Repino: Did you ever hear about the time the teenage Dele Alli nutmegged Luka Modric? August 2015, to be precise, for Spurs in the Audi Cup at the Allianz Arena, Munich. Alli was 19, a 5-million-pound signing from Milton Keynes Dons thrown into the deep end against Real Madrid, and at least he was courteous enough not to ruffle Modric’s hair, Gazza-style, as he slipped the ball through his opponent’s legs. Modric, he recalls, collared him in the tunnel and called him out. Though the suspicion remains that he might have toned down the language.
OK, in the grand scheme of things, it will not count for a lot, nearly three years on, when England meet Croatia in Moscow on Wednesday for a place in a World Cup final. All the same, there was something strangely reassuring, from an English perspective, to hear Alli regaling this story.
“I always enjoy a good nutmeg,” was his take. Especially when the person who has just let the ball go through his legs is one of the world’s category-A footballers. To clarify, Alli was not being controversial here or disrespectful in the slightest. Indeed, he also made the point that if England were to win this semi-final a lot would depend on how they managed to deal with Modric’s intelligence on the ball. A nutmeg is a nutmeg. It is not a goal, or a game-defining moment, or a killer pass, or a Champions League medal (of which Modric has four). But it is a reminder, in its own small way, that Alli is not the kind of footballer to suffer any sense of inferiority complex.
Another comes when he is asked if he the slightest bit nervous — “excited, not nervous,” he responds — and, again, when it is pointed out to him that he has a pretty impressive record when it comes to scoring on the big occasions. Since 2016, he has scored twice against Manchester United, twice against Manchester City, five times against Chelsea, once against Arsenal and once against Liverpool. Yet Alli wants to make a point of his own. “I score against other teams as well,” he says.
England will need this confidence, one imagines, if they are to win their first World Cup semi-final since 1990, six years before Alli was even born, and then return to the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday to see off France or Belgium in the final. Yet it would be a mistake to think that Alli cannot assess himself with a critical eye, too, and by his own admission he is not entirely satisfied with his own World Cup performances.
Gareth Southgate identified him for special acclaim after the opening win against Tunisia but that was also the match when the Tottenham Hotspur player damaged a thigh. Alli did not play again in the group stages. He returned for the Colombia game and, though he scored in the 2-0 win over Sweden, he sounded almost apologetic for the way he had performed in England’s quarter-final victory.
“I said to my family afterwards that it was weird because I didn’t feel nervous or anything like that. I don’t really ever get nervous anyway. But you know sometimes that you can have games where your control isn’t as good as it should be, or your decision-making isn’t as sharp as normal. I felt like it was one of those games. I’ve spoken to the manager about it and some of my teammates. I didn’t feel like I was playing as well as I should have been, especially in the first half.
“Defensively, I did my job, and did what I needed to do, but I wanted to be on the ball, creating chances and being a threat. I felt like my movement was good but I just wasn’t sharp enough. I didn’t keep the ball as much as I should have. To score… it gives you a lift. But I’m my own biggest critic. I know I can play better than that.”
In keeping with a lot of Southgate’s players, Alli’s air of self-confidence is tinged with the humility that comes from starting in the lower leagues. Here, for example, he has been joking with Danny Welbeck about the night in 2014 when Milton Keynes Dons played Manchester United in the League Cup and won 4-0. The young Alli — to his embarrassment now — asked for Welbeck’s shirt that night and was politely turned down. “I’ve still got my shirt,” he says. “I wasn’t going to give him mine, I just wanted his.”
As for the least glamorous surroundings from those days, Alli recalls one night in League One, in February 2015, when Milton Keynes Dons were playing Bradford City on a “horrible pitch” at Valley Parade and “a horrible, aggressive game… every time I got the ball people would be kicking, swearing.”
Bradford won 2-1 and Alli scored the visitors’ goal. What he seems to have forgotten is that the goalkeeper he beat that night was a 20-year-old rookie by the name of Jordan Pickford, on loan from Sunderland.
Three years on, they are England teammates, attempting to win the biggest competition of all, and Alli says he will be going through his usual — or unusual, depending on your views — superstitions in the hope they bring the team luck. That includes an eight-minute ice bath the night before the match — “I don’t know why, it’s just a superstition” — and saying a prayer before he goes on to the pitch in Moscow. He gets his right leg ready first and has tape on his left knee. “That’s a superstition as well,” he explains. “The first game [against Tunisia] was the first in ages I haven’t had it on and I got injured, so I’m going to be keeping it on again.”
The prayer is simple: “That I score and we win.”
And would he dare try the same again with Modric? “Nutmeg him? Hopefully. I’m not going to focus on that. But it would be nice.”