Kane the Underdog
If any player knows about being written off, it’s Harry Kane. Kane was never even expected to make the grade at Tottenham, let alone become the phenomenon he is today. Even after he established himself at Spurs with 21 Premier League goals in 2014/15, he was brandished a one-season wonder. His reaction to that? Back-to-back Premier League Golden Boots, which were then followed up by his best goalscoring season in the top-flight in 2017/18 (30 goals).
Kane’s next two seasons were injury-ravaged and for the first time there were visible signs that he might be slowing down, with that usual instinctive sharpness absent from his performances at times. José Mourinho’s arrival at Spurs was greeted with more suggestions that Kane’s best was beyond him, with the pair not necessarily an organic match. While those factors prevented Kane from reaching his customary 20+ goals, the Spurs striker still managed to hit the 15-goal mark for the sixth Premier League season in succession, something only Thierry Henry and Sergio Agüero (both 7) have ever done so in more consecutive campaigns. In 2020/21, the situation has changed again, and Kane is once again defying the odds, personifying the tag of the underdog that refuses to be beat. Where many believed Kane would falter under Mourinho, the Portuguese has elevated Kane’s game by establishing a structure that enables Kane to play at the peak of his powers. But how exactly has Mourinho helped Kane to explode?
Kane the Evolver
Despite once being unfairly disregarded as nothing more than a tap-in merchant, Harry Kane has always managed to be effective away from the penalty area, scoring at least twice from outside the box in each of his previous six Premier League campaigns. Nowadays, Kane’s best work is coming from outside the box, with just 10% of his Premier League touches coming inside the area in 2020/21, the lowest that rate has dropped in a single season for the Spurs man.
That’s essentially due to the typically deeper role he has assumed in Mourinho’s system, where Kane can dictate Tottenham’s quick attacking transitions as opposed to allowing attacks to develop behind him.
Looking at the positions in which Kane has picked up the ball in his first 28 league games for Mourinho illustrates how his involvement has gradually shifted away from the box and further towards the middle third. Comparing that to his final 28 league games for Mauricio Pochettino indicates that Kane is now dominating the entire width of the pitch too, such is his importance in all elements of Tottenham’s attacking waves under Mourinho.
Subsequently, Tottenham’s dependence on Kane to formulate attacks has continued to rise, with the England captain now tasked with the role of chief orchestrator for Spurs as well. Kane’s nine assists are already a personal best in a Premier League season and are testament to his increased creative responsibility. The significant factor is that in adopting this more creative role, Kane’s goalscoring has suffered no detriment, with 2017/18 (eight goals) the only time he managed more goals from his opening 10 games of a campaign than the seven he has in the league in 2020/21.
With Mourinho setting up to play on the counter in bigger games particularly, much of Tottenham’s attacks stem from turnovers in possession and the dual-headed threat Kane carries in this deeper role is evident from the way opposition teams react. In the 2-0 win over Manchester City, Kane presented Rúben Dias and Aymeric Laporte with the ultimate stick-or-twist dilemma, with Kane repeatedly dragging the pair out of position and manipulating their decisions every time possession turned over.
The effects of that were obvious in the following game against Chelsea, with Frank Lampard undertaking a more cautious approach in possession; Lampard was visibly wary of the risks in allowing Kane to operate in the earlier phases of Tottenham attacks and seek out runners in behind the Chelsea defence. In stifling Kane’s authority, Spurs’ attacking threat suffered simultaneously and it’s no coincidence that the only two league games in which Tottenham haven’t scored this season are the only two in which Kane hasn’t scored or assisted at least once.
Even thwarted, Kane was still directly involved in three of Tottenham’s five shots in that goalless draw with Chelsea (one shot, two chances created), such is his value to Spurs going forward. That influence Kane carries towards Tottenham’s goal threat can be best surmised by looking at the Expected Goals from open-play sequences involving Kane, which at 8.9 is the highest for any individual in the Premier League this season. In other words, open-play sequences involving Harry Kane are the likeliest to result in goals across the league in 2020/21.
