It took Dele Alli a little over an hour to show exactly why he is the subject of so much transfer speculation ahead of the January window.
But it also took just over an hour for Dele to show why he is not a player Jose Mourinho wants in the Tottenham team.
The Spurs manager's review of Dele's performance suggested it may be some time before he is seen in a Spurs shirt again, if at all. Speaking after the game Mourinho said:
For me a player that plays in that position is a player that has to link and has to create and not to create problems for his own team. I was angry.
Harsh? Maybe. But Mourinho knows what he wants from his forward players and it's increasingly clear that Dele Alli does not fit the brief.
Dele Alli on the Tottenham bench
Image credit: Getty Images
Still just 24, Dele is a frustrating player to watch, a midfielder of immense quality capable of game-winning moments, yet not one who will dominate a match from midfield. It is that ability to conjure up something out of nothing that made him such a staple of the Tottenham team under Mauricio Pochettino, with his clever touches and link-up play adding depth to the attacking plan when the previous Spurs regime was in full flow.
From that position he produced defining contributions to some of Spurs’ biggest achievements; the exquisite touch and delayed flicked pass to set up Lucas Moura’s last-gasp winner in Ajax springing immediately to mind, an assist that oozed class under the most immense pressure.
And against Stoke there were flashes of that Dele Alli on show again, no doubt catching the eye of a number of clubs in the Premier League and across Europe (PSG, Everton, Arsenal, Rangers and Newcastle have all been linked in recent days).
However, that sort of floating creative role isn’t called for in a Mourinho team. The current Spurs boss wants either an out-and-out wide forward in the shape of a Heung-Min Son or theoretically a Gareth Bale. Or he wants a workhorse wide man like Steven Bergwijn or Erik Lamela to shut down that flank defensively. Alli is neither.
And one thing that Mourinho cannot abide is wasteful possession when the team are out of their defensive shape. Which is exactly what Dele did shortly before Stoke equalised in the 53rd minute on Wednesday night in the incident that sparked the manager's post-game criticism.
Image credit: Eurosport
Could he potentially drop into midfield? It seems that Pochettino saw a similar issue coming down the line for Dele, which is one of the reasons why he dropped him deeper into midfield and tried to help him adapt into more of a box-to-box number eight, the sort of role that Gareth Southgate also shoehorned him into for England at the 2018 World Cup.
Yet while Dele can play that role he is not yet a top-class option there, and certainly at Spurs he is behind both Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele as an option.
This isn’t a problem uniquely experienced by Dele either. That trend of wide midfielders drifting inside and acting almost as a second number ten has slowly gone out of fashion at the elite clubs in the last few years. Paul Pogba largely took up that role at Juventus, David Silva often did at Manchester City, Dele did at Spurs, but slowly the tactical trend has shifted away from it and such players have either had to prove themselves capable of holding down creative responsibility in central positions on their own, or otherwise face becoming increasingly peripheral.
Dele Alli of Tottenham Hotspur during the UEFA Europa League Group J stage match between Tottenham Hotspur and PFC Ludogorets Razgrad
Image credit: Getty Images
So what now for Dele?
Either he finds a club who do want that sort of floating creative option, which is probably going to be slightly below the top level. Or he needs to redefine himself as a player.
If he opts for the latter then there appear to be three main options. Firstly become a genuine wide forward, although he is lacking the sort of pace that separates the very best from the rest in that position. Alternatively, he could have another crack at becoming a central midfielder. Or potentially he could try and mould himself into a false-nine sort of striker in the mould of a Thomas Muller or Roberto Firmino.
However, even if he does want to work on developing himself into a new sort of player, it seems unlikely he’ll get a chance to do so at Spurs this season.
A loan move in January would seem to suit all parties. It gives the player a chance to get some form back and work out what sort of player he’s going to be going forward, and it means Spurs don’t have to lose a footballer who for a number of years promised to become a club great.
Even if Mourinho's intention is to sell, a six-month stint playing regular football elsewhere would likely help Dele’s price tag rise, and from a national team perspective it would also offer him the chance to stake a late claim for European Championship selection.
Dele Alli of Tottenham Hotspur with Jose Mourinho head coach of Tottenham Hotspur
Image credit: Getty Images
One thing is certain: Dele Alli needs to do something to stop his career drifting away. Still just 24 years old, there is a very real danger that his best years could be behind him.
It’s better to burn out than it is to rust, so the Neil Young lyric goes.
Unfortunately for Dele it looks like he might be doing both.