It feels like a lifetime ago, but the initial jolt into form that Jose Mourinho’s arrival at Tottenham Hotspur triggered in Dele Alli has become rather ironic. Mauricio Pochettino had moulded a squad full of young, vibrant, technically gifted and hard working players, but there was a clear drop off at the club in his final months, both before and after a Champions League final defeat to Liverpool, of which Dele had become indicative.
As a teenager, he was lauded from his days at MK Dons but it was Pochettino’s willingness to put trust in youth — something Mourinho has not been known for throughout his illustrious coaching career — which propelled Dele into the limelight, where he shone. In January 2015, when Spurs won the race to sign him, it was expected that his development would be slow, as was typical, but he’d soon be fast-tracked into a key role in the club’s most successful modern era.
In his first two full seasons in North London, he scored 28 Premier League goals and laid on 16 more as Spurs launched two very serious title challenges which each ended in top three finishes. Clubs were circling for Pochettino and his players, including Dele, but they all stayed, which ended up arguably contributing to a rather unsavoury end to a brilliant ride.
Over time, the speculation became more frustrating for Spurs fans because Pochettino wouldn’t shut it down immediately. There was never a doubt over his love for the club, but their lack of ability or willingness to spend was always a caveat to whatever success they had. Rather than building towards something, it soon became apparent that Spurs were punching above their weight, and with much better wages on offer elsewhere, keeping hold of the likes of Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane was seen as a victory for Tottenham Hotspur.
With no real sense of progression, the message appeared to become stale. In Dele’s final two seasons under Pochettino, he had scored just 13 league goals with just seven assists — a severe drop off. By the time Mourinho came in, a number of the squad had contract issues, including Eriksen, who wanted to leave and eventually did, joining Inter the following January.
Because Dele’s attitude and motivation had been questioned, even at his best, it was expected that he and Mourinho, a well-known disciplinarian who preferred to implement a mentality over a playing style, would clash. Around 18 months later, the narrative has corrected itself, and events have followed prophecy. Mourinho, whose public criticism of certain players has become a trademark over the years, has completely lost patience with the 24-year-old, who has only featured in four league games this season without scoring or assisting a goal.
Once a staple of the England side, scoring in the 2018 World Cup win over Sweden, his international career seems to be little more an unattainable dream. Dele Alli scored twice in Mourinho’s first four games for Tottenham Hotspur and played with more freedom than he had in months, but it didn’t last.
Despite what now seems to have been a long goodbye between Pochettino and the club, there is a lot of mutual affection there. As much was shown in the fact that a number of the squad were linked with moves to Paris Saint-Germain when he took over recently. There was an interest in Dele, and he quietly pushed for the opportunity to kickstart his career in France, to no avail. Right now, at least, it feels like there is no place for him at Spurs anymore.
That is by no means a definitive statement, though. Tanguy Ndombele was in Dele’s position as soon as Mourinho walked in the door. The Frenchman was the man everyone hoped would act as a catalyst in the latter days of Pochettino’s reign; he was the club-record signing and expected to add impetus. But he struggled to settle initially and Mourinho instantly focussed in on him; he’d be hooked off in games and left on the bench or even in the stands, as became the typical fashion for the manager’s signal of disapproval.
It was the most famously the same for Joe Cole in his first spell at Chelsea and Luke Shaw at Manchester United. The height of the Ndombele story came in the very first coronavirus UK lockdown, when Mourinho was told off for training one-to-one with him at a local park.
But his recent resurgence gives hope to Dele if he wants desperately to get out of Mourinho’s firing line. After a win over Sheffield United last month, in which Ndombele scored a fantastic lobbed goal, Mourinho alluded to this in his post-match press conference on Zoom at Bramall Lane.
“I have enough experience to say and to feel that when a player is not playing very well it is his responsibility, and when a player turns things around it is his responsibility. With me, the door is always open,” he said.
The suggestion that Mourinho and his rather stark man-management techniques are past their best has come back strongly. Spurs’ season has stunted badly; a few weeks ago, they were very much in the mix at the top, and Mourinho was deemed to be ‘back’ by some. But his narrative has come full circle very quickly. While it can be said that the pandemic has impacted every team’s form — the title race has seldom been so tight at this stage of the season — the evidence of Mourinho’s ‘decline’ precedes it.
Whether he is ever going to hit the heights of yesteryear again or not, Mourinho is playing a very familiar game. He has laid the gauntlet down to Dele Alli and he must respond and dispel perceptions about his character if he is to bounce back at Tottenham Hotspur or seek a move elsewhere. The blueprint is there, he just needs to look across the dressing room floor. As his manager says, the door is always open.
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