When does a loss of form become something more substantial? Perhaps even something definitive? At what point is a temporary malaise no longer put forward as a valid reason to explain why a player isn’t as good as he used to be? Instead it’s simply acknowledged and accepted that the player isn’t as good as he used to be.
Whatever the answer is to that rather gloomy thought it’s hard to shake off the feeling that Tottenham’s Dele Alli and Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard are slowly and inexorably revealing it to us by virtue of being shadows of their former selves over a long duration of time. They’re case studies in a way.
Indeed, so long have they each been off the boil and ineffective to the point of being anonymous that it’s difficult to determine exactly when their downward trajectories began while recalling the days of them running the show in north London and at Old Trafford induces only nostalgia.
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With Alli it’s possible to pinpoint the 2017/18 season as the start of his decline though precisely when is shrouded in debate. All we do know is that the attacking midfielder who emerged so complete and brilliant that he won back-to-back Young Player of the Year awards suffered a sustained dip to his usual high standards that year. His stats were down though still impressive. Teammates such as Son Heung-min and Christian Eriksen began to overtake him in prominence.
Underwhelming outings for England during that summer’s World Cup saw his reputation dwindle and then the following campaign for Spurs brought injury after injury. A total of 22 games were missed last season due to thigh and hamstring problems. So poor was he in the other fixtures it’s hard to work out which games they were.
When Alli was hauled off against Bayern in Tottenham’s recent 7-2 disaster nobody batted an eyelid. Despite his fall from grace, he is still valued at £81m by Transfermarkt, but it would take a genuine masterclass from Daniel Levy to attract that type of offer for him given his current form.
With Lingard, his diminishing as a creative force was more of a creeper. When the staggering statistic emerged earlier this season that the 26-year-old hadn’t scored or made a single assist in 2019 – he has since at least added one assist to his name carving out a goal against Rochdale in the EFL Cup – people responded in the same manner as when a rather obvious twist is revealed in a film. They knew it. This whole time they knew it. They just didn’t articulate it for fear of ruining the surprise for others, that’s all.
Yet as Duncan Alexander illustrated in the damning tweet below, Lingard’s woes go back much further, hidden only by a successful December of last year.
Did Jesse Lingard score or assist a PL goal?
May 2018: no
Aug 2018: no
Sep 2018: no
Oct 2018: no
Nov 2018: no
Dec 2018: YES (4G 2A)
Jan 2019: no
Feb 2019: no
Mar 2019: no
Apr 2019: no
May 2019: no
Aug 2019: no pic.twitter.com/YGP1XOAIOg
— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) August 19, 2019
In recent times he has been dropped by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – and this despite United being entrenched in crisis and requiring every drop of experience right now – and on his return against Arsenal he was so insipid a local newspaper deemed him ‘invisible’ and a ‘liability’.
In recent times too Lingard – valued by Transfermarkt at a fee surely beyond his current worth at £36m – has found himself excluded from the England set-up and it’s apt and pertinent that the other player left out this week of Gareth Southgate’s squad was Alli. Their omissions were a surprise given how highly the coach rates them. Their omissions, to the general public, were long overdue.
When does a loss of form become something more substantial? With every passing week with this pair we’re beginning to find out.