The Harry Kane conundrum: What happens when your best player doesn’t suit your best system?

It was an opening that could have been tailor-made for Harry Kane. The 198th North London derby was in its dying minutes, and in a broken, scrappy climax Giovani Lo Celso had won the ball on the Tottenham right and was advancing diagonally towards the edge of the penalty area. With Arsenal stretched, it was the perfect opportunity for a little reverse ball into the path of Kane for a famous Tottenham winner.

Except Kane wasn’t making the run. In fact, he wasn’t making any sort of run at all. When Lo Celso won the ball, Kane was close to him in the right channel, but instead of bursting into the area in anticipation of the pass, he lurched forward at barely higher than walking pace: chest heaving, legs heavy, the efforts of the previous 80 minutes having left him utterly exhausted.

And to watch Kane in the last half-hour of Sunday’s game was to glimpse a curiously bathetic performance, the sight of one of the Premier League’s most dynamic players reduced to a weary, trundling husk: unable to summon the energy to show for the ball, win the ball, or even do very much with the ball once he got it. At one point he went 15 minutes without a single touch. Late on, he knocked the ball promisingly past Granit Xhaka, realised he had neither the pace nor the inclination to chase it, and simply crumpled to the turf and accepted the foul.

A couple of minutes later, deep into injury time, came the moment that would ensure his face would be splattered all over the following morning’s back pages. With Tottenham on the attack, he took the ball into the area, considered trying to beat Sokratis, but instead simply got his body in between the defender and the ball, stopped abruptly, and allowed Sokratis to clatter into the back of him.

It wasn’t a dive, per se. There was very definitely contact between Sokratis and Kane. But it was a contact that Kane himself had induced, a sort of footballing brake test, a dastardly little trick with which he had doubtless won countless fouls in the past. And it was in large part, a course of action forced upon him by his own fatigue, his inability to do anything other than seek the contact and crumple gratefully to the turf.

This, perhaps, is the really interesting issue: far more interesting, at any rate, than another shrill and tedious back-and-forth about diving. “The ref probably thinks I’m looking for it, but all I’m trying to do is shield the ball,” Kane explained to Sky Sports afterwards, still a little out of breath. The operative word in that sentence is “all”: in the 93rd minute against Arsenal, with the score 2-2 and Kane one-on-one with a defender, all he was trying to do was shield the ball. And as Tottenham’s fans continue to puzzle over their strangely inert start to the 2019-20 season, Kane’s worrying lack of sharpness may just hold the key.

On one level, Kane is still producing. The penalty he so emphatically put away in the first half was his third goal in four games, which when you consider that two of those games have been away to their top-six rivals, is a very fair return. His shot volume, expected goals and key passes are a little down on previous seasons, but again given the standard of Tottenham’s opposition and the small sample size, it’s nothing too noteworthy. But there is one telling metric that betrays a subtly different Kane to the one we have seen in previous seasons, and it has nothing to do with his goalscoring.

During his first few years at Tottenham, Mauricio Pochettino established them as one of the leading pressing teams in Europe. Kane, as well as being the leading goal threat, would lead the press from the front, backed up by the bite of Dele Alli, the energy of Christian Eriksen, the speed of Heung Min-Son and the deadly studs of Erik Lamela. Kane’s tackling stats reflected this: 1.6 attempted tackles per 90 minutes in 2013-14 and 2014-15, 1.8 the following season, before stabilising at around 1 in each of the last three seasons.

Kane tackles attempted per 90 minutes, by season

  • 2013-14 – 1.6
  • 2014-15 – 1.6
  • 2015-16 – 1.8
  • 2016-17 – 1.1
  • 2017-18 – 0.8
  • 2018-19 – 0.9
  • 2019-20 – 0.3

This season, by contrast, Tottenham’s front press has been anaemic. Manchester City, Newcastle and now Arsenal have largely been able to play the ball out of defence at will, with the press only kicking in at around the halfway line, or when Tottenham identify a “choke point” near the touchline, where a defender can be isolated and quickly swamped. Kane’s role in winning the ball back, meanwhile, has gone from pivotal to negligible: just a single attempted tackle in four games, which came in the first half of the opening fixture against Aston Villa. 

This can’t simply be explained away by opposition strength or styles of play: two of the four sides Spurs have come up against enjoyed more possession than them. Besides, the new goal-kick rule should theoretically be offering attackers more, not fewer, chances to win the ball high up the pitch. Nor is this a case of poor execution: the stat covers all attempted tackles, not just successful ones. This isn’t a case of Kane trying, and failing, to win the ball. It’s Kane not even trying, and given what we know of Pochettino’s methods we should probably assume this is the product of a clear tactical plan rather than laziness or insubordination. 

The evidence of the eyes suggests that Tottenham’s unwillingness or inability to press effectively is exposing their once-exemplary defence. The question is why this might be the case. During last year’s run to the Champions League final, Pochettino successfully reconfigured Spurs as a counter-attacking team, using the pace of Son and Lucas Moura in transition to hit opponents who had overcommitted. Kane, remember, was injured in the later stages of the tournament, and when he returned for the final against Liverpool looked distinctly undercooked.

So has Pochettino simply decided to sit deeper in big games, trying to invite teams forward in the hope of hitting them on the counter? Tottenham’s first goal would certainly appear to suggest this: as Hugo Lloris looks to clear their lines, Kane drops deep to win the initial header, leaving Son, Lamela and Eriksen to feast on the second ball. As Eriksen tucks away the rebound, Kane is still 40 yards back, having not even made an effort to join the breakaway.

That’s one possible scenario. But there’s another, and here Kane’s apparent lack of sharpness is extremely relevant. Could it be that Tottenham are currently unable to play a high-energy pressing game because Kane is not up to the physical demands? As any half-decent coach will tell you, a press is only as strong as its weakest participant, and with Kane spending much of the second half at a canter, perhaps Pochettino has decided that Tottenham are better off using him as a more conventional target man for now, stepping up the pressing game when he returns to full fitness.

When – or if. Perhaps the real question here is whether this is a temporary or permanent state of affairs. Kane is only 26, but he already has almost 400 games under his belt at senior level, most of them playing a full-throttle, highly physical style of football under Pochettino for Spurs and Gareth Southgate for England. As is well documented, he has suffered five ankle injuries in two-and-a-half years, the long-term effects of which are yet to make themselves known. 

As the whistle blew for full time at the Emirates, four games into the new season after a relatively unbroken summer, Kane slumped exhausted to the turf, barely able to stand any longer. And it was hard not to wonder how he might evolve and develop as a player over the next couple of seasons, how Tottenham might evolve and develop with him. Kane is obviously talented and driven and intelligent enough to make a success of whatever role he chooses for himself: whether as a clever, angular, Sheringham-esque No 10 or as a ruthless, pared-down, Ronaldo-esque killing machine at No 9. And of course, it’s perfectly possible that this may just be early-season cobwebs, a gentle late-summer workout before the real hard yards of winter. 

But if not, then at some point Pochettino may well have a decision to make: whether Kane’s goals and link play are worth sacrificing the pressing game he so favours. Because if this isn’t a blip, and Kane really is transitioning into a different sort of player to the one who first emerged, then Tottenham have a conundrum to solve: what happens when your best player doesn’t suit your best system?



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