Harry Kane underrated but he’s world-class and thriving under pressure

Harry Kane underrated but he’s world-class and thriving under pressure

Five players have retained the Premier League Golden Boot award: Alan Shearer, Thierry Henry, and Robin van Persie are the first four. They’ve got 602 English top flight goals between them and are regarded among the best to ever play in this country. Last Sunday, Harry Kane became the latest.

This season Kane (29) scored more goals than Middlesbrough (27). There were six hat tricks scored in the Premier League this season and Kane scored four of them. His goals were scored in 30 games, at a ratio of one every 87 minutes.

What’s even more remarkable about Kane’s feats this term (four against Leicester and three at Hull in the final two games eventually getting him over the line) is that he reached these remarkable heights despite missing two chunks of the season with separate ankle injuries.

These ailments forced him to miss eight league games, but what’s incredible isn’t just that he missed those two spells, but more the speed of his recovery. In September it was predicted he’d miss two months, but he was back in a little over six weeks; there were similar fears in March, but ultimately he returned after a month. And he scored in his first game back both times, too.

There is often a tendency in England to overhype players, but in Kane’s case there’s a sense he’s underrated. By any rational standard, Kane is world-class, even if that is a nebulous term without clear definition. We are, after all, perfectly prepared to place players like Alexis Sanchez, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero into that bracket, but Kane isn’t routinely classed among the finest in the world.

With the caveat that goals aren’t the sole marker of players’ class, Kane has scored more than all of those players this season. In the last three seasons, he has scored 75 in the Premier League, ahead of Aguero, on 70. Throw in another three the season before, plus 21 in other competitions, and his career total for Tottenham is 99, from 131 starts. There’s enough evidence to confirm his status now.

At first glance, he still doesn’t look particularly special — despite being a fine athlete he doesn’t have a single “eye-catching” physical quality, like pace, rippling power or a bullet header — but something intangible marks him out, specifically that he thinks in a different way to many footballers.

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When he’s in the box, his brain appears to work in a way that can calculate the best and quickest way to score a goal, a common element of elite strikers, as is his sense of positioning, awareness of space and anticipation that another Tottenham No. 10, Gary Lineker, was famous for. But Kane also seems to think laterally, to figure out what the defence hasn’t anticipated, weighing up all the options and making a decision, all in a flash of a second. It’s a dazzling form of intelligence that is comparable to any intellectual.

Perhaps “thinking” isn’t the right word. “It’s instinct, natural,” he said in February. “When that ball drops to me my body takes over and my mind is just blank, really. I couldn’t tell you what is in my head at that moment because, really, there is nothing, only focus.”

It’s a speed of comprehension and logic that most can’t even contemplate — so quick that it barely seems conscious.

“How does it happen? We don’t really know…” he said.

If he doesn’t know what he’s about to do, then defenders certainly won’t.

Take his goal against Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinal. A cross was delivered from the right to about waist-level, with Kane running away from goal at the near post. He knew the angle and height of the ball would make a shot unlikely to threaten the goal, even if he caught it perfectly. So instead Kane stooped and flicked his neck muscles at just the right time for the ball to divert off his head, directly over him and into the bottom corner.

The speed at which he assessed the situation, the delivery and the best way to score was astonishing. It wasn’t that the Chelsea defence weren’t expecting it, more that they probably hadn’t comprehended scoring like that was even possible.

Think also of his goal against Liverpool last season, or the one for England against Germany. They were brilliant finishes; ones most players wouldn’t even have thought of. The best players have this mentality: what looks unusual or outrageous to us, in their heads is usually just the easiest way of beating a man, or picking a pass, or scoring a goal.

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His goals in Tottenham’s 7-1 win at Hull in the final game of the season provide another example. Kane, a natural right-footer, scored all three with his left, in situations where he could easily have shifted his body, or taken another touch to shoot with his stronger foot. But in the case of his first, that shift would have taken an extra half-second and potentially given defenders a better chance of stopping him.

That’s a lesson he learned from a predecessor at Tottenham, Jermain Defoe. “One of the very best,” Kane said. “Shoot early. One touch. Through a defender’s legs … Anyone can miss a chance but it’s how you react. Are you ready for the next one and the one after that? That’s the mindset I try to have.”

That mindset is one thing, but having the ability to carry it off is another. That’s why Kane scores goals.

It’s also worth remembering the pressure Kane must be under. For the last three seasons, he’s basically been Tottenham’s only striker — or at least, only reliable source of goals from centre-forward. Vincent Janssen has become something of a cult hero but there’s a reason Mauricio Pochettino has frequently improvised with Son Heung-Min up front rather than use the Dutchman.

Last season, Kane started every league game. The season before that, Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor chipped in with three goals from 37 appearances between them. But pressure is something he thrives upon, because he’s improving all the time. In his first season he scored 21 league goals. The next, 25. The next, 29.

“I prefer that next season he challenges again, to score 30 goals,” Pochettino said after the Hull game. “He’s still improving and learning. His will to improve and learn is the most important thing in a player. Already he’s one of the best strikers in the world. It’s difficult to say who is the best, but he’s one of the best sure, already.”

He certainly is. Perhaps more than most think.

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