When Football FanCast’s Fixture in Focus Podcast caught up with injury data specialist Ben Dinnery and Notts County’s former Head of Medicine Johnny Wilson earlier this week, they insisted any return to first-team football should always be player-lead; it’s only when the player feels ready – physically and psychologically – that the manager should have the right to consider them for selection.
But what should you do when the player feels he is ready, when all tests say he’s in a clean bill of health, when that player hasn’t actually suffered a formal injury at all, yet still looks jaded, tired and a shadow of his former self? Throw in a level of indispensable world-class quality like what Harry Kane has given Tottenham up front for the past four seasons, and the correct course of action becomes even harder to determine.
— Fixture in Focus Podcast (@FixtureInFocus) September 19, 2018
In those instances, though, the manager becomes the ultimate line of defence and it’s now down to Mauricio Pochettino to be brave and impose an extended rest upon a player who has been perhaps the most important ever-present of his five years as Tottenham manager.
Sometimes strikers just need a goal to explode into life, but it doesn’t feel like Kane is particularly short of confidence and according to medical science at least, physical fitness isn’t the problem either.
Rather, he’s just not demanding the ball in quite the same way and he’s not driving at defences or trying to stretch them like he was last season. His average position in Tottenham’s 2-1 defeat to Inter Milan on Tuesday night was further back in Erik Lamela’s, in line with Heung-min Son’s and just a few yards further forward than Christian Eriksen’s.
Kane has the ability to drop deep into the pocket and let the game revolve around him for a while, but he’s not providing the kind of Teddy Sheringham-esque services needed in that role. On a frustrating night for Tottenham at the San Siro where they somehow managed to lose despite being 1-0 up with five minutes of normal time remaining, Kane failed to create a single chance, win a single aerial duel or even take a shot at goal – last season he averaged five shots per game in the Premier League, and 4.6 in Europe.
But the most telling moment came when Christian Eriksen finally managed to thread a ball through to the England captain. His movement took the defence out of the game and the goalkeeper had already committed, but rather than taking it around Samir Handanovic before sliding into an empty net, Kane got the ball caught in his feet before it eventually trickled out for an Inter goal kick.
Six months ago, Kane would have eaten that kind of chance up, and that highlights where the biggest problems lie. The 25-year-old may be physically competent right now, but he looks mentally weary after a long summer with England.
Of course, actively choosing to starve your team of arguably the best striker in Europe will always be a difficult decision to make, but it shouldn’t be as tough as it once was for Pochettino and the consequences shouldn’t be so devastating for Tottenham.
From the 218 minutes Kane missed through injury towards the tail-end of last season after hobbling off against Bournemouth in March – which many have pinpointed as the start of his current malaise – Tottenham scored ten goals. That’s an average of slightly more than two per half.
Indeed, Spurs have come a long way since relying on Roberto Soldado and Vincent Janssen to fill Kane’s void. Fernando Llorente may not have exactly set the world alight in north London, but he’s a proven striker and the perfect kind of centre-forward needed for upcoming clashes with Brighton, Watford and Huddersfield – sides who Spurs will need to punch a whole through to penetrate physical, deep and well-organised defences.
The alternative is a strike partnership of Heung-min Son and Lucas Moura. Neither are out-and-out front-men but can score goals or create them and will cause endless problems when either running behind opposition backlines or simply running at them.
Neither option may be as convincing as Kane, Europe’s best centre-forward of the last few years, but right now the Tottenham striker looks like the human equivalent of a worn-out break pad. The more pressure you apply to it, the more of it erodes away.
It may seem like hyperbole, but enforcing an extended rest upon Kane now may not only rectify the rest of his season, but could also have a crucially positive impact on the rest of his career. In the long-run, the disadvantages of losing Kane’s services for a few weeks are far outweighed by the advantages of having him back to his best for the coming years.