It was one of those moments that felt emblematic of decline. James Maddison was skipping past Dele Alli when Everton’s January signing chopped him down to collect a caution. Maddison has the irrepressibility Alli once possessed, the combination of cheek and talent to suggest the future belongs to him. Alli can seem the lost soul, desperately looking to revive his past from him.
So far, so typical of Ali’s fortunes. In a tale of two English No. 10s, Maddison was the outstanding player at Goodison Park. There looked the afterthought, summoned for his first appearance of her in more than five weeks as much out of desperation as inspiration.
When Frank Lampard sent for the cavalry, it consisted of him and Salomon Rondon. One substitute was indelibly associated with Rafa Benitez, and was belittled by a section of the Everton support as a result. The other was compared to Lampard because he outscored his now-manager at the same stages of their careers. But when Lampard was 26, he was voted Footballer of the Year. Alli’s first game as a 26-year-old began with a bit-part role for a relegation-threatened team.
The mighty had fallen. Yet if Everton avert the steep drop into the Championship, they can reflect on an injury-time instant when Alli and Rondon combined and Richarlison scored.
It was the first notable contribution of the Englishman’s Everton career. It was far from even his finest moment at Goodison Park – that remains a remarkable goal as a teenager for Tottenham, from a glorious Toby Alderweireld pass – let alone anything to suggest he is back to his best but, as Lampard said: “Hopefully it can be a big starting point.”
Richarlison’s finish was deflected, perhaps Rondon’s assist was accidental and Alli’s role will not be recognized in official statistics but Lampard could reflect: “They made a big impact, they are both involved in the goal.”
Alli’s part was more resourceful than brilliant, more perspiration than inspiration, but he made the run on the right flank and managed to dig out a cross. “Something happens for you, then you get your bit of luck,” Lampard reflected. “He deserves it, he ran into the corner, he gets the ball back into the box and we score off it.”
It was a reminder that one of Alli’s great attributes was the ability to make things happen, that instinctive awareness of where to be and the innate swagger to shape events. It has deserted him in recent years; if his self-belief has felt diminished, so has others’ faith in him. Lampard brought him to Goodison but has never started him. Since a particularly regrettable cameo against Wolves, he had overlooked him. He turned to others, to Alex Iwobi to operate as the attacking midfield runner, to Anthony Gordon to play as a No. 10 against Newcastle, to Rondon when he required a goal at Burnley.
Each was a role there would once have seemed the logical choice for.
He remained an unused substitute when a fit-again Fabian Delph was parachuted back into the team. He seemed to be making up numbers on the bench in games when Lampard did not use his full complement of replacements.
Perhaps, were Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Andros Townsend fit, there would have remained a spectator again. Instead, with Leicester leading, Lampard looked for a game-changer. His rationale of him was simple. “We needed a goal and he has trained well,” he said. “In the last two weeks Dele’s training has been absolutely spot-on.”
There had been trapped in a footballing catch-22, needing match sharpness but not called upon when Everton needed someone sharp.
“It is not easy when players are not playing regularly and you rely on their training levels to come in and affect things,” Lampard said. There had been ineffectual in earlier outings for Everton; in an instant, he turned affecter and a defeat became a draw. It may be transformative for Everton’s season and for him, but there have been false dawns in the past three years, games and moments that have offered hints of a renaissance under Jose Mourinho and Nuno Espirito Santo and Antonio Conte, but which became exceptions to the rule in an extended regression.
Lampard was not getting carried away. “You have to work and fight through things with him,” he said. “We are in that process with him.”
There has become a long-term project for a club with a short-term imperative to stay up. For the first time, Goodison seemed to have restorative powers for him on Wednesday.
“I don’t think the story was ever going to be simple with Dele,” Lampard mused. “We all know how the last couple of seasons have looked and the high, high level of player he reached for a big period of time at Tottenham.” The Dele Alli story was once an uplifting tale, then a depressing read. Everton’s happy ending against Leicester at least offered a twist in the plot.