Barely a year ago, they were starting in the World Cup semifinals.
Now, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard cannot even get in the England squad and are no longer first-choice picks for their clubs, either.
The drop in fortunes of the two attacking midfielders is both dramatic and highly unexpected, and somewhat mirrors the troubles being experienced by their teams in the Premier League.
Alli was once putting up the kind of scoring numbers for Tottenham that left Premier League greats like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in his wake, and led his manager, Mauricio Pochettino, to describe him early last year as the best 21-year-old player in the world.
Upon turning 21 in April 2017, Alli had been involved in 40 goals _ combining goals scored and assists _ in the Premier League, which was as many as Lampard (15), Gerrard (13) and David Beckham (12) had combined at that age. In the 2016-17 season, Alli scored 22 goals in 46 starts for Tottenham, showing an uncanny ability to time his runs into the box to perfection and also impressing with his aerial ability.
How surprising, then, that Alli has not scored a goal for club or country in any competition since Jan. 20, a late winner against a porous Fulham team headed for Premier League relegation.
“There’s nothing wrong. You need to understand that football is about form, football is about some not-so-good periods,” Pochettino said Friday, a day after Alli was left out of a second straight England squad.
“Dele only needs time to recover his best performance … Now he’s in a tough period but we need him.”
Alli, who has been bothered with recurring hamstring injuries over the last two years, was substituted in the second half of Tottenham’s 7-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Tuesday after another fairly underwhelming display. It was only his fourth appearance in all competitions this season, and he hasn’t started any of the team’s seven Premier League games so far.
Given Pochettino has players like Lucas Moura, Erik Lamela and the out-of-favor Christian Eriksen to potentially come into Tottenham’s attack alongside Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, Alli is no longer the lock in the team that he used to be.
While it is doubtful that Alli starts against Brighton on Saturday, Lingard has no chance of playing for Manchester United at Newcastle on Sunday after sustaining a hamstring injury in the Europa League on Thursday.
It guarantees, therefore, that Lingard’s run of not having a goal or an assist to his name in the Premier League in 2019 will extend at least until the middle of October _ fairly shocking statistics for an attacking midfielder. His only goal since December came in the FA Cup in January.
“As an attacking midfielder, you are going to be judged on your goals and assists,” England coach Gareth Southgate said Thursday after dropping the 26-year-old Lingard from the squad for upcoming games against the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. “The competition is a lot higher than it was 18 months ago.”
Having started in each of United’s opening three league games, Lingard has only started one of the past four. His work rate, energy and ability to press opponents in midfield are widely regarded as his main strengths, but he needs to be doing more with the ball as well, especially playing as one of the team’s most advanced players.
United has only scored more than one goal in a single match on two occasions since March _ a span covering 19 games in all competitions _ so Lingard’s barren run fits into a general pattern affecting the team.
The same question can be asked about both midfielders: What exactly is their favored position?
Is Alli better just behind the striker _ Kane in Tottenham’s case _ or as the most-attacking player in a three-man central midfield, which is the position he took up for England at last year’s World Cup? Going off history _ most specifically, his hot streak in 2016-17 _ it’s the more advanced role that allowed him to get in the penalty area more. Yet Pochettino appears to prefer Son as the forward partner for Kane these days.
Lingard is mostly deployed as an attacking central midfielder, though he has also been played out on the right wing this season. However, he doesn’t have the vision, passing ability or scoring knack of an orthodox No. 10, so seems slightly wasted there.
As United tries to find an identity under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Tottenham evolves under Pochettino, and England keeps on producing exciting attacking midfielders like Mason Mount and James Maddison to furnish Southgate’s squad, Lingard and Alli are in danger of being left behind _ at their clubs and also with their country.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80