Dele Alli thrives at being England’s natural-born entertainer

Fearless midfielder shows during the World Cup 2018 qualifier against Malta he loves pressure and being England’s No10

Dele Alli took a moment to consider the question. Gareth Southgate had made it plain before his England managerial debut against Malta he wanted his players to excite the supporters, to play with style and to take risks without the fear of reprisals. It was a message that seemed to be directed at Alli as much as anyone else – the No10 in his 4-2-3-1 formation, the creative fulcrum. So, could the Tottenham Hotspur player be England’s entertainer?

“The entertainer?” the 20-year-old said. “I hope so ... I like to enjoy the game and to have fun and express myself as much as I can. That’s the kind of thing Gareth was saying to us before the game. So it suited me well.”

Alli’s fearlessness is born of the impudence of his youth, the strength of his character and the belief he has in his ability. This is a player who nutmegged Real Madrid’s Luka Modric after 24 minutes of his first start for Tottenham – in a pre-season friendly last year – and whose game is defined by a determination to try things and keep trying them.

He failed to score from a free header in the 22nd minute against Malta, when he was denied by the excellent Andrew Hogg after he had got the run on Ryan Camilleri, but his head did not drop. It never does. He scored England’s second goal at the second attempt towards the end of the first half, after Hogg had beaten away his first shot, and it felt like a reward for his slick movement and persistence.

Alli fired England’s most eye-catching attack of the game after 64 minutes with a backheel for Jesse Lingard, who laid on a chance for Theo Walcott, and he was still driving into the penalty box at the end. When the substitute Marcus Rashford crossed low from the right, Alli should have scored from close range and he knew it. But he will continue to put himself in the right areas in the next World Cup qualifier away to Slovenia on Tuesday night.

“I’ve always thrived under the pressure of the big games,” Alli said. “I enjoy that and there’s nothing I get afraid about. I enjoy playing at Tottenham and for England. I just wanted to go out there and enjoy the game.”

Alli’s attitude feels priceless in the current climate, with England still touched by the trauma of Euro 2016 and the disconnect between the team and some fans tangible. It was crystallised by the treatment of Wayne Rooney. The Malta substitute Michael Mifsud said he heard a section of the support booing Rooney before kick-off – “He got some disapproval when he came on the pitch, I heard the boos” – and there was another outpouring when the captain, who played in midfield, fluffed an effort in the 89th minute.

The 81,781 crowd had been subdued and, in the sludge of the second half, some of them sought their own entertainment, switching on their phone torches and waving them from side to side. In fairness, it was never going to be a thriller against such ultra-defensive opposition. But, in the last minute of the definition of a stroll, they suddenly vented their feelings at Rooney. At the full-time whistle there was another smattering of boos for the team.

Alli feels like the counterpoint to the beleaguered and laboured Rooney, a player with the freedom Southgate craves – one capable of providing the spark Rooney once did. Alli makes the game look fun. Rooney, sadly, does not, at present.

If Southgate got one big thing right it was the decision to use Alli as a No10 and order him to stay as close to the striker, Daniel Sturridge, as possible. Against such limited opponents he did not want Alli to clog up things by dropping off in search of the ball. Moreover, Alli is regularly more effective when he plays further forward.

“If I’m playing higher up the pitch it’s important I don’t get carried away and start dropping too deep and I stay in my position,” Alli said. “It’s different in every game but against Malta it was important I did stay out of the way and worked with Sturridge a bit more, and tried to play off him.”

The Slovenia match will be different and Alli will probably be told to be more aware of certain defensive responsibilities, but he has to start in the role he played against Malta and so does the central midfielder Jordan Henderson after his outstanding performance on Saturday.

It is likely Southgate will recall the defensive midfielder, Eric Dier, and it all points to Rooney – who the interim manager sees as more of a midfielder – as being the odd man out. Rooney could be pressed wide in place of Lingard or Walcott, or Southgate may have to drop him which, you suspect, he really does not want to do. The discussion will dominate the countdown to Slovenia. Alli is primed to take centre stage.