“This type of action doesn’t help him, doesn’t help the team and doesn’t help football,” Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino said following Neil Swarbrick’s decision to book Dele Alli for simulation during Spurs’ 4-0 humping of Huddersfield on Saturday. “We are talking in the last few years about fair play. I think he is improving a lot and learning but still he must learn.”
The situation Dele finds himself in is nothing new to the 21-year-old — his embarrassing dive as he attempted to round Terriers goalkeeper Jonas Lossl comes just 24 hours after the FA handed him a one-match ban for his finger salute to England team-mate Kyle Walker against Slovakia last month. The midfielder was also fined £3,852 by Fifa and told to grow up by those helping guide his development.
Last season, Dele received a three-match ban for a reckless, knee-high challenge on Gent’s Brecht Dejaegere during a Europa League clash, a year after being charged with violent conduct for an off-the-ball punch to West Brom defender Claudio Yacob. He was also the focus of ridicule following another dive, against Swansea in December 2016, in Spurs’ 5-0 win at White Hart Lane.
While the aforementioned finger gesture was largely harmless, cheating has proved a part of Dele’s make-up.
A string of controversial incidents have threatened to mar the midfielder’s name since his meteoric Premier League rise, though his performances for club and country have so far outweighed his unsportsmanlike behaviour. Now, though, after blatantly ignoring advice from experienced figures in the game, he is damaging his own reputation.
Dele has found himself in the spotlight far too many times during his relatively short Spurs career. He may still only be 21 years of age, but he must, by now, realise the world is watching his every move. What makes the antics so infuriating is the immeasurable amount of talent the player possesses.
Often the driving force of Pochettino’s Spurs midfield, Dele scored 18 goals and registered seven assists across 37 league appearances last season and was named PFA Young Player of the Season for a second consecutive campaign. He is, rightly, lauded as one of the finest England players of his generation.
Why, then, has he become an incredibly difficult player to associate with for the neutral spectator? Aggression is an essential piece of Dele’s game; he simply would not have made the mighty impression he has without it. But Dele is intelligent enough, and has enough skill and technical ability to punish teams without resorting to cheating.
“For me, Dele Alli is a top player. He is a key player for us,” Pochettino told a news conference after Spurs’ 1-0 victory at Barnsley in the Carabao Cup, in which Dele scored the winning goal. “I think he helps us by scoring today. I am so happy with him. It’s true that everyone can do better, but I am happy. It is a period that he needs to find his balance, but I am so happy, his performance was good. He tried and scored and that is fantastic.”
And while Dele is yet to find the level of performance he displayed so regularly last season, he now has another opportunity to steer Spurs’ title charge with the promise of a spot in Gareth Southgate’s England World Cup squad come the end of the season, should he remain focused.
There have even been calls to hand the Spurs star the Three Lions captaincy in hope the additional responsibility would see a shift in mentality, though he has some way to go to convince the England chiefs he is ready for a leadership role. Southgate is the latest to offer his hand to Dele but is reportedly willing to cut him from his plans should the issues continue — reason enough for the midfielder to strip the unavoidable mistakes from his game.
Dele has every right to expect to eventually be named captain for both club and country, but it will not simply be handed to him. He must earn it.
“It’s all right saying he’s 21 but there has to come a time when we stop saying that,” All-time Premier League leading scorer Alan Shearer said of the Huddersfield dive. “He has to learn now. You’d think after being banned for England he would want to stay out of trouble. That is blatantly trying to cheat.”
The time to grow up is now. Neither Tottenham nor England can afford to wait much longer.