A 37-cap England international, two-time PFA Young Player of the Year with vast top-level experience and more than 50 Premier League goals to his name … for free?

On paper, Everton snagged themselves the steal of the century when they acquired Dele Alli from Tottenham on an initial free transfer last month. The Toffees won’t have to pay a penny for the 25-year-old until he has played 20 times for them, at which point a £10m fee is triggered.

And they won’t have to fork out anything approaching a figure commensurate with market value for a player of Alli’s calibre unless he meets a series of achievement-based clauses in the deal with Spurs, which could eventually take the total fee up above £30m. By that point, he’ll have already justified the cost.

 

 

It’s a remarkable deal that sees Everton pick up one the brightest young English talents of the last 20 years for minimal outlay. Except that was the old Dele Alli. That’s not, unfortunately, who Everton have signed. There’s a reason why the midfielder’s price tag has plummeted. He has been a shell of his former self for a worryingly long time.

At his best, Alli was a dynamic, fearless and brilliantly instinctive player for Tottenham. Signed from MK Dons for just £5m as an 18-year-old, he quickly established himself in Mauricio Pochettino’s first team, thrilling fans with his ability to break into the opposition’s box at the most opportune moments and to demonstrate sublime technique in the final third – best exemplified by his stunning flick and spinning volley against Crystal Palace in 2016. That player, if he can be found, would be transformational for this struggling Everton side.

But Alli has not scored a league goal from open play since January 2020. His total loss of form saw him start just seven Premier League games in 2020-21. And he’d started just eight times in the league for Spurs this term, most of which came under the short-lived stewardship of Nuno Espirito Santo, who tried to revive the former star’s flagging career with a deeper midfield role.

 

 

After starring in a run to the World Cup semi-finals in 2018, Alli has not played for England since a 0-0 draw with Switzerland in the UEFA Nations League in June 2019. A player who once could have fetched a nine-figure transfer fee has become a desperately distressed asset.

A victim of a January clear-out by Antonio Conte, Alli was among the likes of Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso in a group of players the Tottenham boss clearly judged to be surplus to his plans. Everton fended off late interest from Newcastle to secure his services at a vastly reduced rate as the transfer deadline approached. Now, new Toffees boss Frank Lampard is tasked with returning the midfielder to something approaching his former glories.

Still just 25, an age at which most players have their best years ahead of them, Alli has time on his side. He is not a lost cause. And Lampard can draw on the expertise of a not-too-distant playing career as one of the world’s foremost goal-scoring midfielders in his efforts to rehabilitate his new signing.

“I’ve had a few good conversations with him [Lampard] already,” Alli said upon signing for Everton last month. “He’s a player I admired through his whole career watching him. I’m pleased to work with him, it’s very exciting. I’m sure we can do great things together.

 

 

“I just want to be happy playing football. Working with Lampard and the great players Everton have got is a great opportunity for me to do that. I’m excited to go there, show the fans what I can do and help the club as much as I can.”

The early signs haven’t been great. Alli came off the bench for an earlier-than-expected debut against Newcastle United on 8 February, replacing the injured Demarai Gray after just 25 minutes of Lampard’s first game at the helm. Everton lost 3-1 against their fellow strugglers at St. James’ Park. Alli was guilty of sloppiness in possession and defensive lapses. He lost the ball in the build-up to Newcastle’s second goal and finished the game with just a 59 per cent pass accuracy.

This was, however, Alli’s first appearance in a month, having last played an hour in Tottenham’s 3-1 FA Cup third-round victory over Morecambe. His rustiness showed, but there were also some hopeful glimmers. He created two chances for team-mates and displayed a modicum of his long-lost confidence in completing three dribbles.

The result leaves Everton hovering just three points above the relegation zone – albeit with a game in hand over those below them. Lampard needs results fast. If he can locate the latent superstar within the shell of the Dele Alli he’s signed, Everton can begin to look upward.

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