For all the jokes about their lack of it pre-2004, Chelsea were chasing history on a bitter night in January. Thirteen straight wins had catapulted the Blues to the top of the league, and a fourteenth would’ve been a Premier League record. It was left to Tottenham – after Chelsea had ended their unbeaten run in November – to return the favour. Both sides opted for a 3-4-3, and for 90 minutes, both sets of front-lines rotated in position-less search for space behind enemy lines. It was less Total Football though, more Battleships.
It took two vintage Dele Alli moments to sink Conte’s fleet, with a header either side of half-time. It was a performance that for some, elevated his status as more important to Spurs than Kane; White Hart Lane stood in ovation, fans fawned over the finishes, and pundits talked of his world class movement. While a 20-year-old came up with the missile blows, Spurs’s midfield combination of Dembélé and Wanyama, again, went under the radar. They came out with less possession, but nullified Kanté and Matic fantastically. Alli won Tottenham the points, but the game was won by Pochettino’s system. (Again.)
Football is beautiful, yes, but it is a science. It doesn’t take an elite manager to know that football isn’t always won by the champagne flicks of forwards, but by the coach with the better balanced profiles across the middle of the pitch. Diego Maradona famously credited God with a goal; Total Football pioneer Johann Cruyff was far more scientific. “I’m not religious,” he once said. “In Spain, all 22 players make the sign of the cross before they enter the pitch. If it works all matches must therefore end in a draw.” For every action in one midfield, there must be an equal and opposite reaction from the other. That, is the science of Pochettino’s pivot.
Arguably the greatest playmaker of all time, Cruyff knew the importance of a strong unit behind him, just as Dele Alli did that night. Alli’s, as much as Tottenham’s success, is thanks to the strength of a side that allows him to drift, giving him a free role behind Kane. This season, he’s made half as many passes as Christian Eriksen, but scored twice as many goals. In his most magnetic form, he has the finish of a striker, the vision of a midfielder and can dribble like a winger; Alli is an amalgamation of all the traits Spurs were crying out for in players before Pochettino arrived, and when he’s feeling ruthless, the final third is but a stage for him to perform his art.
For all his grace in possession though, his finest ability is his movement, as he proved against Chelsea in the 2-0 win. He doesn’t have to be playing well to snatch a brace, either. While Eriksen thrives in the space in front of the defence, Alli exploits the space behind, thanks to the fluidity of the Spurs attack, the strength of the midfield behind him and his own incredible instincts for a run. Alli is a raumdeuter, a player whose true genius is off the ball rather than on: as Cruyff himself said, “It is statistically proven that players actually have the ball 3 minutes on average. So, the most important thing is: what do you do during those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball?”
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Structure is what enables fluid movement though: even the most beautiful architecture needs foundations. Games are won in midfield as much as they are from final third brilliance.
“With a ’10, you will play 4-2-1-3, and with a ‘6’ it will be a 4-1-2-3. Taking a good look at the two numbers in the middle, you can see that with a ’10’ two players are behind the ball and one is set up offensively, as with a ‘6’ three players are behind the ball, of which two are offensive. This is how you kill two birds with one stone; both defensively as offensively you will have an extra player.
By choosing the ’10’ anyway, you will get yourself in trouble as soon as the opponents are pushing forward. In this case, there will be only two midfielders behind the ball, who are also required to give 60-metre passes. This is impossible to do.”
Tottenham always opt for a pivot.The full-backs play a key role in providing passing options too, and Alderweireld is the ball-playing centre-back that starts attacks. But whether they play 3-4-3 or 4-2-3-1, the core of the side is built around Dembélé and Wanyama/Dier. One of the most physical midfields in the country, Spurs steamroller most sides they face, because they’re physically superior to most in the middle and mobile enough to cover each other positionally, but they still move the ball quickly to the attackers. For example, Michael Carrick only makes three more passes on average per game than Mousa Dembélé does.
Take the two games against City this season. In the first, Tottenham dominated the midfield, gave more width to their full-backs, and this as a result forced City to play far more narrow than they’re used to. The pressing game that Pochettino played led by Wanyama at the base of the midfield, suffocated City of the ball; Spurs won 2-0. In the return fixture, City packed the midfield a little more, opting for the vision of Yaya Touré as a regista to break Tottenham’s lines. With Dembélé and Wanyama played out of the game, City would’ve won if not for wasted opportunities and controversial refereeing decisions.
In fact, Spurs have only dropped points this season to big teams that have nullified the pivot, and therefore Dele Alli. Pundits talk of the “mentality” of such a young group of players stepping up to big games. A lot of Tottenham’s woes come though from a two-man midfield being undone, just as Cruyff warned could happen if you play a number 10. This is where Alli comes in. Like Mesut Özil, Paul Pogba or Philippe Coutinho, he thrives when the midfield around him is rock-solid; without it, Dele relies on clutch moments. With Rooney in his favoured role at the Euros last summer, Alli’s performances as an interior were lacklustre to say the least, but at Spurs, the side is built around his strength.
The game is changing though: the number 10 position is evolving, and more sides are going to realise that the way to beat Tottenham isn’t to outmuscle them, but pick locks through their midfield. If Tottenham stick with Wanyama and Dembélé in midfield – maybe Harry Winks could become more key in a deep-lying midfield role – Alli is going to evolve next season. It’s natural to develop at his age: as he adds more facets to his game, he could become a third central midfielder in a 4-3-3, or he could evolve further into a roaming playmaker in a 4-2-3-1, in the style of Thiago Alcântara or Samir Nasri. He certainly has the aggression and work ethic for the former, the movement and dribbling ability for the latter.
Dele Alli is known for the champagne finishes, the last-gasp runs into the box to finish Tottenham moves. But ironically, he doesn’t take centre stage as much as others. It’s Eriksen that dictates tempo, the and both Wanyama and Dembélé spend more time on the ball than the Englishman. As he develops, as Pochettino tinkers with the system and personnel, it will be interesting to see how Alli’s influence on games changes.
The best is yet to come, for both Tottenham and for Alli. Football is a science: Pochettino is ensuring that that Alli is at the nucleus.