The role of the captain in modern football is not always entirely clear. Do teams need a single inspirational figure, a chest-thumper who stirs the heart and soul? An experienced head, one who can offer big-brotherly advice to his colleagues? Someone who “leads by example”, which usually just means “being better than everyone else”?
In theory it should not matter who has the armband. As long as you can tell the difference between heads and tails on a coin and are half-respected by your colleagues, you shouldn’t need much else. Oh, and just one other thing: ideally you should not brainlessly get yourself sent off at a crucial phase of a game against title contenders.
In many ways Jonjo Shelvey is a maverick choice as a captain. Not known for his sense and cool head, he does not immediately strike one as the ideal leader for a team returning to the Premier League. But with club captain Jamaal Lascelles on the bench, Shelvey did the honours, and during the first half there was at least a nod towards maturity: following a robust challenge between the two, Lascelles and Dele Alli circled each other like territorial cats deciding whether to swipe at each other, and Shelvey stepped in to advice his colleague that a scrap wasn’t worth the trouble. Perhaps he has grown-up.
Perhaps the impetuous youth who accused Sir Alex Ferguson of “grassing him up” after a red card back in 2012 is gone, and a new, wiser Shelvey is here to stay.
That lasted about half an hour. When Alli was on the turf not long after half-time after a challenge, Shelvey tried to quickly grab the ball but it was poked away by his scampish adversary. The newly-sage Shelvey did the only thing he really could at that point: stamp on Alli’s foot, with the referee observing from about five yards away.
It was a textbook “hook, line and sinker” move, the equivalent of Lucy convincing Charlie Brown that she wasn’t going to pull the football away as he tried to kick it, only to do exactly that, poor gullible Charlie left in the mud again. Mildly inconveniencing a combustible opponent might have been the sort of thing Alli didn’t think would actually provoke a significant reaction, but was worth a try anyway. That it worked provided an example of the learning curves on both men involved.
Because it is the sort of thing that you could imagine Alli himself falling for, at one point, and back in 2016, with Spurs trying to reel in Leicester City in the title race, he punched West Brom’s Claudio Yacob in the stomach and received a three-game ban.
Still a young and relatively inexperienced player, Alli’s temperament has been the one real question mark of his career to date, a sense that all of his terrific talent might be for nought if he couldn’t control himself more. In this game Alli had plenty of opportunities to do just as Shelvey did, with kicks here and there and one particularly nasty challenge, from behind by Matt Ritchie, that could have provoked a reaction. But the only reaction that came was to wind up an opponent and then score the first goal of the game.
Perhaps this is the way Alli has chosen to channel the “devil” in his game that people always say he has to retain. Rather than launching into rash challenges and elbows to ribs, he has instead decided to focus on riling whoever he happens to be playing that day. Not that this is new: Alli has enjoyed chiding opponents for as long as he has been around, but now the signs are it’s without the stuff that will actually get him in trouble with the law.
Think of it as a poacher turned gamekeeper situation, the wind-uppee becomes the wind-upper, a man who knows exactly what will irritate players with a short fuse, because he has one himself. Alli revelled in his status as an antagonist, soaking up the ire of Newcastle’s players and fans: a needless stepover and showboat here, a funereal trudge off the pitch when substituted there. He is the player who opponents find easy to hate, but fans find even easier to love. Shelvey could perhaps learn a lesson or two from Alli, a man four years younger and with more than 100 fewer senior appearances to his name, but one has seemingly learned lessons from the past and the other has yet to.
The way the respective managers spoke about both players after the game summed it up neatly. “He was calm,” Mauricio Pochettino said of Alli. “That’s important. Last season we talked a lot about how he needs to behave and improve. He’s mature enough now to accept what happens on the pitch.” Rafael Benítez resembled a parent who has repeatedly told a young child not to touch the hot kettle, but is on the way back from the burns unit for the fourth time. “All the effort we put in on the pitch was lost in one moment,” he said. Was he angry? “We cannot change anything now.” He’s not mad, he’s just disappointed.
Alli has any number of fine qualities, and would be among the most effective attacking midfielders in the Premier League even if he was a placid, likeable character. But the devil, when channeled in the right way, makes him even better.
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