With one minute gone in England’s Nations League play-off game in Guimarães, Harry Kane did something brilliant. Jordan Pickford launched a hard, flat pass from his own six-yard box. Kane saw it coming, crept back along the line of the centre circle, then executed a kind of cushioned capoeira?roundhouse layoff into the path of Jesse Lingard.
Lingard waited a beat, scanning his options. Kane made the choice for him, surging on ahead, pointing where he wanted the ball, then dinking a brilliantly conceived back-spun chip over Switzerland’s Yann Sommer and on to the crossbar.
It turned out to be something of a chimera. By the end of his 74 minutes on the pitch that sequence remained Kane’s only shot and two of his 29 touches of the ball. He played quite well in a deathly game. Even in his rust-caked post-injury mode Kane is an underrated passer, crosser and link man.
But then his levels have remained very high. Even in a horribly interrupted 12 months since the World Cup Kane has three goals in seven England games, 22 in 39 overall, and should, aged 25, be coming into his career-defining pomp.
Except there is of course an anxiety here, a feeling of something vital being drained. Kane is an unusually high-mileage, high-end centre-forward, a footballer who has been burning through his peak years with a zeal that borders on recklessness This is both a physical and a tactical issue. There have been five serious ankle injuries since the first in September 2016. The Transfermarkt website lists Kane as missing 184 days of football over those 33 months. Perhaps the greater regret is that it wasn’t more. Each time Kane limps away only to return ahead of time and looking sluggish when he does. So it goes on. Play, stop, rush, repeat.
“Time to rest up and come back refreshed for next season,” Kane tweeted after England’s penalty shootout win, a standard player cliche that has a deeper resonance. For Kane this is a summer off that should have begun in May, a process of long-term recovery that would have benefitted from missing the Nations League and the Champions League final, neither of which gained much from his presence.
These are vital months for the best English centre-forward of his era, not to mention a kind of jumping-off point. There are two points here. First is the fear of Rooney-drift. How many years, was it, that Wayne Rooney continued to wrestle his way around the England attack even in tangible physical decline? Partly owing to awe stasis, the class system in English football that makes celebrity and the idea of “respect” so hard to overcome; and partly because of a dearth of talent elsewhere.
England and unfit centre-forwards: it is a familiar tale from Keegan to Shearer to Owen. Kane seems to have fast-forwarded himself into this role ahead of time. Blink a few times and it’s not too hard to imagine him playing ponderously in midfield, taking the penalties and corners. Spare us, Gareth. Spare us the horror.
Against this it has been part of England’s process of renewal to be agreeably ruthless. Right now Kane is the only real automatic pick left, the only player who gets in the team half-fit; sole survivor of the tradition of the leader, legend, talisman, trench-dweller, chest?beater that has blighted many a promising England era.
It is to be hoped this policy is up for review. If only because there is plenty of evidence that Kane should not be a first choice if he’s not fit, a player for whom peak conditioning is utterly vital.
The energy and running power Kane put on in the early Pochettino years have been the chief element in his transformation from a promising Championship loanee . At his best Kane has three main elements: great movement, crafty link play and the ability to score all kinds of goals. The last two of these all come directly from the first. Take away the movement and every other element is diminished. Kane stops being Superman and becomes the post-Kryptonite Clark Kent, energies drained, touchingly mortal.
There is of course a team element to this as well. Speed is vital to the way the better teams attack, just as an England front three with Raheem Serling and Jadon Sancho on the flanks is so much more menacing without a clogging presence in the centre. England looked good with Marcus Rashford at centre-forward in the first half against the Netherlands in Guimarães. With Kane running narrower patterns in the second half the game came closing in, the Dutch defenders unafraid to play a high line and swarm around the ball.
Similarly Tottenham would, with hindsight, have been better served using the speed and movement of Lucas Moura or Son Heung-min in the centre against Liverpool in the Champions League final. The return of a half-fit, single-furrow Kane had already coincided with their stumble in the spring, a period that saw Kane himself win only five of his last 14 games and fail to score in a league win since January.
Kane will surely come again with time to heal and re-set. Almost exactly a year ago he was scoring his 19th goal for England in his 27th game en route to the World Cup Golden Boot, having scored 90 times in his last 97 games for club and country.
But changes are needed. Tottenham must sign an adequate like-for-like replacement, or risk making Kane’s peak years the chief casualty of stadium-austerity. England, meanwhile, should resolve to play him only when fully fit.
Ankles are particularly tender joints. Every strain takes a little more away, drains a little extra twang and snap and flex. There is a duty of care to fight this process, to dish up a few more of those peak years; and to acknowledge the truth that a half-fit Kane is no more than half a Kane at best.