When a star is born, be it in sports or entertainment, there can only be really two endings, burning out or fading away. Burning out means shining so bright that the star collapses in on itself while fading away means that the star will never be as bright again, slowly fading into the night. Dele Alli’s career arc begs the question, what is worse: burning out or fading away?
Dele Alli was supposed to be the next great English midfielder, destined to join the likes of Gerrard and Lampard on the Mt. Olympus of English talents. However, like a candle in the wind, Alli flamed out and will likely end his career in relative obscurity.
When Alli broke out with Tottenham in 2016, it was a warning to the rest of the league that the next great Prem star was born. In the years following that breakout, Alli slowly regressed as Tottenham continued to grow into one of England’s top clubs. Now, less than 7 years removed from this peak, Alli finds himself in Turkey, trying to revive his career at 26.
Unlike other young stars whose careers are destroyed by injuries or their own actions, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what went wrong for Alli. Going from scoring 18 goals in the Prem, as your club ascends to the elite of the Prem to being unwanted at the dumpster fire that is Everton. It’s clear that his decline started around 2018, but was it a league that had finally figured him out, the lack of a manager who understood him, or something else?
Alli’s tale is so fascinating because he accomplished more than 97% of all players in the span of two years only to be irrelevant by 24. At the same time, it’s so difficult to understand why this fall happened in the span of five years.
When he scored an outrageous volley against Crystal Palace in 2016, it was all but clear that Tottenham had found the next Frank Lampard. While Lampard did flame out and fail in the MLS, that was when he was in his 30s, Alli is just 26 and his career is in serious danger.
Coming up through the ranks of the MK Dons academy, Alli quickly showed that his potential was sky high, earning his first professional debut at 16 years old. He would continue to show his promise in the third division, scoring at will before turning the legal drinking age. Scoring 16 goals in League One before turning 20 was always going to draw the eyes of the Prem and Tottenham would snatch Alli.
After spending half a season on loan with the Dons, Alli returned to London for the 2015/16 season ready to form a deadly partnership with Harry Kane. An outstanding first season would pale in comparison to the master class that was to be his greatest season ever, scoring 18 and assisting 7.
Fans rightly would have expected Alli to continue growing, given that he was just 21 when he helped lead Tottenham to second place. However, this was to be the last time that Alli would ever be mentioned in the same breath as Prem’s best.
As Tottenham reached the Champions League final in 2019, Alli was a bit player as he was never able to put together the consistency that won him back to back PFA Young Player of the Year awards. Alli’s trusted manager, Mauricio Pochettino, was let go by Tottenham in the fall of 2019 and he was replaced by stern tactician José Mourinho, who did want to get the best from Alli. However, Alli failed to impress Mourinho and when Antonio Conte joined the Spurs, it was clear Alli’s future was up in the air.
In a truly low moment, Spurs were unable to get any sort of fee for Alli, letting him join Everton for free in January 2022. United with the player he was compared to, Lampard, Everton was supposed to be where Alli would rebuild his career. Alli did next to nothing in Merseyside and the club was eager to find a suitor for him during this window.
A future that once seemed so bright seems to have ended with a truly pathetic whimper. Alli is still only 26, so he may revive his career, but it’s tough to see him ever reaching those heights ever again.
Now it’s when things get really interesting, why did Alli’s career fall apart like this? It’s time to break out the tin foil hats and figure out Alli’s fall.
There’s a great deal of young players who have had their careers cut short by injuries, from Jack Whilshire to Pato. Was Alli amongst those players whose bright future was snuffed by injuries? Not really, as the most games he ever missed in a single season due to injuries was 12 and that was an outlier.
Could it be a change of manager? This is more likely than the injury excuse, as no manager trusted him as Pochettino did. However, there are two things that complicate that idea: his decline had already started under Pochettino and Mourihno tried to make things work with Alli.
Perhaps Mario Balotelli’s career can shed some light upon Alli’s fall. While Alli has never had the controversies of Balotelli, they have some interesting similarities careerwise.
Like Alli, Balotelli was a prodigy destined to rule the soccer world, but he peaked too early and was never able to capture that genius he displayed early on. Different coaches and clubs could never bring back the form that once dazzled the world. While Alli is in Turkey for this season, Balotelli spent last season in the Turkish league.
One of the largest differences between their downfalls is that for Balotelli, it seemed that it was an avalanche of misfortune while Alli’s fall was a drawn out whimper. There wasn’t that terrible miss against the LA Galaxy or burning down a house, it was him unable to evolve his game. In a way, his downfall is less glamorous, as it’s just that the league figured Alli out.
Perhaps Alli was doomed to follow in the footsteps of those wonderkids who flamed out, but Alli was more of a slow burn. Some of those wonderkids have reasons as to why they never fulfilled their sky high potential, but Alli doesn’t seem to have one, making it less interesting but more mystifying.
In a different world, we may have talked about Alli as the star of both England and Tottenahm, an icoon who destroyed the third division on his way to the top. However, we live in this depressing world where stories of failed wonderkids litter the news cycle like, well litter on the street. The question that Alli’s story poses is, is it better to burn out or fade away?
Featured image: George Wood/Getty