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Dele Alli may be on a mission to make up for lost time

Spurs manager seeks to explain Alli’s mixed form ahead of Real clash

Tottenham’s Harry Kane during a training session in north London ahead of the visit by Real Madrid. Photograph: EPA/Andy Rain

It has been apparent to everybody that Dele Alli has suffered at times over the early months of the season, that his stars have not been aligned – and Mauricio Pochettino was not about to disagree.

“I think [it has been] for many reasons that maybe you must read in my next book,” the Tottenham Hotspur manager told his audience before Wednesday night’s Champions League tie against Real Madrid, which got few laughs.

The joke threatened to run away from him when the Uefa translator relayed it back in Spanish – on a literal level – for the benefit of the Madrid media. Pochettino was forced to butt in and clarify that he was not about to write a sequel to Brave New World, his diary of last season which has just been released.

The admission that there has been a problem for Alli was the serious bit, and Pochettino was a little vague at first when he attempted to explain why.

“I think it’s normal after two very successful seasons, or one and a half..,” Pochettino started, before trailing off. “It was a strange pre-season for Dele, a difficult pre-season for him for different reasons.”

It was over the summer that Alli parted company with the agent, Rob Segal, and his search for fresh representation has made the headlines as Europe’s biggest clubs circle – chief among them Real. It should be noted that Alli remains under contract to Segal for the next two transfer windows, meaning that Segal could be in line for a pay-day if the attacking midfielder were to sign a new contract at Tottenham or get a move. In that event, the agent used by Alli would most likely have to reach a settlement with Segal.

Alli is not the sort of guy to worry at night about who represents him, but Pochettino did note in his book that it was important he did not “forget what has got him to his point”.

Right people

Pochettino continued: “Dele’s WhatsApp photo of a cartoon of a boy surrounded by people who all want a piece of him suggests that he needs to be surrounded by the right people. I often think about that WhatsApp photo. John McDermott [the head of the Tottenham academy] says that when the trough is full, the pigs come from all over to feed.”

Pochettino would alight upon a more concrete reason for Alli’s relative splutters – the 21-year-old’s frustration at the Champions League ban that ruled him out of Tottenham’s first three Group H ties, including the trip to Real two weeks ago. It was the result of his red card in the Europa League against Gent at Wembley last season and it is fair to say that the consequences of the lunge on Brecht Dejaeghere have stayed with him for a disproportionate length of time.

Alli travelled with the Tottenham squad for the tie in Madrid even though he could not play, and he trained with his teammates the night beforehand at the Bernabeu. It was quite an experience but watching the 1-1 draw from the stands was an altogether more testing one. Now Alli is back for Real’s visit to Wembley and it is impossible to ignore the impression that he is on a mission to make up for lost time.

Harry Kane, the in-form striker and another reported Real target, has seemingly shaken off the hamstring injury that ruled him out of Saturday’s defeat at Manchester United; he trained well on Tuesday and Pochettino said he was “very confident” he would start. Alli’s return supplies the intrigue.

“For the player that is not involved from the beginning in a very exciting competition you always feel a little bit down,” Pochettino said. “Of course, it can affect the motivation about preparing yourself to compete. Sometimes you stay alone at the training ground and it’s not easy. Maybe Dele was affected a little bit by that.

Happy now

“But we are so happy now in how he is doing. His internal motivation is higher to compete at his best level. It’s true that maybe he is disappointed with himself because he’s not been at his best but it is coming – like the winter is coming.”

Pochettino said he had been happy with Alli’s last three performances – against Liverpool, West Ham United in the League Cup and Manchester United, although he missed a golden late chance at Old Trafford when the score was 0-0. United would win 1-0.

It seemed to sum up the stop-start nature of his season, in which he has also served a one-match international ban for making a middle finger gesture during England’s World Cup qualifier against Slovakia. Pochettino maintained he would not want to remove the fire from Alli, and flare-ups such as the one with United’s Ashley Young on Saturday were inevitable. The Real tie promises drama and opportunity.

“I think Dele needs to enjoy playing football,” Pochettino said. “He is a special player. With time, improvement and not repeating his mistakes, he can – for sure – become one of the best players in the world.” Guardian service