Harry Kane’s two goals for Tottenham in their 3-1 win against Newcastle not only kept his team’s European hopes alive but they took the England captain past 200 goals for the club. Not bad given that the achievement comes at a time when his form is being questioned.
The noise around Kane has become constant, intensifying as Jose Mourinho has struggled to end the stagnation at Spurs that had preceded Mauricio Pochettino’s departure.
Mourinho even felt compelled to respond to suggestions from Sky Sports pundit Paul Merson that Kane would not find it easy to score goals under the Portuguese.
“I think Harry Kane has no problem at all to score goals in my teams,” Mourinho replied, “especially when he’s fit and fresh and has routines of playing.”
Events at St James’ Park support his argument.
Kane has now scored four goals since the restart. That is more than Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – the reigning golden boot winners. It is the same number as the in-form trio of Jamie Vardy, Danny Ings and Raul Jimenez.
But Kane is judged by higher standards than most – a reputation that he earned by winning back-to-back golden boots of his own and by reaching this 200-goal mark in his 350th game.
Merson is not alone in wondering about the possibility of diminishing returns from the striker who turns 27 later this month.
But what is the truth about his form?
Let’s begin with the goals.
Kane now has 15 of them in the Premier League this season. He needs two more in Tottenham’s remaining two games – against Leicester and Crystal Palace – to match last season’s total and avoid this being his worst return since his breakthrough year.
That number can be explained in part by the injury that has forced him to miss a quarter of Tottenham’s Premier League games this season. But it is not the full explanation.
Examining Kane’s non-penalty goals per 90 minutes is the clearest indication of his potency in front of goal and those numbers suggest that he has been short of his best for a while.
He is averaging 0.49 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season – roughly a goal every other full game. That is very similar to last season’s record of 0.48.
Indeed, it is not far below his goal return in winning his first golden boot in 2015/16. Had he stayed fit and scored some penalties, it would easily be enough to take him beyond 20 goals.
But this is well short of the numbers that Kane was posting during his best years between 2016 and 2018 when he was averaging over 0.80 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes. Those are the sort of elite returns that result in 30-goal seasons such as the one in 2017/18.
What is clear is that Kane’s dip since then has little to do with a decline in his finishing ability. Instead, the expected-goals data reveals a similar trend across his career to date.
Kane has outperformed expected goals in each of his six seasons as a Premier League regular. This is indicative of his finishing prowess and no great surprise given his extraordinary ability to strike the ball with power and accuracy from all angles.
The expected-goals data suggests that the reason why Kane has scored at a less impressive rate over the past two seasons is because the quality of chances have not been the same. He remains a wonderful finisher but he is not getting the shooting opportunities as before.
Kane’s shot numbers in his absolute pomp – which was the 2017/18 season according to many of these metrics, a year in which he scored 30 Premier League goals – were remarkable. He averaged more than five shots per 90 minutes across that campaign.
But those shot numbers have halved since then and are at their lowest point in his Premier League career this season. The same is true of his touches in the opposition penalty box.
In fact, Kane had more touches in his own area than Manchester United’s in Tottenham’s first game following the Premier League restart.
Finishing matters but there is no escaping the consequences of these numbers. More touches in the box mean more shots and more shots mean more goals. It is no coincidence that Kane’s numbers on the first of these metrics results in him being down on all three.
Why is it happening? That is a trickier question to answer because there are so many variables. The obvious explanation is that Tottenham are not the team that they were. Even while reaching the Champions League final last season, their form was suffering.
The current Premier League table shows Spurs down in seventh even after back-to-back victories. The conclusion that they are not as good as they once were is an easy one. It follows that this team is not providing Kane with the opportunities that he had before.
Christian Eriksen was a key figure in the team for many years and while his influence waned prior to his departure in January, it is not yet clear that he has been adequately replaced. Giovani Lo Celso has shown signs of filling that void but for now Eriksen is still missed.
The Dane’s importance is highlighted by the fact that he created far more chances than any other Tottenham player in each of his first six seasons with the club. His presence was a valuable source of goals for Kane and he is not the only outlet that the striker has lost.
Kieran Trippier is another who Spurs supporters felt was not delivering as he had before when sold to Atletico Madrid but those crosses from the right were a dangerous weapon.
Mourinho’s system relies heavily on Serge Aurier’s surging runs from right-back but the Frenchman’s open-play crossing accuracy of 15 per cent is less than Trippier’s 24 per cent. Again, there has been a perceptible drop in the quality of service that Kane is receiving.
The more troubling theory for Kane’s biggest admirers is that some of Kane’s declining numbers could be attributed to changes in his own game rather than of his team. Are Kane’s numbers worse because Spurs are worse or are Spurs worse because of Kane’s dip?
It is a conundrum.
In his younger days, Kane’s powerful running up front was a key feature of his game with Pochettino once marvelling at how he ran 13 kilometres in a single match.
Kane’s game has evolved since then, although he is hardly immobile as he approaches his 27th birthday later this month. He covered more ground than anyone on the pitch against United. “I feel as fit as I have probably ever done before,” he said recently.
Perhaps his role for Gareth Southgate with the national team offers a glimpse of his longer-term future – dropping deep to allow the speedy wide forwards to exploit the space. Kane has the vision and passing range for that role but it is not yet clear that is the plan at Spurs.
While his average touch map this compared to his 2017/18 peak shows that he is seeing far less action in the opposition box and doing more work in deeper areas, that has not really resulted in him being more involved in the game. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Midway through the second half of the derby against Arsenal, Kane had enjoyed fewer touches than anyone else on the pitch. He had completed only four passes in the match prior to the second-half water break. The stats show he is touching the ball less than ever.
Mourinho insists that Kane “is fundamental for the team” and he is known to favour a target-man striker who can act as a reference point for attacks. He wants goals from his forward and the two against Newcastle will encourage him that they will continue to flow.
Kane signed a six-year deal with Spurs in the summer of 2018 and supporters will be hoping that many more goals are to come – even if his comments during lockdown won’t go away.
“It all depends what happens with the team and how we progress as a team,” said Kane of his future. “So it’s not a definite I’m going to stay there forever but it’s not a no either.”
That progress is in Mourinho’s hands now but the team’s success remains intertwined with Kane’s own. Tottenham still have an elite striker. The challenge is to ensure that he receives the service that he requires. As the stats show, he cannot scale his past heights without it.