Why Harry Kane Is a Player Like No Other

AFP

Did you see the way Son Heung-min looked at Harry Kane in their post-match interviews after Tottenham’s recent wins against Manchester City and Leeds? It was admiration incarnate. Son loves Kane. He may be a tad biased, but he’s also privy to more of the Spurs striker’s skillset than almost anyone else in world football.

In a sense, it’s a shame that it took two goals, one assist and an all-round superb individual display to beat Manchester City for Kane to receive adulation from across the football world for almost the first time in his career. With three goals and two assists against City and Leeds — the two matches sandwiching that dour defeat at Burnley — Kane is in as good form now as he has been all season.

But there’s a sense in which he’s only doing what regular watchers of Tottenham or England have watched him do ever since he burst onto the scene as a gangly yet efficient No 9 back in 2014. The problem for Kane is that, for all his sheer quality, he has struggled to make a huge impact in the biggest games. His goals record against the so-called Top Six is well below his overall career goals record, and for England he drew blanks against Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final, Holland in the 2019 Nations League semi, and against Italy in the Euros final last summer. No prizes for guessing what links those three matches.

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Kane does deserve criticism for often failing to light up the biggest fixtures he plays in. But it’s a compliment to his completeness as a player that he deserves such pedantic scrutiny. He is, in many ways, the complete player.

Starting where he isn’t — in defence — just like the Chelsea great Didier Drogba, Kane is excellent at heading clear from opposition corners, and has been known to make goal-line blocks and clearances too. Staying true to his first name, he is a tireless worker out of possession who harries his opponent almost without questioning it.

His goalscoring deserves to be left unquestioned. Kane is about as natural a finisher as this country has produced since Alan Shearer, the Premier League’s all-time top scorer. That’s a record Kane himself has had his sights set on for many years already. His left foot, favoured right foot, and head are all significant weapons in both Spurs’ and England’s armoury. Kane can score every type of goal. An overhead kick was the last to come up for sunlight, but it did in spectacular style in England’s 5–0 win over Albania in November.

It is no exaggeration to say his penalties are some of the best world football has ever seen, and he continues a list of excellent penalty takers the England national team have been able to rely on. Since midway through the 2000s, England have had Frank Lampard then Wayne Rooney and now Kane on penalties. That’s an awesome genealogy of spot-kick specialists. Few players change their penalties up as often and as effectively as Kane.

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In crucial matches, Kane’s self-taught ability to back into defenders, hold up the ball, and win free-kicks has already shown its immense value to his teams. Two of England’s tensest tournament wins in recent years needed such canniness. Gareth Southgate’s team might not have edged past Colombia in 2018 and Denmark in 2021 had Kane not broken up play and fashioned set-piece chances with his expert ability to earn soft free-kicks. Gone are the days when this was considered cheating. It’s now an art.

But perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the 28-year-old’s game is the way he drops into midfield to spray passes about. Rarely has the Premier League seen a more effortless passer from midfield. It was this instinctive tendency of Kane’s that allowed for Southgate’s England to play as they did at the 2018 World Cup and through to the end of 2019. England were Europe’s top goalscorers at the time, and not just thanks to Kane’s goals. His pinpoint passes out wide for dynamic wide players such as Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho served the Three Lions excellently too.

Perfecting a range of highly effective long-range passing techniques is Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kevin de Bruyne’s job. Kane is similarly capable — and like those two swashbuckling stars, he too looks like it comes effortlessly to him. That’s what distinguishes world-class passers from excellent ones. Alexander-Arnold, De Bruyne and Kane do not spend ages winding up their passes, and sometimes they don’t even need to look where they’re passing. It’s a privilege to watch these operators at work.

Last season Kane rose above Tottenham’s collective struggles to enjoy a stellar season on a personal level. He was the Premier League’s top scorer and top provider with 23 goals and 14 assists in 35 appearances. It was a season which boosted the chances of Kane and Son becoming the league’s most prolific strike partnership of all time in terms of assisting each other — a record they clinched against Leeds last weekend.

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This term, Spurs have transitioned from Nuno Espírito Santo to Antonio Conte but have arguably been slightly worse than they were last campaign. This time though, Kane’s numbers have taken a hit. That said, his irrepressible influence is a near-constant. Spurs have lacked midfield control throughout the season, and so Kane has felt the need to drop even deeper even more often, much like against Croatia in England’s ill-fated 2018 World Cup semi-final. This has meant Kane has scored fewer poachers’ goals — and fewer goals overall — and has become the assister of the assister, not the immediate provider he was last term. His passing has still defied belief at times, such is Kane’s precision.

And yet despite all of the above, Kane is still underappreciated in English football and seldom spoken about in world football. Reputationally, he has been a victim and the prime personification of Tottenham’s inherent Spursiness. For England, it is true that he hasn’t scored in enough crunch matches. But he deserves no criticism whatsoever for the goals he has put past the likes of San Marino and Andorra. Kane doesn’t choose England’s opponents. It is a nonsense to blame him for the teams he’s scored against. In any case, England scored 23 goals across the 2018 World Cup and last summer’s Euros. He scored ten of those.

All in all, Kane is a player like no other. He is the world’s only 9-cum-10. Not merely a False 9, not merely a poaching No 9, not merely an attacking midfielder. He stands alone as elite football’s only striker-cum-playmaker hybrid. He is effortless; articulate; admirably unselfish; utterly professional; a leader by example; completely relentless; comfortably world-class. And still underappreciated.

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