He’s the best player for his age in world football, according to Mauricio Pochettino. “When you compare Dele Alli, 21 years old, with all the players in the world – not only in Europe, in the world – I think he is the best,” the Spurs boss reasoned earlier this month. “In his age. In his form. Assists and everything. But, and I don’t understand why, there is still that feeling [to criticise him].”
Of course, it’s not uncommon for a manager to make a staunch defence of one of his players, but in this particular case, Pochettino’s remarks caught in the throat of many. Is Dele Alli, as good as he undoubtedly is, really the best 21-year-old footballer on the planet right now? Is he really at that level?
“Tell me one 21-year-old that is better than him, and all that he achieves,” Pochettino continued, making the case for the former MK Dons man. “Maybe you can find similar. But better than him? Maybe I am not objective because he is my player but, for me, he is amazing.”
Amazing, he might be, but is Alli playing at the standard of someone like Kylian Mbappe, the 19-year-old who has been one of the best players in the Champions League for the past two seasons? Kingsley Coman is another who holds a strong claim to the accolade Pochettino bestowed on Alli, with Marco Asensio and Leroy Sane both just a few months older than the Spurs attacker.
These are all meaningless comparisons, such is the nature of comparisons in the context of a team sport like football, but Pochettino’s comments sparked a debate concerning the development of Alli as one of the best English talents for a long time. Much is expected of the 21-year-old, with some even hinting that his current trajectory could take him to a club like Barcelona or Real Madrid in the not so distant future.
But after last season’s achievements, which saw Alli score 18 goals in 35 Premier League appearances, this season has been a little tougher. In contrast, he has found the net just six times. With the summer’s World Cup looming, Alli might not even be assured of his place in the England team.
Alli is still learning and developing as a player, but this season has been something of a watershed in his career. He has struggled for full fitness, failing to hit the heights of last season even when he has found full fitness. Pochettino might believe that he’s the best player of his age in world football, making a point of expressing his view, but a little pragmatism would serve Alli well at this stage of his career.
Otherwise, he might be the next to fall victim to English football’s hype machine. Alli’s talent cannot be denied, but some may be guilty of building him up too much too quickly. At 21 years old, Alli is still a fledgling talent and the English football public should treat him in accordance. Pochettino’s remarks might actually do his player more harm than good.
A summer on the bench at the World Cup might be what Alli needs. It would demonstrate to him just how fragile life at the top of the sport can be. Had the World Cup been played a year ago, he would have been one of England’s stars, a talent to build around. Now, he could be a peripheral figure in Russia. If Alli has the ambition to match his talent, he will take that as motivation.
Pochettino might wish to put an arm around the shoulder of one of his best players, but he must be careful not to mollycoddle Alli. “I promise you that I am the most critical person with my players. But it is difficult to criticise Dele,” said the Argentine as he continued to champion the 21-year-old he calls the best 21-year-old in the world. Pochettino might be right, but who benefits from him making such a hyperbolic statement? Not Alli, that’s for sure.
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.