Harry’s game: Kane making a striking case to succeed Messi and Ronaldo

Nick Ames on 20 January 2018

There was nothing too restrained about the celebrations when, seven years ago on Monday, a young loanee scored his first professional goal. Harry Kane’s close-range finish for Leyton Orient against Sheffield Wednesday was sufficiently gift-wrapped that he glanced over his shoulder towards the linesman as he wheeled away; that element of doubt having been dispelled, the joy was unconfined. At 17 you never know quite how often moments like that will come.

The Kane of January 2018 has a somewhat clearer idea. If he scores twice against Southampton on Sunday, he will hit the 100-goal mark in the Premier League; it would be the latest milestone to fall at his feet and evidence, yet again, that targets have become virtually redundant. “I said to someone the other day that it would be great to get to that 100 club before the end of next season,” Kane said in May after scoring four times at Leicester.

That now seems modest to a fault. The only real question is where his acceleration can possibly end; any serious debate about his place in Europe’s top bracket has long since been settled and it is more pertinent to wonder whether his ferocious drive for self-improvement can make him the best player of his generation.

Harry Kane graphic

“Today, one striker in the world, a specific position, who is better than him?” Mauricio Pochettino asked after Kane had put a hat-trick past the Saints on Boxing Day, breaking Alan Shearer’s 22-year record for Premier League goals in a calendar year. Empirically there is no simple answer: Robert Lewandowski would have his proponents, as would Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sergio Agüero, Luis Suárez and the present-day, centre-forward incarnation of Cristiano Ronaldo. Both Edinson Cavani and Neymar have comparable records this season in an inferior league, the latter starting from wide and providing assists as regularly as goals. Lionel Messi remains, to most sets of eyes, unsurpassable no matter where across a front line he is fielded.

Yet Kane, who does not turn 25 until July, is younger than them all – younger too than Ciro Immobile and Mauro Icardi, two strikers who have made significant strides in Italy. Lewandowski, the best player of the last five years to fit the traditional No 9 bracket, was already 27 when, in 2015-16, he first reached the 25-goal mark in a league campaign. Kane will, barring serious injury, achieve that for the third time this season and has never had the benefit of playing for a club that dominate their league.

In those early months when Kane, whose progress had been encouraging but not overly persuasive across four loan spells, first began scoring prolifically for Tottenham, it was natural to have doubts. He was making the most of his service but not everybody saw a standout facet, a particular burst of pace or bull-like strength, a gossamer touch or a glint of balletic grace.

Perceptions began to swing decisively on New Year’s Day 2015; that afternoon Kane ran Chelsea into the ground during a riotous 5-3 win at White Hart Lane, scoring two brilliant goals and doing so much more, rendering Gary Cahill a disoriented heap by the end of the match. Kane had done it in a big game; he has done it in so many since and it is to Tottenham’s benefit that others took so long to catch on.

Zinedine Zidane put it best when, before Spurs visited the Bernabéu in October, he said of Kane: “He is a complete player. He did not seem to be one but in the end he is.” It was the highest possible vote of confidence and also an admission that, among the elite, it took a couple of years to be certain. These days Zidane can be excused a vested interest.

If it says everything about Kane’s status that Real Madrid now seems one of very few logical career advancements, the fact Real will soon enough have a vacancy up front adds urgency to any pursuit. Should Real wish to replace Ronaldo, who is 33 next month and stuttering in an underperforming team, with a replica of his former self then Mohamed Salah’s explosive threat from wide seems the nearest modern-day analogue; if a totemic centre-forward fits the plan more neatly, then the answer could hardly be more obvious.

Harry Kane graphic 2

It was no accident when Pochettino bracketed them together last month. “You cannot say no for one day,” he said. “That is the secret of the big players like Harry, Cristiano and Messi. You cannot afford not to work every day.”

Like Ronaldo, Kane’s strength lies in an inability to tolerate his own weaknesses. The work devoted to improving his pace and power is well documented, as is his appetite for extra shooting practice sessions. Although Roy Hodgson was derided for letting Kane take corners for England at Euro 2016, it at least spoke of the fact that his dead-ball delivery can be exceptional; he can also pick a pass and, while Pochettino’s reference to a “specific position” makes sense, the overriding impression now is that he would be comfortable anywhere on a football pitch.

It is on Tottenham’s pitches that he has touched greatness; it is under Pochettino’s fastidious guidance that he has become the centre-forward their rivals covet. Breaking that bond would hold no guarantees but at some point a decision may be required.

Ronaldo, Aubameyang and Suárez were all 24 when they made the moves that defined their peak years; for Kane it will be a question of how to maximise a clear opportunity to become the best striker of his time.

For the moment, though, these questions can wait and it would be a loss not to savour the present. A history-making contribution at St Mary’s would be another reminder that, ever since that quick check for the flag at Brisbane Road, Kane has never once looked back.

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