Dele Alli the intense, flexible emblem of Tottenham’s mental strength

Sports

Spurs’ special brand of nerveless resolve was on glorious display in the win over Internazionale – Alli represents its zenith

Dele Alli: ‘He plays with a constant intensity and a tactical, as well as physical, commitment that can leave you feeling short of breath.’ Photograph: Andrew Fosker/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

When we talk about nerves, we often ascribe them the qualities of metal. They’re made of steel, obviously, and when things are not going so well they start to jangle, like a set of keys or a piece of taut piano wire. But what if real emotional resilience was less like metal and more like, say, pastry? What if the key to surviving pressure was actually to stay malleable, supple, even a bit soft?

Spurs were within 10 minutes of flunking out of Europe here and might well do so for real when they head to Camp Nou in two weeks’ time. But thanks to Christian Eriksen’s beautiful goal – delivered by Moussa Sissoko, finessed by Dele Alli and slammed home by the Dane – Spurs are still alive in the Champions League. And in winning this game they showed nerves of pastry throughout.

OK, so the imagery might need a little work. But the qualities are appropriate. Spurs stuck not so much to a plan here, but to a set of beliefs. They had to chop and change in terms of both tactics and personnel. They had to try and try again in order to find a way through. They had to overcome an opponent that was not only resilient but also, as the match went on, almost visibly salivating at the prospect of hitting a desperate Spurs side on the counter. But that moment never arrived because Spurs impressively held their nerve (perhaps kneading it while they did so).

Tottenham’s beliefs involved, obviously, a commitment to hard work and physical engagement. Harry Kane made this clear from kick-off when he received the ball and bundled his way past the Inter midfield until he was felled by the forearm of Danilo D’Ambrosio. This tone, set so early, was matched by every one of the Spurs XI, including – and at some moments especially – by the more diminutive members of the team. Harry Winks and Lucas Moura seemed to feel it incumbent upon themselves to make up in harassing niggles what they lacked in shoulder charges.

Spurs are generally a big bunch of lads and, as such, pose a unique threat in the Premier League. Mixing it up physically forms a greater part of their game than that of any of their top-six rivals, with, perhaps, the exception of Manchester United in Fellaini time. When Spurs are at their best there’s a real bustle to their play; good football complemented by the effective deployment of physical heft.

Mental strength, however, is just as crucial to Mauricio Pochettino’s men, and his vision of football more generally. Sometimes it seems like a quality made necessary by adversity, that Spurs have to believe in themselves because they can’t go out and buy anyone else to do it for them. But that doesn’t explain why players have always developed so strikingly under Pochettino (Sissoko being only the latest example). He makes them believe and in return they absorb instruction.

So in a match like this, with the game coming in to its final quarter, Spurs did not jangle. They knew what they were trying to do, even if they had been unable to enact it. Of course, adding Eriksen and Son Heung-min from the bench helped them in their struggles. Many were surprised to see the pair named as substitutes in such an important match, Pochettino argues he has a game every three days for the next 40 and everyone must rest at some point. But at the same time, having such players to come on does have its tactical advantages too.

Son nearly broke the deadlock with his first involvement, as did Eriksen with his first touch. But neither player’s addition suggested a change in approach. The play was still fed through the middle, the hunt for one-twos in and around the box unrelenting but never desperate. Nothing was forced. The team stayed relaxed.

Kane is Tottenham’s emblem, but perhaps it’s Alli who best reflects their mental quality. He plays with a constant intensity and a tactical, as well as physical, commitment that can leave you feeling short of breath (he played in at least three different positions across the game here). But he is also capable, at any time, of great sporting insouciance. Such moments are possible only if you are supremely calm.

Such was the roll and poke that set up Eriksen for his goal, adding just enough pace on the ball and taking up just enough time so that his teammate had the best possible chance of scoring. Alli stays loose and remains flexible even under the most intense pressure, and in this team he is not alone. These qualities will surely serve Spurs well in the long run, even if they fail to progress past Messi et al next month. To dare is to dough.

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