Harry Kane hurt his ankle March 11. After colliding with Bournemouth goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, Kane was forced off the field only 34 minutes into the match. Since that moment, nothing has been the same.
Kane did not miss a single Premier League game. A fortuitously timed international break meant the star striker was back on the field for Tottenham two weeks later for their next match, coming on as a sub in a crucial 3-1 away victory against Chelsea. Kane’s quick recovery from an injury that was initially supposed to keep him out four to six weeks was remarkable. The problem is that while Kane’s body is back on the field, his game is still missing in action.
(Editor’s note: All numbers current as of Sunday evening.)
A Superstar Season
On the aggregate, Kane’s numbers this season remain monstrously strong. He has 26 goals, second only to the otherworldly Mohamed Salah’s 31. He’s taking more than five shots per game, the best total in the Premier League. His total of just over 25 expected goals is actually slightly ahead of Salah’s 23. His expected goal total works out to 0.83 per 90 minutes of play, which is slightly behind Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, Manchester City’s rotating set of forwards (excluding players who have played fewer than 1,000 minutes).
These numbers are by far the best of Kane’s career. While he scored 29 goals last season, he did it thanks to some extremely hot finishing, and his 0.70 expected goals per 90 minutes are well behind what he’s doing this season. Similarly, his shooting numbers, at 5.56 per 90 minutes, are the best of his career. This season is absolutely what it looks like when a player takes the leap from being very good to being truly spectacular. Except for the last month.
Kane has played four games since his return. After his substitute appearance against Chelsea, he has started and played all but one minute in the last three. He has seven total shots. Against Manchester City he started and was held without a shot. The last time Kane started a match and was held shotless was in February 2017 when Liverpool beat Spurs 2-0. Now, to be fair, he does have two goals in those four games, a respectable total of 0.63 goals per 90 minutes played, but that’s a better return than the 0.42 expected goals per 90 he’s generated since he’s been back. And that 0.42 is a downright precipitous drop-off from the sky-high 0.83 he’s averaged over the course of the season.
It’s also tempting simply to dismiss this as the effect of a pretty tough schedule that Kane’s returning to. There’s no real shame in being held to ineffective performances by Chelsea and Manchester City, two of the best defenses in the world. But even if you only look at the two games against inferior opponents, Kane’s numbers aren’t flattering. Seven shots and 1.32 expected goals across two games against Stoke City and Brighton and Hove Albion is pretty mediocre when you consider what Kane has been doing all season.
Believing that there’s nothing wrong with Harry Kane involves believing a growing list of things are simultaneously true. First, it means believing that there are no aftereffects from the accelerated timeline of his recovery from injury. Then, you’d have to buy that his complete no-shows against good defenses in Chelsea and Manchester City were all about the strength of the opponent and not at all about Kane.
On top of that, it means being convinced that the two goals he scored against subpar opposition are more important than the drop in opportunities he had against them. Or that the drop in opportunities are just the result of a little slump in form, which is certainly possible in such a small sample size, and that that slump has nothing to do with his recent injury. Lastly, you’d also have to write off the FA Cup semifinal, Kane’s fifth game back, where he only managed two shots — both of them blocked — in a loss against Manchester United.
Maybe Kane isn’t hurt and it’s just a slump, but if he is still suffering from the lingering effects of an ankle injury, it has major implications not only for the rest of this season but for the World Cup this summer and beyond. For starters, Spurs are only up five points on Chelsea for fourth place with three games to play. That makes them overwhelming favorites (Chelsea’s odds are around 2%), but not locks. Tottenham’s remaining schedule is relatively easy. They’ve got West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle and Leicester City, but it’s still not like they can shut down Kane consequence-free for the rest of the season.
It’s also not like Kane just has to grit his way through the next few games and then he has an offseason to heal up. England are depending on Kane to be the focal point of their attack this summer at the World Cup. Kane, Raheem Sterling and either Dele Alli or Jesse Lingard make a formidable front three. But for it to work, all three attackers have to occupy their specialized roles. Sterling’s job is to unsettle defenses and pull them out of position by beating people with the ball at his feet, Lingard or Alli space the field and provide the positional and passing glue to hold the team together, and Kane finishes all the goals. That’s how it’s supposed to work. If Kane isn’t right, then the attack won’t be right.
The Final Hurdle
Tottenham’s final game of the season is May 13. Three weeks later England start their summer schedule with pre-World Cup friendlies against Nigeria on June 2 and Costa Rica on June 7. Kane could conceivably skip those if he really needed to and give himself a full month off before England’s World Cup opener June 18 against Tunisia. If Kane isn’t healthy, there’s time for him to get right, but not a lot of it.
Kane’s struggles since his return from injury are very real and should be very worrisome for Tottenham Hotspur and England’s national team. The combination of Spurs not having secured top-four and England’s busy summer means that the star striker will need to put a lot of minutes on his body over the next few months during a period of the year where he’d normally be winding down.
It’s always possible that this dip in form will work itself out. Maybe after a few weeks Kane will have played himself back into shape and become the fire-breathing shot monster he was earlier this year. If not, then Spurs and England need to figure out what’s best for their star. Finding him the time to rest and recover is important for club and country. Not only do they need him now, they need him this summer, and next season, and four years from now. Getting Kane right physically needs to be a priority for everybody involved. In the short and long term, it’s best for Kane, it’s best for Tottenham, and it’s best for England.
Top photo courtesy of Tottenham Hotspur.