Over 200 career goals, the England captaincy, and on course to becoming the all-time leading scorer for both club and country — by almost any metric, these achievements should be enough to shape even the most eminent of careers.
Why then, aged just 26, does it somehow feel like time is running out for Harry Kane?
A hamstring injury sustained in Spurs’ New Year’s Day defeat to Southampton is far worse than anticipated, ruling Kane out for four months rather than the usual six weeks. When it isn’t the ankle, it’s the hammy. When it isn’t the hammy, it’s the ankle again. This will be the England striker’s 16th enforced absence since the beginning of 2015.
But for a long time, Harry Kane’s career – and various appendages – seemed protected by plot armour. The central protagonist in every moment of Spurs theatre, it was inconceivable that Harry Kane wouldn’t realise his destiny: greatness. And make no mistake, it is this for which Harry Kane yearns.
But serendipity isn’t a currency in which one can trade without trepidation, especially when those with fate in their hands choose to walk such a perilous tightrope. Tottenham have relied too much on their poster boy, barely affording him a moment’s rest in any circumstances – the last time he was substituted for his club was on the 14th September, and he played every minute of their seven December fixtures. When he’s fit, when he even approaches fitness, he plays.
This pathological dependence on Kane has led to Spurs signing no new centre-forwards since 2017 – 17-year-old Troy Parrot remains his only backup. It’s a situation echoed in the England camp – of the last 80 England goals, out-and-out alternative strikers currently in the squad have scored just two. But has Kane warranted this level of unqualified faith?
The raw data would appear to suggest he has. Across all competitions at club level, the England captain has scored 176 goals in 253 games. He has outperformed his xG in each of the last six seasons. There have been no real ‘dry spells’ to speak of. But these factoids are negatively offset by the empirical evidence of the past couple of seasons, as well as oodles of statistical material too.
He has been absent from the scene of Spurs’ greatest triumphs during this time. Scoring a solitary goal in the knockout stages of their famous Champions League run in 2018-19, Kane missed the delirium of their second-leg meetings with Manchester City and Ajax through injury. He was missing too from Spurs’ best performance of the modern era, the 3-0 demolition of Borussia Dortmund in February last year. It is telling that whenever the centre-forward faces a spell on the sidelines, the question of whether Spurs are actually better off without him is invariably raised.
Whichever side of the fence you fall on, there’s no denying that there has been a scarcity of the romantic moments which earmarked Kane as a semi-biblical figure for Spurs and England fans alike. Like their Three Lions counterparts, Spurs fans are ritualistically predisposed to disappointment. There’s none of the opulence of Manchester City, the mythos of Liverpool or even the recent successes of Arsenal, Manchester United or Chelsea on which to dine out. For years, “lads, it’s Tottenham” was the Fergie-ism which haunted them.
For this reason, Kane’s career has always felt like it’s been building up to something. 20-odd goals a season was never going to be enough, he was meant to be the saviour of both his club and his country.
And this wasn’t the English press overhyping a young player yet again, it was a self-anointed title. Kane has consistently said the driving force in his career is to be compared with the likes of Messi and Ronaldo. In a remarkably similar fashion to the latter, he is a player that has forged a spectacular career for himself thanks to relentless self-improvement and an understanding of the importance of narrative. As the joint-leading goalscorer in North London derbies and with a World Cup Golden Boot to his name, the goals and moments that have defined Kane’s career have always been those that have fed into his fairy-tale story arc.
But in recent years, with the exception of the World Cup, these moments have been few and far between. There’s even a credible argument to suggest that – with three goals from the spot, two from point-blank range and one via the most fortuitous deflection a World Cup audience is ever likely to witness – Kane’s exploits in Russia were not as impressive as they initially seemed to an England fanbase drunk on the ether of international success.
He has maintained his numbers but has not yet become the great player he longs to be.
There are mitigating factors. It’s worth mentioning, for example, that Kane became much more than a goalscorer under the management of Mauricio Pochettino. Rising to prominence as a number ten and often labelled a simple ‘poacher’ by his detractors, Kane now plays as something closer to a nine-and-a-half – a label often associated with Karim Benzema or a late-stage Wayne Rooney. Dropping deeper than he ever has before, Kane sees himself as a playmaker as much as he does a goalscorer, initiating waves of attacks as often as finishing them.
While it is pleasing to see this active process of refinement in an English player’s game, it is also quite possible that it is the root cause of his wobble in terms of potency. Spinning too many plates, Kane has faltered.
This frustrating time in Kane’s career has coincided with the beginning of Jose Mourinho’s tenure as Spurs boss – a manager on a downward career trajectory at the same time as Kane’s should be on the up. Had this been the Mourinho that turned Kane’s idol Cristiano Ronaldo into a 40+ goals per season striker, the England captain might be feeling more positive about his situation. As it stands, a dour Jose has seemingly reached his event horizon two or three seasons ahead of schedule: it looks like gloominess, excuses and sneering cynicism from here on out. Hardly an atmosphere conducive to a Kane revival.
When he returns from injury, Kane will have reached a critical point in his footballing life. With a potentially career-defining European Championships on the horizon and the threat of a young Tammy Abraham or – god willing – Jamie Vardy in his rear-view mirrors, Southgate and Spurs’ talisman needs to rediscover the form which earnt him that title. If he doesn’t, England might be forced to abandon their lust for the evocative narrative.