When Robert Frost spoke about those two roads diverging at a yellow wood, its beauty was in its simplicity of comparing a road to the journey that is life. The road less traveled by made all the difference, a difference that we would assume was the better destination.
Roads don’t always lead to destinations that are different though. True in real life and even in the metaphorical sense. Sometimes a different route can be taken but you can end up at the same destination.
This can be known as Equifinality – the ability to reach the same end state via multi means. Sometimes that end state is a sorry one. Those who are invested and support the endeavours of Marcus Rashford and Dele Alli would hope that the current situation that they find themselves in is one that they can dig themselves out of.
To think that by the end of the 2015/16 season, both were seen as future cornerstones of the England national team. Now, Rashford finds a battle to make squads and Alli is an afterthought at his club, much less his country.
How did they get to this point? When you look at their journey so far, it looks similar but really, opposite paths were taken in a sense. Will that be the difference in their fortunes in whether either, one or neither will be able to turn it around?
Tottenham were away to Leicester, that season’s champions, in the third game of the season. It was 0-0 and their new manager, Mauricio Pochettino, decided to bring in their new summer signing. A starlet that had been shining in League 1.
Dele Alli came on and he marked his entrance with a goal minutes after his arrival onto the pitch. Leicester would pull one back so that the game ended in a draw but it was the first look of many that they were able to get of him. A stealthy third man run into the box to latch onto the ball. It was something that they would become accustomed to.
Manchester United were home to FC Midtjylland in the Europa League, after they were bounced out in the group stages of the Champions League. An injury crisis in the attacking department was decimated to the point that Louis van Gaal had to dip into his academy.
He came out with Marcus Rashford. It was one of those moments that was a turning point. He scored two in the second half to win the game and then would go onto the next game vs Arsenal to do the same again, this time in the first half.
This was both the beginning arcs of their careers in that 2015/16 season. Now Dele Alli has moved to Everton after 3 and half seasons on the decline at Tottenham Hotspur. He managed to remind everyone of what he was capable of after inspiring Everton’s victory over Crystal Palace.
His second-half performance was the catalyst for them overturning a 2-0 deficit but it would take more than that to convince people that this will be the renaissance of Dele Alli. How did he fall from such heights though?
Alli played in a midfield two when he was in the Football League. He was competing in midfield battles with men several years older than him and showing the technical capability that showed he could mix it in the Premier League. But the technical capability didn’t stretch to the limit whereby he could play in this same role or even position.
At times, Pochettino would use him deeper during his first season. Most notably, Alli played central midfield behind Moussa Dembele, oddly enough, away to Arsenal in the North London derby.
Spurs were unlucky to come away with just a point but as the season wore on, Alli was moved further and further away from build-up as his attacking abilities were hinged on more and his movements complimented Kane’s occupying the opponent’s centre backs very well.
It even got to the point that by the end of the season, Alli was actually being played wide on the left. According to Transfermarkt, in his last 15 league games of the season, he was out on the left 7 times.
It was even further away from build-up in central phases. It brought Eriksen inside to gain more control in the middle of the park. Rather than allow him to play through this hardship, Alli was being shifted in order to best fit the team.
By the next season, with the integration of Son after the Korean had a slow first season in the Premier League, Alli became more effective and more specialised in the role that he had.
He was taking fewer touches of the ball, involved in fewer duels, made fewer passes in his own half, recovered the ball less, and intercepted remarkably more because he was effectively adopting the Raumdeter role that Muller had popularised.
With Eriksen providing the creativity on the ball and Son being more of the on-the-ball dribbler than he is now, Alli wasn’t needed except to be on the end of things. The problem with this is that while this is something he was always amazingly good at, it was a niche. A niche that many teams cottoned onto.
He was one of the main threats that teams would look out for when Spurs would play against them and out of that front four, he was the most one-dimensional. He hadn’t diversified his game.
