Every footballer begins their career with the presumption of innocence. They were all “not that kind of player” once upon a time, but only until they make one bad tackle too many.
Dele Alli has to, therefore, tread very carefully over the next couple of seasons. Still just 21 years of age, watch-through-your-fingers tackles like the one he imprinted on Kevin De Bruyne’s ankle last weekend can still be put down to inexperience, but not for much longer. That horror tackle wasn’t his first offence, with Gent’s Brecht Dejaegere similarly lucky to walk away from a potential leg-breaking challenge earlier this year.
It’s not just bad tackles, with a kick of an on-the-ground Nenad Tomovic, a punch to Claudio Yacob and a stamp on David Luiz also appearing on his footballing criminal record, never able to be erased from YouTube.
While a record of just 36 bookings and one red card from 228 professional matches isn’t all that damning, the fact that Alli seems to be involved in a high-profile incident every six months does not bode well for him. He is one of the stars in the most-watched league in the world and every movement he makes is under the microscope, especially any bad tackle or flash of aggression.
Premier League, UEFA and FIFA referees will begin to take notice of this. How could they not? And this would be a major blow for Alli over the course of his career. It may be too early to definitively label him a dirty player, especially with a relatively small sample size of transgressions, but one or two more incidents will see him painted as a suspect in the eyes of officials, even if subconsciously. He could find himself as the boy who cried wolf, sent off in the future for a clean tackle, having previously been given the benefit of the doubt, as he was at the Etihad last weekend.
Just look at Sergio Ramos. He has now been sent off 24 times during his Real Madrid career and one of the debates in Spain after his record-breaking dismissal in Bilbao at the start of December asked the question: did he really deserve all of them? The answer is that he probably didn’t. You see, Ramos may be a master in s**thousery, not averse to a dive, to some time wasting or to screaming in the referee’s face like J.K. Simmons in Whiplash. But he’s rarely a nasty tackler. Only seven of his 24 red cards have been straight reds, with one of them actually for a penalty-area handball and two of them for being the last man. Yet he has fostered an unwanted and perhaps slightly exaggerated bad-boy reputation, one which may dwell on the minds of referees when they consider if they should reach for a pocket. Alli cannot afford to let a similar reputation precede him.
Then there’s the fact that opposition players will start to realise that Alli can be wound up. Every off-the-ball dig or little shove will only provoke more provocation. Football has always been like this and certain managers will instruct their players to try to get under the midfielder’s skin, which will only increase the need for the Englishman to keep his cool.
Luckily for Alli, the jury is still out. He’s so young that we don’t actually know yet if he really if a footballing bad boy or if he has just shown his immaturity in a handful of high-pressure situations, which is pretty understandable. Mauricio Pochettino has said he will talk to the No.10 about his De Bruyne tackle and this can only be a good thing. Alli only has almost used up all of his not-that-kind-of-player lifelines. It’s time to save his reputation.