Harry Kane paradox leaves England talisman grasping to find his former self

Estimated read time 5 min read

Around 48 minutes into this musty, vaguely icky game – a game that felt like it was a few weeks past its sell-by date, a game that came coated in a thin, unidentifiable layer of mildew – Bukayo Saka got the ball in England’s right channel and played a simple short pass into Harry Kane.

For all his current travails, the vagaries of form and fitness, Kane is nothing if not a fearsome striker of a football. When he really connects, as he did here, the ball simply explodes off his boot: all gunpowder and venom and pure, coiled power. Two problems. First, Kane was facing away from goal. Second, he wasn’t actually attempting a shot but, in fact, trying to bring the ball under control.

At which point, a sequence of entirely logical but richly comic events unfolded. Kane’s heavy touch triggered the Slovenian press – albeit, not as much as Kane seems to have triggered the English press over the last week – and forced him scampering back towards his own goal. Benjamin Sesko got a foot in. The ball ricocheted off his teammate Vanja Drkusic and bounced back into the path of Kane. Still retreating, Kane played an awkward hoik to Marc Guéhi, who passed it back to Jordan Pickford in the England goal.

To any young strikers who happened to be watching: that is how you do it. As long as by “it”, you mean “moving the ball 80 yards in a backwards direction as quickly and gauchely as humanly possible”. You can’t teach that kind of heavy control, but you can perhaps recreate it by strapping a cast-iron church bell to each foot.

If this seems a touch harsh on one of England’s greatest ever strikers, a player who will almost certainly score a crucial goal at some point in the knockout stages, then there is still something faintly shocking about Kane’s decline over recent weeks, a European Golden Shoe winner who has simply disappeared, as if those 44 goals for Bayern Munich were a trick of the imagination, a vivid cheese dream.

“Remember what it was like to wear the shirt,” Kane warned some of his predecessors in a surprisingly waspish press conference in the build-up to this game. And yet Kane currently looks like a player trapped in remembrance, constantly grasping at memories of his former self, the patterns and tricks and techniques that worked for him so recently.

It had been a weird kind of week, a preamble to this game that seemed to revolve largely around the word “shit”: the meaning of it, the appropriateness of it, the decorum of it; a week of parsing “shit” followed by 90 minutes of passing in a similar fashion. In partial mitigation it was a sweltering night in Cologne: not a game for blitzes or chaos, for vivid gegenpressing or end-to-end sprints, but for patience and ingenuity, clever angles, focused energy.

Harry Kane tries to evadeJaka Bijol of Slovenia.View image in fullscreen

It was, in short, the kind of game in which Kane, with his smart movement and tight-space instincts, should have been in his element. Instead he ended with just seven touches in the penalty area, five shots of negligible consequence (three were blocked, one was easily saved by Jan Oblak and he barely made contact with the other), fewer touches than Kobbie Mainoo, who played only half the game and yet had more of an influence on it.

There is, of course, a kind of paradox here. Were Kane a less talented or versatile forward, his role in this team would be much more straightforward. But he is of course too good a passer simply to leave him up top and feed off scraps like a cockney Haaland. He is too good a poacher to play as a pure No 10. But he is not currently sharp enough to play both roles in the same phase of play, nor physically robust enough to dominate an opposition defence or win the 50-50 balls that turn promising openings into clear chances.

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Kane has of course been brusquely bullish about all this, pointing out that this was also the case in previous tournaments, with the clear implication that things will just click at some point. He’s probably right about this. But is there any real evidence to back it up, beyond simple incantation, as if knockout form is simply a ghost that can be summoned by ouija board?

Or, more prosaically, is it the merely the case that the Kane ideal – the complete forward who can score, create and press, who has not only passed his forklift driver’s test but gives the tests – requires a Kane in peak physical condition? It is an open secret that Kane is still feeling the effects of a back injury sustained towards the end of the Bundesliga season. That in an ideal world, he would take a few weeks off, undergo a bespoke recovery plan and ease himself back into form.

Instead, here we are: a team that is hanging on in this tournament, driven by a striker who is basically hanging on in games. Who has few concrete goals beyond endurance, survival, until by divine providence or the graft of others, he gets a chance he can convert. It’s a plan, to be sure, albeit one with precious little dignity and even fewer guarantees. For years, Kane has carried England. Right now, it feels a little like England are carrying him.

Source: theguardian.com

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