Alli was still young and malleable enough to build upon the strengths he already had and work on his weaknesses to make him a well-rounded player that would be able to play through those moments when his preferred avenue has been cut off.
In his first two seasons, he had 28 goals in 5524 minutes. A rate of 197 mins per goal. For a 19 and 20-year-old, it was exceptional, especially with 18 of those coming in that second season.
But being a one-trick pony becomes tricky when once the trick is cottoned on to. He was never developed and that is both the fault of the manager and the pressures of competing at the upper echelons of the Premier League.
The pressures of Premier League football won’t be lost on any player at Man Utd. Perhaps the biggest club in England and with the downward spiral that they were on in the years post-Ferguson’s departure, the emergence of Rashford was a comfort for many of the fans.
A lad from within the confines of the city who had been in the academy since his tender years, his opportunity coming from such a domino effect, it was hard for not just United fans to fall in love with the story of Marcus Rashford but also other fans.
Funnily enough, the Rashford we saw under LvG is quite different to the one we have seen since. He was disciplined in his movements and positioning because of how much centrality of the striker was integral to the Dutchman’s system.
He was rarely able to show the full repertoire of his prowess. His aggressive attitude to taking on his defender, his ability to shoot from so far, his combination play, his willingness to run beyond the line with his explosive pace.
An interview with Butt in the Times showed how much United focused on making Rashford the modern-day attacker who was able to fit out in different positions within the team. But how do you know what skill has to be honed in when they are able to do everything that an attacker should be able to do well?
We have seen how Swiss-army-knife-type players are often shifted about at the behest of the manager. Plenty thought Rashford would eventually settle into a role as a centre forward but it was something that he didn’t like himself because when you are the striker up top, doing it can be a very lonely job when you are battling against two centre backs without the greatest service.
At United, games like this were very common. Under Mourinho, he was being played out wide but much was made of the fact that the wingers of United were being made to track back too far to affect the game up the pitch as they should do.
Mourinho’s exit and Ole’s arrival saw Rashford get an extended stay up top. He initially shone but it eventually waned. By the start of the next season, he was back on the left with Martial up top. The latter got injured, which meant that Rashford would go back up top and he did not look comfortable there at all.
Especially with the supporting act being incredibly lacking in the creative department. It would take a goal vs Liverpool, funnily enough in a front two, that would put him back into form.
More importantly, though, he was back on the left and given more freedom to stay up the pitch and expressive in attack. He was finally able to show his full repertoire.
But doing everything well can backfire. Such was Solskjaer’s reliance on him that the manager felt comfortable moving him to other parts of the team in order to fit others in the starting XI or trying to coax others in form, Pogba being the former and Martial being the latter.
It would mean that Rashford would move to the right and as much as Rashford is well rounded in his offensive game, he never truly did learn how to be a winger in the fullest sense. He really learned how to be a winger in the effect of being one of the inverted variety.
He finds it more difficult on the right because Rashford at his best is automatic and instinctive. Having to think more and assess options may lead to him providing fewer bonehead moments but also it leads to dwelling those moments that people really remember with him.
Of course, when nothing is going for you and you simply play off instinct, it can be difficult to watch and frustrating. But it is more than that which frustrates about Rashford these days. He can do it all but often times now, he is doing nothing.
The mixture of the loss of confidence due to his loss of form contributes obviously but he has nothing to fall back on. A style or type of player that he can fully identify with that he can take back to basics.
When at the top of the game you are just tasked with doing what comes best, then what will take you back to that level? That is the hardest question with Rashford and something that will need to be explored when he eventually plays under the stewardship of Erik ten Hag.
It would be remiss of me to not give any thrift at all for the both of them. Because as much as Alli’s lack of diversification in his role or Rashford’s lack of specialisation in his are contributing to the malaise they are currently in, the injuries affecting their physicality is probably as much of a contributory factor in all of this.
