Harry Kane: probably not best in the world, but perfect for this England team

Barney Ronay on 19 November 2018

Oh, Gareth. We almost made it. Although, who knows, with a little time those Harry Kane remarks might just start to make their own kind of quietly insistent good sense.

The end of November will mark two years since Gareth Southgate’s rather bashful unveiling as England manager, a reign that began with a public apology deep in the grey concrete bowels of Wembley stadium. It has become commonplace to suggest Southgate is yet to put a foot wrong in that time, an impression confirmed by England’s performance against Croatia at Wembley on Sunday.

England teams fade out. England teams never learn. England teams just keep battering away at the same pane of glass like a platoon of dying flies. Not here though, as England re-geared their approach and came from behind to win a game in the last 15 minutes which is something of a rare feat for the national team, tournament extra time aside.

Best of all Southgate’s late changes and tactical fluidity made good the one slight stain on his time so far, the stasis toward the end of the World Cup semi-final when England seemed to be strapped a little too stubbornly into the system that had got them there.

In fact everything was looking fine, great, top hole, prelude to a blemish-free two-year wrap of the dawning of the age of Gareth. Right up to the moment Southgate announced in victory that Kane is “the best goalscorer in the world”.

When are they taking place?

The four-team knockout tournament begins on 5 June 2019 with the semi-finals. The final (and third-place play-off) will be played on 9 June

Who has qualified?

The four League A group winners: England, Portugal, Switzerland and Netherlands, who sealed their place with a dramatic late comeback to draw with Germany. England are the highest-ranked team (No 5 in the world), followed by Portugal (7), Switzerland (8) and Netherlands (15)

Where are they taking place?

The games will be held in Portugal, with Porto's Estádio de Dragão and Vitória's stadium in Guimarães the likely venues. Italy and Poland also applied, with Portugal earning the right to host by topping Group A3 ahead of those two teams

Who plays who in the semis?

The draw for the one-leg semi-finals at 1.30pm GMT in Dublin on 3 December, the day after the Irish capital stages the Euro 2020 qualifying draw.

What do the winners receive?

The inaugural Nations League winners will receive an elaborate trophy (pictured above), as well as a total prize pot of €10.5m (£9.36m). The winners will not qualify for Euro 2020 automatically, however

This seems so out of kilter with the smart, measured tone of this England era that regular Gareth watchers have suggested it is more than just an offhand remark. For a start, it’s not true, or not true enough to be worth saying. Cristiano Ronaldo has 48 goals in his past 54 games for Portugal. Neymar has 60 in 95 and is gearing up to haul in a bloke called Pelé in the next two years. Do we really want to play this game?

And yet, Southgate is right in other ways. This is a good moment to offer a little unconditional love for a footballer in the middle of his own sweet spot as at this level; but who is also in the process of changing his game a little, of becoming Harry 3.0.

The most notable part of Kane’s performance was of course that late winner, his 20th goal for England in 35 appearances. Only Gary Lineker (27 games) has got there quicker in modern times. Otherwise Kane is out in front of Wayne Rooney (49), Kevin Keegan (49) Michael Owen (46), Alan Shearer (43) and the oddly overlooked David Platt (42).

He scores big goals too, tempo-setters and game-deciders, all but four of them in competitive internationals. Odd isn’t it? The more Kane hones his game – the luckier he seems to get with those tap-ins and deflections.

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It still seems too much to suggest, as Rooney has, that Kane will go on to break that 53-goal England record. For one thing Rooney enjoyed a 15-year span with England; Kane is unlikely to be leading the attack as a 36-year-old at the 2030 World Cup.

And more to the point: who cares, really? It is exactly this obsession with personal laurels, of star players who cling on just a little too long, that the current generation should be looking to move beyond. Kane has already helped drive an overachieving team to a surprise semi-final. He has a tournament Golden Boot. Record, schmecord. These are riches of an altogether different kind.

Beyond this Kane is changing as a player, and in ways that may or may not affect his longevity. At Wembley he had more shots on target than the entire Croatia team, but he also won more headers than anyone else and held the ball with great craft while England’s inside-forwards ran off him.

Kane put Raheem Sterling in on goal with a lovely spin and pass, as he had Marcus Rashford in Spain. He looked like what he is, an all-round footballer who played in midfield coming up the age groups, who can drop deep as a forward playmaker or fight and wrestle with his back to goal.

It is a basic footballing intelligence that will serve both England and Kane well from here. The fact is, he does look a slightly different athlete. We have seen this process before. Rooney, Owen and Shearer all tell us that the Premier League takes a bite out of you, that it steals the snap from the legs.

For the last four seasons Kane has played with the throttle maxed out. He went almost three years without an injury. Since then his ankle has begun to twang. His returns from injury have been disturbingly swift. For those who point to his lack of flash, the absence of Messi-like dribbling or lightning speed off the mark, this is a player tailoring his game, developing in his mid-20s; and whose career has always told us that talent is overrated, that brains, nerve and will are what really make the difference.

Hence perhaps the praise now from a manager who has shown himself to be ruthless but who will see this is a good moment to reassure a senior player. Integrating the well-schooled creative talents of the likes of Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden is the next level for this England-Southgate project.

Kane offers a bridge for that generation: not just a cutting edge, but a state-of-the-art Premier League athlete who also has some of the old street smarts, with the cunning to mould and change his game to fit. Best in the world will always be a losing game. But you get Southgate’s deeper point. As it stands Kane is perfect for this evolving team, an England player to be enjoyed right now, in the middle of his own golden years.

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