For once, that figure being so high is not predominantly determined by Kane’s involvement as a marksman, with that now further complemented by his increased creative capacity.
Kane the Creator
Kane’s passing range has always been apparent, though perhaps less prominently because José Mourinho has now implemented the ideal system to exploit it. Kane’s signature move in this Mourinho setup is collecting the ball in deeper areas on the half-turn, before looking to unleash runners either side, something which is enhanced by Mourinho’s tendency for direct attacks. Tottenham’s speed in transition can only be matched by Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds, who are the only team to execute as many direct attacks (22) as Spurs in 2020/21; direct attacks comprise of open-play sequences starting just inside a team’s own half with at least 50% of movement towards the opposition goal, which end in a shot or a touch in the opposition box.
Kane’s immersion in those direct attacks sees him assisting at an alarming rate of nine in 10 games, yet the rate at which he creates chances is not synonymous, with six players creating more than the Spurs man (21) in 2020/21. However, with the nature of the chances Kane is creating a consequence of quickly and fatally exploiting opposition defences during those fast transitions, those chances are being converted to goals at a prolific rate (43% – 9/21). On average, the chances Kane creates turn to goals – and therefore assists – once every 2.3 chances he creates – a far superior rate to the other players to create 20+ chances in 2020/21.
Harry Kane seeking out runners in behind is a notion we’ve seen for England in tandem with the likes of Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, but this is the first time Kane’s passing range has been so cutting edge at club level. Kane’s eye for a pass is nothing new, but with Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham primarily playing on the front foot, there was less space to exploit and Kane’s link-up existed in much more intricate phases or switches of play, rather than in turnovers as it is so regularly now.
That’s evident when looking at a map of Kane’s open-play assists and the chances he’s created with a high expected-assists (xA) value in 2020/21, compared to how he fared in that regard over the course of the previous three seasons. Firstly, Kane has just one fewer assist from open play this season already (7) than he did in his three previous campaigns collectively (8), with the map illustrating how many of those have come courtesy of a ball in behind a defence from a deep-lying position in 2020/21. Comparatively, the volume of chances Kane was creating with passes across the penalty area is much more noticeable during the three-season period prior to 2020/21. Meanwhile the yellow dots indicate the areas in which Kane is passing, which illustrate his decreased participation in the final 18 yards of the pitch currently, particularly inside the penalty area.
Kane’s incisive passes are incredibly effective at eliminating defenders from the equation, even if it requires extra running from Son Heung-Min and co. once they’ve latched onto the pass. Accordingly, the chances Kane has created this season have a low xA value (1.3 collectively), simply because he’s not always laying the chances on a plate, but rather slicing open defences to an extent from which they can’t recover. His quick free-kick assist for Son against Manchester United – one of two Kane assists that weren’t from open play this season – was resemblant of his others in 2020/21, in that the defence was instantly removed from the situation with one through ball, even though Son still had a lot to do himself.
It’s fitting then that so many of Kane’s assists have come following a carry, with four of his nine coming after a carry of five metres or more with the ball. That’s twice as many as any other player, with Marcus Rashford, Mateusz Klich, André-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Daniel Podence the only other players to assist multiple times following a carry (all two). Creating in that manner provides the ideal platform for Kane to influence proceedings, as it enables him to progress the ball further up the field, before seeking out the killer pass, attempting or a shot or drawing a foul.
In terms of overall shot involvement following a carry, Kane (17 – nine shots, eight chances created) sits behind four players, though he’s embarked on considerably fewer carries (85) than all of them. Overall, 20% of Kane’s carries have resulted in a shot or a chance created, a higher rate than those with similar shot involvement from carries.
Compare that to a more traditional, but hard-working playmaker like Kevin De Bruyne, who has seen just under 7% of his carries result in shooting or creating a chance (12/126), and it accentuates the uniqueness of Kane’s hybrid role as an undetectable, creative enigma for Mourinho.
