Phew. A huge sigh of relief could be heard around England as the full-time whistle blew in Lens this afternoon after Daniel Sturridge’s 91st minute goal gave the Three Lions a 2-1 victory over Wales. The win puts Roy Hodgson’s side top of Group B going into the final game against Slovakia, meaning it is in our own hands to finish top. But ahead of the game in Saint-Etienne, I’m making the claim for Dele Alli to be dropped to the bench…
Now this is something I never thought I’d say before the tournament, and I earmarked Alli as one of England’s key players after a superb season with Tottenham Hotspur in which he picked up the PFA Young Player of the Year award. But it’s fair to say that he has surprisingly performed below expectations in France so far. That’s the first, most obvious reason why the 20 year old shouldn’t start against Slovakia – he just hasn’t been good enough as unfortunate as it is to say that.
In a way, Alli has perhaps been the master of his own downfall. Last season in the Premier League we saw him control the game every week as he defended and attacked equally brilliantly. So, as the English press and fans like to do, we pinned a lot of our hopes on him going into the tournament. It’s an awful lot of pressure to place on such young shoulders, and although Alli hasn’t had a shocker in either game so far, he hasn’t lived up to the high expectations either.
He’s not had as a great an influence in the middle of the park, and no other player on the pitch from either team lost possession more times than Alli both against Russia (five times) and Wales (seven times). Usually a strong presence, across the two matches the midfielder has attempted nine tackles but won just two of them. Finally, he had a pass completion rate of 80% against Russia (seventh best in starting XI) and 79% against Wales (ninth best in starting XI).*
Other than the stats, it was obvious in both games that he didn’t have as much control of the game as he would have liked, and could often be seen struggling to know what to do with the ball or running around like a headless chicken after it. Now that’s probably a little harsh as after all Alli did end up providing the assist for Sturridge’s winning goal with a skillful flick. For that I will be eternally grateful, but I think we can all agree that his performances have been below par.
I don’t believe that dropping Alli would have a detrimental effect on him. He seems to be a young man with a huge amount of confidence, so being benched for one game is unlikely to get him down. Of course he’ll be disappointed not to start, but you can’t imagine he’ll lose any self-belief. Taking him out of the limelight certainly isn’t a bad idea. I’ve already mentioned the pressure he is carrying, so just to take that off him for a while will give him a chance to breath, to refresh, and then be able to play with freedom when he returns. But not only freedom, but freshness too. International tournaments provide game after game within close proximity of one another, and although you would presume Alli’s youthful energy would see him overcome this, it is often the less experienced players like himself that struggle to cope with this demand the most.
It is likely to be a very tough and perhaps even feisty game against Slovakia, as both teams still have the opportunity to win the group. Frustrations could boil over, and we all know that Dele isn’t the best at keeping his cool. Slovakia picked up five yellow cards in their opening game against Wales, showing they aren’t afraid to commit fouls, with Martin Skrtel being particularly gung-ho. Despite my criticisms of Alli, one of the worst scenarios would be him getting suspended for the knockout stage, so it is perhaps best that we don’t run the risk of that happening.
In the England squad, there are eight players who can play in centre midfield, giving Roy Hodgson plenty of options to choose from to replace Alli against Slovakia. He should have confidence in choosing any one of them, otherwise why would he have given them a place on the plane? If he wanted a more defensive option he could pick Jordan Henderson or James Milner, or if he wanted a like for like attacking switch with Alli, Wayne Rooney could move forward, Adam Lallana could move inwards, whilst Ross Barkley is also waiting in the wings alongside Jack Wilshere.
In conclusion, Dele Alli definitely remains one of England’s key players purely because of his brilliant raw ability. But every now and then, even the best players need time out of the spotlight, and they’ll come back stronger which I believe the 20 year will do. Roy Hodgson showed he does in fact ‘have balls’ by bringing Harry Kane off at half-time against Wales, so I hope that he shows the same confidence in putting Alli on the bench against Slovakia.
*All stats provided by Squawka and WhoScored.