Spurs surprise: Alli overlooked by fellow pros for accolade
When the shortlist for English soccer's player of the year was released on Thursday, Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino found Harry Kane's name as expected.
But where was Dele Alli?
Not among the six leading players in the country, according to the midfielder's fellow professionals who voted.
"He showed a great performance every week, every game," Pochettino said, puzzled by Alli's omission. "He's improved a lot. From last season, I think he's a better player, he's showing better stats and in my opinion, yes, he deserves (the nomination)."
For the 16 goals and five assists in the Premier League, more than any other player who isn't an out-and-out striker and with such variety: With both feet — from distance and tap-ins — and with his head.
For the way he links up play and leaves defenders trailing in his wake, enabling Tottenham to attack with speed, precision, and unpredictability.
The English youngster even finds time to formulate intricate goal celebrations involving a variety of handshakes with teammates.
"The way we play at Tottenham this season, has allowed me to be higher up the pitch and get goals and assists," Alli said. "Hopefully I can help the team and chip in with some more goals."
Alli was playing in the third tier just two years ago with Milton Keynes Dons, and Tottenham secured him for a bargain five million pounds after being recommended by former manager David Pleat.
"He was very athletic and he can run to the box comfortably," Pleat recalled telling Tottenham ahead of the 2015 transfer. "He has got a nice stride and is decent in the air. He was more of a holding player although he got quite forward."
Alli's career progress has been outstanding in his two seasons at Tottenham, having also scored 10 goals and contributed nine assists in his first Premier League campaign.
But the midfielder, who turned 21 on Tuesday, might just have to settle with winning the Professional Footballers' Association's young player accolade for the second successive season at the ceremony on April 23.
Alli's teammate, Kane, is the only Englishman shortlisted for the main award. There are three other strikers in the running: Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United) and Romelu Lukaku (Everton). Runway leader Chelsea provided two contenders: Winger Eden Hazard and midfield favorite N'Golo Kante.
But Alli's impact, for a player so young, seems to warrant so much more in Pochettino's eyes.
"After his first season in the Premier League always the people want to see again in the second season if he can confirm all that he showed last season," Pochettino said ahead of second-place Tottenham's home game against Bournemouth on Saturday.
"Not only did he confirm that, he's improved in all aspects of his game. That means he's clever, intelligent, still with potential to improve and learn, and today he's showing that he's one of the best players in the Premier League."
Coupled with Kane's firepower in front of goal, Alli has powered Tottenham's charge up the Premier League in back-to-back campaigns with versatility that can see him utilized as an auxiliary striker or a wide player.
Such regular title challenges are unheard of at the club that hasn't won the league since 1961. Eradicating Chelsea's seven-point lead is an onerous task with only seven games remaining, but even holding onto second place would represent progress for a Tottenham side that collapsed late last season. It will also secure a second successive ticket to the Champions League for the first time in Tottenham history.
Alli, though, stands to miss half of the six European group stage games next season through a suspension imposed by UEFA for a rash tackle last month as Tottenham exited the Europa League. And if there's one flaw to Alli's game it's those hot-headed, impulsive moments of rage. A healthy dose of aggression is a valued trait, but his temperament has to be controlled.
"That's one of the things I have to learn to change — not maybe to play with less aggression, but how I react in different situations is something I am looking to improve," Alli said recently, as he readily fielded questions about his mindset without his media minder intervening. "I have been working on it, hopefully people can see that.
"That's the player I am, I've always been like that since I was younger. It's about getting it under control and I think I've been doing that."
Alli, though, won't care about individual awards if Chelsea can somehow be overhauled from the summit. Regardless of Tottenham's results, Chelsea will be guaranteed the title by winning five of its remaining seven fixtures. That run-in has Antonio Conte's Chelsea visiting former manager Jose Mourinho's fifth-placed Manchester United on Sunday.
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