With Manchester City and Manchester United already out in front of the chasing pack at the top of the Premier League table, it’s tempting to start thinking about a two-horse race. But both Manchester clubs’ starts to last season show that it’s far too early for that kind of talk.
Despite a stuttering start, Spurs sit in third place, the best of the rest, and the form of Harry Kane is starting to seem ominous for the rest of the league.
But the question that will dog Spurs this season is their start. Over the last few years, they’ve ultimately left themselves too much to do in the run-in. This season, they’re already five points back, even if form is starting to pick up; though mostly away from home.
Aside from that, you also wonder if there are problems behind the scenes which have led to a few negative results this season so far. Over the summer, we heard quite a bit about Tottenham’s wage structure and how players were unhappy with their pay packets in relation to other players of a similar level. Daniel Levy’s response was typically bullish: according to the minutes of a meeting with a Spurs supporters’ club last summer, Levy said, “all players were under contracts, contracts they were happy to sign at the time. They would be expected to honour those contracts. They wouldn’t have had a reduction if things had gone badly.” So much for soft diplomacy, then.
The fact that Levy is highest paid director in the Premier League perhaps rubs some salt into those wounds as well. It’s not a stretch to wonder whether this is the whole scenario that’s potentially pushing Dele Alli into the arms of super agents and filling his mind with thoughts of off-the-field at the expense of sporting performance.
Compare and a contrast Dele Alli’s start to this season with that of Harry Kane, though. The two are the most prominent symbols of the new Spurs, two young English players who were given their chance to prove themselves at the highest level, and both have taken them for both club and country. This season, Kane already has 16 goals for club and country.
Alli has a pass accuracy of around 80% and averages just under 35 passes per game. These are stats taken in isolation and don’t necessarily reflect performance accurately. But the narrative has been one of a player just getting on with his football versus a player distracted by fame and fortune.
That’s probably too easy a conclusion to draw. Strikers are measured by their goal rate, not necessarily their overall play; especially if they’re scoring. Midfielders, especially those who are creating and attacking, are judged by their ability to get on the ball and influence games.
If the conclusion isn’t fair, however, looking at those particular stats probably is. And it might shed some light on the difference between the two players at the moment. Kane seems to be the kind of player who wants to break records. Two PL golden boots in a row may have given him a taste, but when you hear him talking about beating Alan Shearer’s PL goalscoring record, you realise it’s on his mind. So it should be given his age and his goalscoring record for club and country. Maybe that’s why a move to a side like Real Madrid looks further from Kane’s mind than it does from Alli’s – move to Spain and you can’t break the Premier League goalscoring record, and you’re unlikely to break Cristiano Ronaldo’s either.
What that means, though, is that Kane doesn’t have the time to waste in contract disputes or being disappointed with any perceived lack of love at Spurs. He just has to keep his form high and keep scoring goals to increase his tally. Alli doesn’t have that barrier – he’s three years younger and doesn’t have records to break. In order for an attacking midfielder to be remembered as one of the best, it looks increasingly as though they have to craft their celebrity and their persona, or join one of the world’s biggest superclubs. Alli, the face of BT Sport’s pre-season build-up ad in August, is doing the first part at least.
And maybe what this shows is how, in the internet age, strikers will still always be measured on goals. That’s not new, and it’s an easy rhetoric because goals are an obvious and vitally important stat. But for midfielders like Alli, it’s about the stunning goals, the skills and their impact on games that’s remembered: the kinds of things that get condensed into a YouTube video.
So it’s a lot more complicated than ‘Alli should be more like Kane’, but when it boils down to it, Alli is definitely playing a dangerous game.
Making the step up from the lower leagues, from Milton Keynes Dons to Spurs and the Premier League clearly takes a lot of hard work in addition to natural talent. No one could argue that Alli hasn’t found his level at the top of the game, but in a way this is the crucial period. It’s one thing to make the step up – whether that’s coming up from lower leagues or indeed just breaking through into the first team – but keeping your level high enough to continue your meteoric rise is another thing. At the moment, Kane is doing just that and being talked about as one of Europe’s most devastating strikers. Alli’s form means he isn’t on the same level at the moment: clearly he has the ability to get that back, but distractions don’t help.
In the end, though, if Alli suffers, so too do Spurs. As lethal as Kane is, it’s unlikely Spurs will plug that five-point gap between themselves and the top two without an in-form Alli, too. Over the last few years, Spurs may have regretted their slow starts, but this season they might end up regretting their board’s summer intransigence over player wages.