In 2018/19, Alli missed 101 days, 22 games in this time, with a hamstring injury. When your main attribute is creating separation on third man runs from your opponent, a serious hamstring injury will slow you down. He suffered another two muscle injuries in 19/20 but you could see the effects in him.
By the next season, at the age of 24, he looked a shadow of his physical peak. From the age of 17 to 22, he played 14,312 minutes. Averaging the equivalent on 31 games a season on a teenager’s body is quite something.
When you consider the fact he was playing in one of the most intense Premier League teams as well, the Pochettino Press, breaking down to that regard should have been an expectation rather than a surprise.
Rashford’s case was simply a case of both him and his manager failing to realise that the strain that was put on his body was too much. The numerous times that Rashford played with an injury bordered on the ridiculous.
It was mad enough that he was allowed to play on with the back injury that should have kept him out of the rest of the 19/20 season and Euros, if not for the COVID-19 pandemic. But the fact that this was allowed again the next season, with a shoulder issue that plagued him from November onwards, just showed the lack of care from the manager.
Rashford too needed to take responsibility in order to better take care of himself. It is his career and the fact that he not only played on with not just that shoulder injury but an ankle one he sustained later on in the season as well.
The English forward delayed his recovery for the Euros and it meant he would turn up to this season late. He came back with immediate effect but he was unable to build confidence in a team that was dysfunctional and spiralling.
He looked like he had been playing on the adrenaline and painkillers for too long because without both, having said that this is the first time he has played without pain for a long time, he looks devoid of that separation and intensity that made him such a frightening prospect to face.
The Future Paths
What prospect do they both face now however? The equifinality of Alli and Rashford’s career so far is that Alli’s pigeon-holing and Rashford’s generalisation has led them both to a point of stagnation. The proliferation of English talent within the last 4 years, especially in attack, means that such stagnation can be ill-afforded.
Alli’s second-half performance came as a replacement for Andre Gomes so he was in the middle of the park in a 3-4-2-1. Such was the level of his play, he was awarded man of the match.
With rumours that Everton are looking to offload so soon after he has come, a game like that might turn heads at Goodison that something can be coaxed out of him again. His fortunes could be turned around by actually playing in that deeper role and progressing his general play would be beneficial.
It would get him into the conversation of a different option in the middle of the park to be the all-round midfielder that he was touted to be when he initially came into the league.
Alli has always been a competitive player who likes to duel so being able to disrupt and win the ball back is something he can easily do so he can potentially do both parts of the game. What he needs to improve on is retaining the ball and being able to progress play.
The entrance of Ten Hag to Old Trafford will be seen as another chance for Rashford to get some life into his game. A man known to be meticulous and demanding tactically, physically and mentally, it can take Rashford from the annus horribilis year he has endured to potentially getting back to the undroppable spot he had with England and United.
Rashford would have to implement some composure into his game and being able to make decisions whilst opponents are set. He is fantastic in transition and he can conjure magic out of nothing but there is hope that Ten Hag will coach the team well enough that Rashford is able to constantly go at his man 1v1 rather than being constantly doubled up on.
The jump to becoming a reliable goalscorer, one that is competing with the Manes, Sons, Salahs of the league, he would have to add the dirty goals to his game. The goals you get by being at the back post and not just the out-to-in run that he loves.
It is easy to talk of finality with players whilst they suffer in their ruts. But Alli turned 26 just last month and Rashford is still 24. The seeming divergent roads of their career.
Players that explode onto the scene at such a young age, their light can burn fast and bright and the road they take from there will be one paved with memories of their younger years being the highlights.
The road less travelled by is one where the difficult moments are navigated and there are still new good memories to be made. Who knows if Alli and Rashford will take a different route to their destination this time or if they will follow each other on this occasion?
Whatever the route they take, it would be a shame to see two players who people saw at the start of the journey potentially walking a golden paved road to not end the career with significant contributions to come.
By: Elijah Sofoluke / @AliquamScripto
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Alex Livesey / Getty Images