Tottenham can find a solution to Harry Kane’s injury from within their squad

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 17, 2019
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Spend some money. That’s football’s response to everything now and supporters have been conditioned to think in exactly the same way. As a case in point, as soon as Tottenham had revealed Harry Kane’s injury diagnosis on Tuesday, they were being directed towards the transfer-market.

Unfortunately, that’s a bare market with little to offer. As expected, Kane’s injury has fanned conjecture and the names now being connected with the club show how slim the pickings really are. Divock Origi, Jay Rodriguez; players who have no business at the top of the league.

So if the plan was never to strengthen in January, then perhaps that’s a strategy to which Spurs should remain loyal. In week-to-week terms, Kane’s absence may be lengthy and Son Heung Min’s sojourn to the Asian Cup might be mightily inconvenient, but are they really absences which require an actual transfer in response? Another fee, another wage, another actual person? The way to answer that question is, one, to consider what kind of player the club could actually afford and, two, what would happen to that player once Son and Kane return.

A loan deal would be more wise, certainly, but that really would be scraping the barrel and, besides, by the time any new signing had been properly conditioned and deemed useful by Pochettino, Son will again be available for selection, Lucas Moura will be fit, and Kane will – hopefully – be nearing a return. The better option, then, would be to patch together a solution from the existing parts. Kane may not have an equivalent in the Tottenham squad, but his attributes can be reproduced by committee and especially so in a squad which is so stable.

The obvious solution would be to fall back on Fernando Llorente. He is notionally a goalscorer and, despite his age, remains a highly disruptive physical presence with passable distribution. Unfortunately, as Harry Kane has grown as a player, the team around him has become more reliant on his influence outside the penalty box. Kane’s currency is goals, but his true worth is far broader and, ultimately, far beyond what Llorente is capable of offering. The Spaniard may still be able to thunder onto a perfect cross, but he lacks the mobility and vision to be an asset in the wide channels or to perform any sort of pertinent playmaking function.

His time at the club may not have been a disaster, but it can’t be said that he has ever enjoyed Pochettino’s trust. In fact, he’s always been treated as a very last resort and tends only to see the pitch when the team’s attacking imagination has run completely dry. He has rarely been used as a direct replacement for Kane before and so that trend is likely to continue.

Whatever solution Pochettino lands on is likely instead to prioritise the preservation of his team’s style. Whether he uses a true forward in Kane’s place or not, the aim will presumably be to ensure that Tottenham’s attacking phases look broadly the same and that the threat they pose stays true to their brand of football. That would make good sense, too, because continuity is their principal virtue and trying to recondition these players in any way would almost certainly result in clunky, ineffective performances and surrendered points.

Which is why, perhaps, moving Dele Alli to the top of the pitch makes most sense. A case could certainly be made for Erik Lamela, too, who has the habit of movement to suit a false 9 role, but Alli has several key advantages over Lamela, not least his sharper goalscoring instincts and his superiority in the air. One could argue, also, that as intelligent as Kane’s movement in the penalty-box is, Alli is arguably better and he more regularly evades defensive attention, remaining unmarked with remarkable regularity.

He’s a midfielder, there’s no discussion about that. But it’s also true that he’s at his very best in the penalty box and the full of rainbow of his abilities is most often shown in goal-scoring situations. Irregardless, “goal-scoring midfielder” is something of a misnomer: he is not Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard or Paul Scholes, he doesn’t fit the typical description. Instead, many of his goals belong in a poacher’s repertoire and owe much to his willingness to operate as a quasi- or shadow forward. So, while seeing him at the tip of the formation would look strange, it really wouldn’t require much of an adjustment for him personally. Yes, he’s a midfielder, but he’s one blessed with almost the complete set of forward traits.

Unfortunately, Kane’s injury will create a ripple effect through the rest of the team too. Repositioning Alli would necessitate some shuffling in midfield and with Mousa Dembele having been sold, Victor Wanyama almost permanently unavailable and Eric Dier only recently returning from appendix surgery, that’s no easy task either. A further complication was created by the mild injury suffered by Moussa Sissoko during the Manchester United game, but he will likely return within days rather than weeks or months, and may even be capable of facing Fulham on Sunday.

Jan Vertonghen is now fit again, so Pochettino will presumably revert to a three centre-back system, leaving two midfielders to pick from Harry Winks, Oliver Skipp, Dier and Sissoko, and a forward-three of Alli, Lamela and Christian Eriksen. It’s not a perfect solution by any means, the theoretical deficiencies are fairly easy to spot (the standard of wing-back available is a big concern, although not a new one), but it’s difficult to see how any incoming player could improve upon it. If Tottenham were shopping from the very highest shelves then, clearly, that would be a different matter. But they’re not: if they’re in the market at all, it’s for a working pulse rather than an actual difference-maker.

On top of which, should Pochettino require extra heft in an opponent’s box, then Llorente is still available. He comes with the limitations discussed and at 33 cannot be expected to regularly play 90 minutes, but would provide the option of dropping Eriksen or Alli back into midfield and into positions where they can be of more regular influence.

It’s a tenuous solution which relies on several assumptions and best case scenarios, but it’s still the better way. If the club’s resources are as stretched as assumed, then making a significant investment now – and really just for the sake of ten games – would appear needlessly reckless. Instead, Tottenham would better served by forgetting the positions of their players and the numbers on their backs and looking instead towards their collective attributes. Within that cluster lies a useful range of passable and perhaps even intriguing options which Pochettino and his tactical imagination are capable of fashioning into something useful.

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