Tottenham & Liverpool: Alli and Mané have 50 goal contributions between them, so why the debate about their form?
An odd narrative of under-performance has followed the pair this season but Alli and Mané have been pivotal to their respective sides’ progress
However much fun they might have been to watch this season, there has been one niggling doubt about Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur that has endured on social media: that among their leading players, Sadio Mané and Dele Alli haven’t performed.
On the face of it, it isn’t too hard to see why that might be. Both teams went through slightly sticky spells at the start of the season.
By the start of November, Spurs were already eight points off the top and suffering under the cloud of the Wembley Curse, while Liverpool were a further four points behind, in sixth. A bad start to the season can have a lasting psychological impact, however emphatically you might try to put it to bed.
However, looking at the underlying statistics behind their respective seasons, it appears that much of the ill-will borne against them is unfounded.
Son and Salah the names on people’s lips
Scapegoats have to be found, and Alli and Mané fit the bill perfectly.
The rise to prominence of Son Heung-min in North London meant that Alli was ushered slightly out of the limelight, after a season in which 22 goals and 13 assists at the age of 20 had seen him rightly hailed as one of the foremost young talents in world football.
Mané wasn’t the main man of Anfield any longer, either, but a vassal to the Pharaoh. He may not have single-handedly carried Liverpool through the 16/17 season but he was certainly their star man. Philippe Coutinho was the only real rival to that throne, and nobody expected him to stick about for much longer anyway.
Both players had become the victims of their own normalised brilliance. It’s the curse which Cristiano Ronaldo fans use against Lionel Messi and which Lionel Messi fans use against Cristiano Ronaldo; we are so used to them being the best player on the pitch, that not doing something incredible in every game becomes a stick to beat them, proof of their ‘fraud’ nature and lack of ‘elite’ quality.
Changes of circumstances
There is also the point that both players were playing in markedly different circumstances to the previous campaign. Spurs’ second-place finish and Champions League qualification, tied with the move away from White Hart Lane, put a lot of pressure on them to succeed early in the season.
Plenty wanted them to choke and at times it seemed like they might. Plenty were happy to see that Alli was, in their eyes, stumbling. Alongside Harry ‘one season wonder’ Kane, Raheem ‘we’re sure there’s a reason we hate him’ Sterling and Jesse ‘dancing isn’t an acceptable way of displaying happiness’ Lingard, Alli is a member of a new crop of English stars that the general public has had something of a difficult relationship with.
Perhaps it is simply the toxic nature of football fandom in the social media age, that reasons to chastise and mock these players have to be found at every opportunity.
It certainly hasn’t helped Alli’s cause – the suggestion that he wasn’t playing well has snowballed to the point where a 21-year-old attacking midfielder with 10 goals and 16 assists and a fruitful partnership with England’s best striker isn’t thought of as a guaranteed starter at the upcoming World Cup.
Mané, too, has had more on his plate than last season, with an ongoing European run possibly an explanation for his slightly withdrawn form.
It’s a good excuse, and probably a fair one. But the purest statistics – goals and assists – suggest that it is an excuse that simply isn’t necessary. You don’t need to find a reason for his downturn in form because his form hasn’t really turned down.
Both players have performed with more on their plate
Mané already has more goals than last season as well as more assists – more than £140 million man Coutinho ever managed in a season on Merseyside. His combined total of 24 in 34 appearances, around 0.7 goal contributions per appearance, is barely distinguishable from his 21 in 29 at 0.72 last season.
He has played more football and maintained his level of output. Had he not been injured for the fill-your-boots 10-0 aggregate wins over Maribor in the Champions League group stage, you suspect he might have had more. Perhaps the shining light of Salah has simply made his appear dimmer in comparison.
Alli’s numbers have taken a more noticeable hit, at around 0.62 goals or assists per appearance compared to last season’s 0.7. Aha, there it is, the proof that actually, Dele Alli is a bad player. A goal or an assist every other game at 21 years old? Get him off the plane.
Of course, the numbers don’t tell you about Alli’s slight change in role, moved into a deeper, more involved position than where he played as a second striker last campaign. And they certainly can’t tell you about the touch and finish of genuinely Bergkamp-esque quality against Chelsea on Sunday.
You would like to think that moments like that will, eventually, silence the doubters. It would take a bold person to bet against him doing something equally stupendous between now and the looming end of the campaign.
‘Poor form’ narratives haven’t hindered either player
That is one of the beautiful things about Alli and Mané. Because, really, they don’t care about the criticism they have had. They have been confident in their own abilities and continued to perform because that is what they do, whether some sections of the media and the watching supporters have noticed it or not.
Alli will finish the season as one of the key members of a Spurs team which hasn’t conquered England, but has its flag flying highest over London. That is progress.
Mané will finish the season as an irrepressible member of a Liverpool team that might not win any trophies – though it still might – but has played some of the most scintillating football seen in the Premier League, beaten the champions in what was probably the best game of the season and still has probably a 50/50 chance of knocking them out of the Champions League.
This has not been a season of under-performance for either player. But if it has, a return to ‘top form’ is a scary prospect.
What do you think are the reasons why Alli and Mane are disparaged amongst the fans? Let us know by commenting below.