Kane the All-rounder
Kane’s running isn’t just constrained to when he has the ball either, with Tottenham’s talisman ranking inside the top 20 in terms of distance covered in the Premier League this season (103.4km) His commitment to his craft can’t be questioned, with Pablo Fornals (11.2km) the only player above Kane in that list who isn’t a defender or a central midfielder, emphasising just how much ground Kane is covering for a player that would traditionally be considered a forward.
That’s noticeable within Kane’s defensive work too, with much of that coming in the gulf around the centre circle where he operates so regularly. In studying Kane’s defensive actions during Mourinho’s 28-game tenure in the Premier League in parallel to his last 28 games for Pochettino, it’s evident how much the high press that typified the Pochettino era has diminished. That’s reflected in the low number of shot-ending high turnovers for Tottenham this season, with Crystal Palace and Leicester (both 4) the only teams to attempt as few shots as Mourinho’s Spurs (4) from open-play sequences that have started within 40m of the opposition goal.
Instead where Kane is no longer setting the Pochettino press, he’s embodied the Mourinho persona of winning at all costs, with his defensive graft present in all areas of the pitch, particularly in that middle third where he’s so adept at turning over possession and instigating Tottenham attacks. In reality, Kane’s game is showing no signs of weakness in 2020/2, with him now depicting the definition of a true all-rounder.
Kane, the Man for the Derby
Kane’s attentions now turn to the next leg of Tottenham’s crunch run – the North London Derby, a fixture steeped in 110 years of league history, almost to the day. Despite featuring in such a small part of that history having made his debut in this fixture less than six years ago, Kane is already engrained in it, with Bobby Smith and Emmanuel Adebayor (both 10) the only players who can match his 10 North London Derby goals in all competitions. Kane’s 10 have come across 11 Premier League games, with Leicester (14) and West Ham (11) the only teams he’s scored more against in the competition.
Harry Kane’s dominance in this fixture is unsurprising given that he isn’t fazed by any stage; it’s pertinent that when he hit the 200-goal mark for Tottenham against Ludogorets last month, exactly 100 of those had come in away matches, with a further 99 across three separate home stadiums, as well as another at Wembley in a neutral FA Cup semi-final. 2020/21’s version of Harry Kane will still have no qualms about facing Arsenal, although the Gunners happen to be one of two teams he’s faced more than 10 times in the Premier League without assisting (11, along with Everton). Kane did however provide an assist with a ball in behind for Dele Alli when Tottenham won at the Emirates in the League Cup in December 2018 – possible foreshadowing for the Kane that would emerge in future years?
Kane the Winner?
Kane’s emergence and establishment as an elite player have coincided with Tottenham’s gradual progression, so nobody in N17 is more befitting of silverware than him. He will hope José Mourinho can hold up his end of the bargain, which appears to be the case based on recent results. Tottenham come into this match unbeaten in five league games against fellow Big Six opposition (W3, D2), with all of those coming since Project Restart. That break afforded Mourinho the opportunity to reassess his strategy and reimplement Kane from injury, after the Portuguese had lost four of his first five matches against Big Six teams in charge of Spurs (W1).
This is Tottenham’s longest unbeaten run against Big Six teams in the league since a run of 12 at their pomp under Pochettino, between September 2015 and November 2016 (W4, D8). It’s also the first time they’ve kept back-to-back Premier League clean sheets against Big Six opposition since 2010, with the first of those 2010 games seeing Peter Crouch famously head Spurs into the Champions League for the first time against Manchester City. That marked the start of a defining era for Tottenham, but now is the time to define a new era and elevate the club to another level, whilst Harry Kane is playing at the peak of his powers.
By deploying Kane in this deeper role, Mourinho appears to have uncovered a formula that enables Tottenham to survive – and even thrive – in matches against their rivals. In a constantly evolving footballing era where defined, strict positions are becoming increasingly obsolete, Mourinho has discovered a means of giving Harry Kane a role which seemingly encompasses every position.
If this has got you excited for the game on Sunday, maybe test your knowledge with our north London derby quiz.
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