Statistics often give the perception of being a matter of black and white, right and wrong, ultimate, absolute and defining. But statistics are often misleading; they hinge on accurate context and earnest interpretation.
The consequence otherwise – as is often seen in the world of football where we’re only truly starting to appreciate what statistics tell us, if anything at all – is data being bent, morphed and cherry-picked to support a specific argument. While that process is rarely as intentional or deceitful as it may sound, it inevitably fails to tell us the whole story. Statistics, even at the best of times, require some reading between the lines.
Tottenham Hotspur’s Dele Alli provides a prime example. The statistics tell us he’s created more chances and had more shots at goal per match than during a 2016/17 campaign that saw him notch up 18 goals and seven assists in the Premier League, accordingly winning the PFA Young Player of the Year award for the second season in a row. The logical assumption then, especially considering he’s already opened his account with two goals and one assist, is that Alli has started the new season in even better form.
But the reality of the situation is markedly different. Although it may seem cruel to criticise a 21-year-old after just seven games of the new season, bearing in mind he also started last term slowly, the England international has been anonymous for large portions of Tottenham’s seven league fixtures thus far; drifting in and out of games, going through the motions and stuck in the shadow of Harry Kane, the real driving force behind Spurs’ rise to third in the table.
That’s not what the statistics tell us, but it is what Alli’s body language often protrudes. While his first two seasons at White Hart Lane brought praise for the confidence he showed at such a tender age, we’re now seeing the other side of that self-belief; the assumption that good form will come because of his natural talent, followed by apathy and frustration when it doesn’t.
Which perhaps explains why Alli’s been involved in two acts of petulance already this season, raising his middle finger to Kyle Walker in a packed-out Wembley and booked for diving against Huddersfield last weekend. Tottenham had already scored thrice without the England international making an intrinsic impact, and his tumble to the floor stunk of desperation – the hope of having a more obvious, more direct influence on the scoreline.
Of course, that’s an assumption, one that seems inevitably less convincing than black and white statistics. But after two years of phenomenal progress in the top flight, the expectation is for Alli to continue improving at a similar rate. In that regard, he’s clearly treading water. Kane has taken his game to a higher level this term and most evidently in the Champions League; his attacking accomplice is starting to lag behind.
Uber-critical, maybe – Alli’s form certainly hasn’t been disastrous by any stretch of the imagination. But the former League One starlet has already reached the realms of ability where intense scrutiny is required. It’s an inevitable part of the parcel of being a top-class footballer and the fact of the matter is that the Tottenham star has set his own, often ludicrously high standards.
Likewise, Alli’s mediocre performances haven’t taken place in a vacuum; they come on the backdrop of not only two bizarre acts of mindless petulance on the pitch, but also the prodigious midfielder looking to change agents, hinting at an exit next summer – or thoughts of one at the very least. It all adds up to an image of a young player letting the incredible momentum his career has accumulated start to peter out as off-field discussions over his future become a distraction and he struggles to find new ways of challenging himself.
That’s not to suggest Alli, who Transfermarkt value at £40.5million, won’t reach the world-class levels of ability heralded of him, if he’s not at that point already. But it does hint at a less noteworthy season ahead and more episodes of vacated temperament, which won’t do Tottenham any favours.
Alli’s always had that enigmatic presence, the perception that he can never quite be fully tamed. But the responsibility to get his form back on track and his head straight inevitably falls on Mauricio Pochettino. The Tottenham gaffer is one of Europe’s best when it comes to man-managing young talent. He now has to find a way of refocusing Alli to not only push his performances back to the same level as last season, but even further beyond.