“I asked him if he was Dele or Dele’s brother. He told me he was Dele. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘(then) play like Dele.’”
It is two years since Jose Mourinho replaced Mauricio Pochettino in the Tottenham Hotspur hot seat and embarked on the restoration of a man whose rapid and unexpected decline came to epitomise that of the club as a whole.
24 months later, Mourinho has gone, succeeded himself by a Portuguese pragmatist with Jorge Mendes on speed dial.
And Nuno Espirito Santo, like his predecessor, has wasted little time in drawing up plans to turn Dele’s ailing career around.
And, for a few weeks at least, he appeared to be succeeding. Dele impressed in the opening day victory over Manchester City, albeit with application rather than the outrageous ability that once made him the Premier League’s golden boy.
He scored the winner against Wolves a week later.
As Tottenham eye Julian Alvarez is Dele Alli in the last-chance saloon?
But Dele’s Nuno-led revival, just like in autumn 2019, was fleeting. His man of the match performance in Mourinho’s first game in charge – the 3-2 win at West Ham best remembered for that back-heel pass – soon gave way to more anonymous displays.
And, just six weeks into the Premier League season, history appears to be repeating itself. Dele was hauled off at half-time during the disastrous derby defeat to Arsenal and, for the first time since Nuno’s appointment, was left on the bench for Sunday’s victory over Aston Villa.
The cold, hard truth is this – Tottenham played far better and far more fluidly in his absence.
And with Calciomercato reporting Spurs have now joined Borussia Dortmund, Monaco, AC Milan and Aston Villa in the race for River Plate’s Copa America winner Julian Alvarez, it’s tempting to wonder whether the patience with Dele is wearing thin.
Alvarez and Dele are hardly peas in a playmaking pod but there are stylistic similarities. Alvarez, a number ten with a nine on his back, is at his best linking midfield and the final third, drifting between the lines and creating havoc with defence-splitting passes and intuitive finishing.
Just like a young Dele during Pochettino’s heyday.
Furthermore, according to InfoBae, no player under the age of 21 has produced more key passes this season than Alvarez. And we don’t mean in South America, we mean in world football. That includes Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Joao Felix and Vinicius Jr.
In his past 35 games at club level, Alvarez has contributed a combined total of 22 goals and assists.
The January transfer window opens in less than three months and, with a £22 million release clause in his contract, Alvarez won’t be staying at River Plate much longer.
Dele, then, appears to be in a race against time to salvage his Tottenham career. Last orders in the last-chance saloon.