Harry Kane and inconvenient aesthetics

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor
February 21, 2017

Another weekend, another glut of goals for Harry Kane. His hat-trick against Fulham, by virtue of being against a Championship side, wasn’t illustrative of anything which isn’t already known, but he is now a goal away from reaching twenty for the season in all competitions and from passing that milestone for the third consecutive year.

That’s an inconestably admirable return and yet, still, there are those who – quite sincerely – continue to describe him as a long-term anomaly. Rival supporters are entitled to those sneers, as Spurs fans are welcome to theirs, but this goes beyond wilfully reductive tribalism: there seems to be an expectation that Kane will eventually regress to be the clumsy boy who first appeared in the Europa League.

Take note, for instance, of how quickly social media typically moves to dismiss his accomplishments and how quickly caveats are applied to every goal he scores.

England partly informed that, of course, because neither Kane nor the side as a whole are quite free of last summer’s associations. It may not be fair to judge players solely within the context of an international tournament, but it’s a natural habit: a supporter’s tendency is to analyse his or her own team’s players in far greater detail, so it stands to reason that Euro 2016 was Kane’s first concentrated exposure. He played badly, too. At his worst, he can look ungainly and awkward and that was a perception multiplied by his obvious physical exhaustation. Like so many national team players before, Kane has felt the native disappointment on a personal level and, though England’s elimination wasn’t due to any single issue, he – as an anticipated match-winner – has been subjected to snide re-evaluation.

But Euro 2016 aside, it’s difficult to deny a more general distrust for Kane. Despite matching (or exceeding) the scoring performance of all of the Premier League’s elite forwards over the past three years, he is rarely acknowledged as being their equal. He may not have had the career of Sergio Aguero or Diego Costa, but it’s interesting that – outside his own fanbase – he’s frequently held in lesser regard than Romelu Lukaku; it is Belgian’s strike rate which is compared to past and current greats of the game and it is his potential which “frightens” people. Curious, because Kane has outscored him in each of the past two seasons and, at the time of writing, has scored more goals in fewer 2016/2017 games. Furthermore, his broader contribution is also incontestably superior, with Kane occupying a playmaking and defensive role for Spurs which Lukaku is nowhere close to matching.

Perhaps this isn’t intentional? Perhaps, instead, it’s representative of the form we want modern forwards to take and also simultaneously a reaction to Kane’s slightly irregular form.

Beyond the “one of our own” tag and relatable backstory, Kane is an ultra-modern player. Rather than being a penalty-box forward, as was the default in previous decades, his reputation has relied upon a broader contribution. His goals are vital, of course, but his technical and athletic make-up is also essential to the way his team constructs attacking phases and creates chances. Note, for instance, how anaemic Spurs can look when he is either off-form or absent from their lineup – his goals dry up, but so too do the animating combinations with Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen. Kane is often the exclamation point in Mauricio Pochettino’s attacking football, but also commonly the grammar as well.

But there’s a complication: he doesn’t fit the mould of that type of player, either in the way he looks or how he moves around the pitch. In essence, that’s a commentary on how visual football now is and the deprioritisation of its detail. On the other hand, it’s also a symptom of the times: if Kane were to have played in the 1990s Premier League, few would have difficulty accepting his contribution and placing him alongside Les Ferdinand, Alan Shearer or even Teddy Sheringham. However, because the modern trend is for smaller, smoother players in Number 9 roles (Ronaldo, Messi, Aguero) there exists a prevailing snobbery. Kane doesn’t look like a multi-tasking forward and he certainly doesn’t glide around the pitch with any elegant finesse. He doesn’t win many style points and so, consequently, is often tagged as a throw-back player or even an anachronism. He is not quite powerful enough to be a fascination, not slick enough to appeal to the YouTube generation.

To some, he is just a a good goal-scorer who will eventually succumb to modernity, or a capable forward, but lacking the aesthetic required to be classed as truly exceptional.

It’s entirely false and quite unfair that his goal-scoring record and overall play remain blighted by these asterisks.

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