The term “world-class” may be overused, equivocal and pretty lazy, but the label has to now be applied to Harry Kane.
The Tottenham talisman probably deserved to be considered an elite player a long time ago, but few wanted to jump to conclusions, instead deciding to wait to make sure he wasn’t just a three-season wonder. Now, though, it has become undeniable. In 2017, the 24-year-old has scored 36 goals across 31 games in all competitions, working out at 1.16 per appearance. That’s better than Lionel Messi. That’s better than Cristiano Ronaldo. That’s world-class.
There might be one or two other world-class players in Gareth Southgate’s current England set-up, depending on how loosely you define the term, but Kane is currently the very best of the bunch, so much so that the England team should be built around him. Pep Guardiola may have been unfairly dismissive when he labelled Tottenham as the “Harry Kane team”, given how much talent there is dripping throughout the Spurs squad, but the Catalan coach might be onto something. A team centred around Harry Kane would be a very good one. Southgate should take note.
In fact, Southgate seemingly already has. Not only has he symbolically handed Kane the England captain’s armband on more than one occasion, but he has been full of praise for the way the striker plays and sets an example. “He’s keen to lead,” the England manager said of the player back in June. “I’ve worked with Harry at the Under 21s and I know his mentality. He wants to be one of the best in the world.”
If you have one of the best in the world in your squad then you should make sure he is in the right environment to best utilise his talents and if that means mimicking Tottenham then so be it, especially when there are five Tottenham players in the squad anyway. Copying what Mauricio Pochettino has done at Spurs is not, of course, easy. The Argentine’s success comes down to far more than a magic wand of a tactical system, as he and assistant coach Jesús Pérez also work so much on physical conditioning and day-to-day coaching, which Southgate will never have the luxury of.
But if Southgate were to pick a system to try to replicate then the 4-2-3-1 which Pochettino has rolled out most frequently during his time in London would be an excellent starting point, especially as it’s such a flexible formation. And that’s exactly what Kane’s former Under-21’s boss has been doing in recent matches, playing something of a 4-2-3-1 in the last two qualifiers, against Malta and against Slovakia.
This formation aids Kane in a number of ways, but there are two merits in particular. Firstly, it means that the No.9 can lead the line on his own and not have to try to develop a strike partnership with the likes of Daniel Sturridge or Jamie Vardy. In international football, it is so difficult to build the necessary chemistry with another striker in just a couple of weeks of pre-tournament training, which is surely one reason why we don’t see any national teams winning tournaments in the 21st century by playing two out-and-out strikers.
Secondly, a 4-2-3-1 means that there are three creative midfielders close behind and beside Kane, able to assist, while also being just as ready to overlap and receive the ball back from the fine passer that Kane is. Considering his skillset, this narrower set-up should be more advantageous than playing a 4-4-2 or a diamond, as Kane is far more effective with the ball at his feet than with it in the air, a lot like David Villa when he led the line for Spain at the 2010 World Cup. Part of Kane’s brilliance is that he can do everything and do it all well, but he’s not an elite header of the ball in the way some of the great English strikers of the past have been, having scored just 15% of his Tottenham goals with his head.
Better to have the likes of Dele Alli thread the ball to Kane than have a winger thump it towards him. Of course, building around Kane is more than just picking a tactical shape, as it also involves selecting players who best compliment him. This, though, is where it could be toughest for Southgate to fully commit to forging a “Harry Kane team”, but it could pay off to fill his attacking positions with players who Kane links up well with, even if that means dropping some other big names. A chef preparing a Filet Mignon may have some expensive oysters in the fridge too, but he knows some cheap potatoes and a simple sauce will do a better job of garnishing the steak.
When it comes to Harry Kane, Southgate and future England managers should make him their priority, focussing on how to make him tick. As we’ve seen in recent months at Tottenham, a comfortable Kane is an effective Kane. Tottenham are not a “Harry Kane team”, but a “Harry Kane team” could be a successful one.