One of Deli Alli’s perceived weaknesses is a lack of a fixed position. His proclivity to drift between wide forward, No.10 and box-to-box midfielder has contributed to a perception in some quarters that he lacks discipline or disappears in big games.
Alli was certainly a little off-colour during Saturday’s North London derby, when he was swallowed up by a team who didn’t give him a moment’s rest. But it’s at times like those it’s worth considering that he is still only 21. Blips in form serve merely as a reminder of how good he has become so early.
It would be true to say that Alli has also suffered this season against Premier League defenders keen to leave a foot in at the first opportunity, knowing they might light his short fuse. That was evident during the 1-0 defeat by Manchester United at Old Trafford in October, and the manner with which he can absorb such treatment will indicate whether he can develop the temperament required to reach the upper echelons of the sport.
When Alli is at his best, he is one of the finest forward players in the business. Quick, athletic, skilful, good in the air, an eye for goal, tenacious, and stronger than his tall-but-thin frame should allow; he has just about everything. And it’s when he’s at his best that the difficulty to pin down his true position becomes his greatest asset - Thomas Müller has made a career out of it at Bayern Munich.
Throughout Tottenham’s breathless performances in the Champions League this season he has been key. Against Real Madrid - arguably his best ever performance in a Spurs shirt - he provided a reminder of how dangerous he can be arriving late in the box or driving at a defence unable to predict his next move.
While his league performances continue to be inconsistent, his Champions League form has been fundamental to the victories Spurs have enjoyed, and there was a more pragmatic side to his game in Dortmund, where Spurs produced another memorable performance.
It’s worth remembering that Alli was deployed as a somewhat conservative central midfielder in his early days at Spurs. Tottenham coach Mauricio Pochettino, also new to the club at that time, considered Alli’s battling qualities more suited to the attrition of the middle of the park, before realising that adapting Eric Dier might be a more suitable solution.
"For me, the position Dele played tonight he can play easily," Pochettino said after the win in Dortmund. "He can play behind the striker or as a No.8. He has the quality, the talent, and the capacity to play in multiple positions."
In Dortmund, Alli seemed to be playing with a freedom that his game requires and he was rewarded with two assists. The first an incisive pass to Harry Kane, whose deft drop of the shoulder and instinctive finish drew Tottenham level. The second he showed strength to fend off Marc Bartra and the presence of mind to cut the ball back to Heung-min Son, whose expert finishes have haunted Dortmund eight times in his last 10 appearances against them for Spurs, and before that, Bayer Leverkusen.
Alli influenced the game from all areas of the pitch. Sometimes dropping deep to start a move from in front of the defence, and other times cutting inside from the left wing to link with Kane or Christian Eriksen. Pochettino has the tricky task of finding a way that allows Alli to draw on all of his strengths, and letting him operate freely from attacking midfield seems like the best approach.
Alli proved once again in Dortmund that Tottenham possess one of the finest players in his position in the world. Just exactly what that position is remains open to debate.