central midfielder.
The shuttling between different positions confused our expectations of Alli, as did the fact he was often judged solely on whether he had contributed goals. Against West Ham, it appeared there was a simplification of ideas for Alli that resulted in his first assist of the season and good overall performance.
“With important selection of information, I tried to make clear for him exactly the spaces where we wanted him to play, offensively and defensively, he is an intelligent footballer to understand what we wanted and very, very important for the team,” Mourinho said after the 3-2 win.
It must also be remembered that Alli’s struggles occurred while Tottenham (at least recently) were trending downwards. Yes, the club made it to a Champions League final, but domestically, their Premier League point totals have read 86, 77, 71 in the last three seasons. The notion Alli is a busted flush is inaccurate, as is the idea that he was solely to blame.
When Mourinho joined Chelsea, he was quick to give Frank Lampard a pep talk.
“I don’t remember exactly the words, but I remember saying clearly to Frank Lampard “You are one of the best players in the world, but nobody knows it,” Mourinho said in the book ‘The Manager’ by Mike Carson.
That season under Mourinho saw Lampard break double figures in the Premier League for the first time in his career, a feat he would repeat for the next 11 seasons. Alli has already surpassed that landmark of goals and emerged into the Premier League, but in lending on those same sentiments both Alli and Mourinho may help the other get back on track.
Mourinho joked last week that he asked Alli if it had been an imposter, perhaps his brother, playing in his place. This was the first step of Mourinho’s plan, and it’s now time for the real Dele Alli to stand up.