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Dele Alli can still be a generational talent – he might just need a certain kind of manager

What happened to the player once praised to the hilt by Mauricio Pochettino?

Over the heads of the Tottenham Hotspur players in the auditorium, Jose Mourinho asks for Dele Alli to identify himself: “I understand already,” Mourinho says to his celebrated young Englishman, “that you are a f------ lazy guy in training. I don’t need more days.”

Hard to judge the badinage levels of the Spurs manager in the seemingly endless All Or Nothing documentary series, in which Mourinho appears to consider himself in charge of a class of likeable but essentially limited year sevens. The tension is such that it feels like he could boil over at any moment, whether that is in a difficult conversation with Danny Rose or just at a meet-and-greet with the club’s IT department. Certainly this remark is pitched as a joke and Dele cracks a wan smile in response but there is the sense of an uncomfortable moment that just escapes the cameras somewhere after the cut. A manager is paid to tell hard truths, but is he right?

One theory on Dele is that his game history since he became a first team regular aged 17 at MK Dons means his training programme has been modified to recovery, even more so since his hamstring issues became more serious. He is not an effing lazy trainer, just not a player who trains much at all. Mauricio Pochettino ran all his sessions with the players wearing GPS units and logged every yard they covered with video as well. Mourinho prefers an intuitive approach to how much work players have done in a session and less reliance upon the GPS. Could there have been a misjudgement along the way?

Now it seems that the great prodigy whose move to Spurs and the Premier League five years ago launched a top-flight career of astonishing precocity is on his way out of the club and possibly the league. In football, perception is everything, and Mourinho is certainly shaping Dele’s whether the player likes it or not. But this was always a different kind of footballer, a rare talent who needed to be managed a certain way.  

Dele will have watched the series fearing that the more damaging of Mourinho’s observations would stick, from “f------ lazy” to “party boy”. In their private office chat, the nature of which is known only to the two men, the film crew and the 150 million subscribers to Amazon Prime, Mourinho offers a long discourse on what he sees as the decline of Dele’s career. As for Dele, it feels like he has heard it all before.

What happened to the 21-year-old whom Pochettino acclaimed as the best of his age in the world, two and a half years ago? Certainly the player himself feels ready for a change, and now as the pathway opens up for his departure from Spurs, either in this window or another, it begs another question. As to whether this was a player who needs the right kind of guidance: a different position, a different style of play, a different manager to the one now in charge of Spurs.

The peak Dele of March 2018, when Pochettino described him as the world’s best in his age group, had more combined goals and assists than any of his 1996-born peers including Timo Werner and Leroy Sane and the 1995-born Anthony Martial. Dele’s two most productive seasons, 2016-2017 and 2017-2018, had seen an astonishing return. It was not until the next two seasons that followed that the injury problems would begin and so too the first bumps in a stellar career.

His best performances have come as a No 10 behind Harry Kane and he benefited from his partnership with the now-departed Christian Eriksen, who assisted his two headed goals against Chelsea in that Spurs famous win in Jan 2017. Dele was also a threat running in behind defences, as he did for his first on the occasion of another two-goal game against Chelsea in April 2018.

After that meeting with Mourinho in front of the Amazon Prime cameras, Dele dutifully acknowledges that he had not played well in the previous season 2018-2019. “I’m not blind to it,” he says, although it does feel like there is more he would add on the subject had the manager not already seized the narrative. The season in question was the one in which Dele played in both legs of Spurs’ Champions League quarter and semi-finals as well as the final itself. It was his pass with the outside of his right foot to Lucas Moura for the winner in Amsterdam.

Even so the perception is different. Mourinho says to him in that meeting that he sees a player who has “reached the top and then …” Briefly lost for words, Mourinho finishes his sentence by motioning a kind of floating gesture which both he and Dele, regard with mild confusion as to its actual meaning. In the early stages of their partnership Mourinho feels drawn to Dele because a revival of the player’s fortunes was a compelling theme for the newly-appointed manager. But it had to be done on Mourinho’s terms and any lazy trainer, as he sees it, is an affront to his methods.

Mourinho likes a certain type of player – a Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg for example. As for Dele, if he is to leave then he will have to find somewhere as accommodating to his talents, as well as his weaknesses, as the Spurs of 2015 to 2019 proved to be. No easy task. A player of his undoubted ability now finds himself outside the England squad, a sign of just how far he has fallen from those days when he looked like the future of the side. Of course there would also be a danger for Spurs in letting him leave. He was once the best of his generation and there is no reason why he might not be among that again.