In an era where miniscule football stories can be blown hugely out of proportion — especially during dull international breaks — it’s surprising that no-one seems desperate to discuss the news that England have dropped Wayne Rooney.
Rooney, of course, is England’s record goalscorer. He is — or was — the team’s captain, and is only six caps away from equalling Peter Shilton’s record of 125. Since his breakthrough in 2003, Rooney has been England’s key man for over a decade and his nation’s chances at every major tournament seem to rest upon his ability to produce his best form.
We don’t yet know whether Rooney’s omission from England’s squad is permanent, as it partly owes to fitness problems.
“I have talked with Wayne and I think there is a chance he is fit for the weekend,” England boss Gareth Southgate said earlier this week. What he said next, however, was more ominous: “The injury, coupled with the fact he has really not had a lot of game time recently and others have in that area of the pitch, has sort of determined my decision on that one.”
So it’s not simply about injury: it’s also about his overall lack of playing time. Rooney, therefore, will effectively have to play his way back into England contention, which might be problematic considering his uncertain future at club level.
But no-one seems bothered. That’s a shame considering Rooney’s tremendous contribution to the national team, yet it suggests something else: that England have a new hero, and a new No. 10 for the future in Dele Alli.
England lost 1-0 to Germany on Wednesday evening, but their first-half performance showed plenty of signs for optimism. In a new-look 3-4-3 system, there was movement, dynamism and interplay in the final third, and almost all their best moments came through Alli. After less than two Premier League campaigns, the 20-year-old Spurs midfielder has established himself as arguably England’s most important player.
Alli’s rise has been quite remarkable. It’s worth considering that when first selected for the England squad by Roy Hodgson in October 2015, the then-England manager was widely derided for selecting a player who had barely confirmed his status as a Premier League regular. Instead, much like Hodgson’s early selection of John Stones, Adam Lallana, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, it’s proved to be a fine decision.
Alli appears different from the usual type of English attacking midfielder. In fairness, you can say something similar of Lallana, who quickens the play with his clever short passes, facilitating give-and-goes and passing triangles around the opposition. Alli, though, is different in a different way.
He is the most intelligent attacking midfielder England have developed for years in terms of exploiting space, drifting around between the lines; drawing wide to find space before moving inside again; coming short to overload the midfield zone before running in behind the opposition defence.
Perhaps the single most underrated quality in modern football is the ability to receive possession, and Alli is absolutely brilliant at this simple concept. Not only is he always on the move, finding pockets of space expertly, he’s also a natural at receiving the ball on the half-turn, nipping past defenders instinctively and charging towards goal. He boasts a refreshing ability to treat defenders as if they simply aren’t an obstacle to his progress, illustrated by his incessant determination to nutmeg them.
The most interesting thing about Alli’s movement, however, is his ability to run in beyond opposition defences to collect long, accurate balls from the centre-backs, which was a major feature of his first season at Tottenham.
This is a simple run but isn’t something you generally see from central midfielders, and opponents find it extremely difficult to stop. His midfield opponents are inevitably instructed to track runs, but this usually applies to situations when Alli might find himself in a position to convert crosses or cut-backs.
A midfielder dropping back onto his own defensive line is unnatural, and the responsibility for Alli has to be passed onto the backline, which is tough in terms of communication for players who are often facing the other way. In combination with the movement of a clever central striker — usually Harry Kane at club level, and surely at international level for the next few years too — it’s brilliantly effective.
In fact, Alli’s relationship with Kane is so good that he should probably be considered as more of a second striker, rather than a mere midfielder. His scoring record backs this up: 24 goals in 60 games, a strike rate of 0.4 goals per game. And he’s hit double figures in both his Premier League seasons so far, something a forward as talented as Danny Welbeck, for example, has never managed.
There’s also a sense that Alli is a leader, too. He is the type of player who is, to use a slightly clichéd old-fashioned English expression, ready to stand up and be counted. Though he can occasionally be fiery, petulant and argumentative, people forget that players like Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen had plenty of problems in that respect in their formative years, and simply needed to channel their aggression in a more positive manner. Given he is just 20, you suspect Alli will learn his lessons and improve his temperament.
English football is often too reliant upon one star individual. Since 1990, it has effectively gone from Paul Gascoigne, to Michael Owen, to David Beckham, to Wayne Rooney as the “saviour.” A more cohesive, egalitarian system would be preferable but Alli has irresistible star quality. And he might well dominate the England No. 10 shirt for the next decade.