One of Jose Mourinho’s first acts as Tottenham manager was to summon Harry Kane to his office for a meeting. In it, as shown in All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur, he said he could help him “build his status” as one of the world’s best players. “That’s my aim,” replied Kane. “I want to be [like] Ronaldo and Messi.”
Mourinho said Kane could “explode” under the guidance of a manager who already enjoys that status – “my profile, I am little bit like that as a coach,” he added – and given the two names Kane mentioned himself, the assumption was that the explosion referred to his scoring rate.
A year on, however, and Mourinho’s plan for Kane looks different to how it was originally perceived. Rather than fixating on increasing his goal tally, he wants Kane to become a player who creates as well as scores, a player who serves the team in multiple ways.
That is exactly what Kane has done so far this season, showing previously untapped creative resources and providing twice as many assists (six) as anyone else in the Premier League. Kane also ranks top for big chances created. He sits behind only Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne for chances created from open play.
Harry Kane – Premier League 2020/21
Kane dropping deep is nothing new – he was encouraged to link the play in those positions by Mauricio Pochettino and performs a similar job for England under Gareth Southgate – but his output certainly is.
Kane has already provided as many assists in the Premier League this season as in the previous two campaigns combined. He only needs one more to match his highest-ever total.
The best demonstration of Kane’s creativity came during Tottenham’s visit to St Mary’s Stadium last month, when he provided four assists, all for Heung-Min Son, in the 5-2 win over Southampton. Son rightly took the plaudits for his clinical finishing that day, but it was a masterclass in passing from Kane.
Mourinho wanted everyone to know it, even interrupting Son’s post-match interview with the BBC to declare that Kane was a more deserving choice for the man-of-the-match award.
Shortly after that, he interrupted Kane during a separate interview to say the same thing. “A team performance,” he added of the 27-year-old’s display, before walking off behind him.
Mourinho risked irking Son with his comments – the South Korean did appear somewhat bemused by the interruption – but his intention was to show Kane, a player whose obsession with scoring is well documented, that setting up goals for others is just as important as dispatching them himself.
West Ham United
“His movement was tremendous, his link play was absolutely incredible, and he allowed Sonny to play in a different position on the pitch,” Mourinho added in his press conference.
Filling the creative void
Kane’s changing role at Spurs is, in part, a response to the changing make-up of the team. When Christian Eriksen departed for Inter Milan in January, Mourinho lost a midfielder who had created more chances and registered more assists than anyone else in the Premier League since the summer of 2013.
It left him needing to find his creativity from elsewhere, hence the newfound emphasis on Kane.
By dropping into the No 10 position, an area previously occupied by Eriksen, Kane creates space for Tottenham’s wide forwards to run into before using his vision and passing range to pick them out. It worked repeatedly against Southampton and his assist for Son’s first goal against Manchester United was another example.
Mourinho hopes Tottenham’s creative load will be shared by central midfielders Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele as they continue to develop in the Premier League. He wants more from his full-backs too, as shown by the summer signings of Matt Doherty and Sergio Reguilon, two offensive specialists in those positions.
But the onus on Kane to create is unlikely to change in the short-term – especially with Gareth Bale soon to be running in behind opposition defences as well as Son – and may even provide an indication of where his long-term future lies too.
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“He’s a lovely player who can switch play and hold the ball up,” said Sky Sports’ Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football last month.
“I just think, going forward, as he gets older and picks up injuries, his numbers will drop in terms of making runs in behind and pressing people.
“I think [against Southampton], we saw a glimpse of what Harry Kane will become – maybe even this season.”
Kane would not be the first striker to undergo such a transformation in the later stages of his career, of course.
“I look at Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool when he was a centre-forward and then dropped back when Ian Rush came in,” added Carragher. “I look at Wayne Rooney, who played both roles equally well.
“But another one I liken him to, maybe because of Tottenham, is Teddy Sheringham. He was a centre-forward and top goalscorer, and then he dropped back into the No 10 role.
“That could be something we see going forward with Kane and I think it’s a mouth-watering prospect for Tottenham.”
Still a goal threat
For now, however, what is even more mouth-watering for Tottenham is that Kane’s goal threat remains so high.
In fact, for all the fine work he has done in deeper positions this season, he is actually registering considerably more shots on goal than last year. He is getting more touches in the opposition box too.
His total of three goals is modest in comparison to Son’s six, of course. It is rare that Kane should find himself behind one of his team-mates in the scoring charts. But a deeper look at the numbers shows he ranks second among Premier League players this season for expected goals, behind only Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
In other words, despite his added creative responsibilities, Kane is still getting into the right positions to finish off scoring chances himself. His growing tendency to drop deeper during Tottenham’s build-up play is not coming at the cost of what he does best.
Instead, it seems Mourinho has found a way of maximising the different strengths in Kane’s game simultaneously.
Tottenham’s season is still only a few weeks old. We will learn more as it progresses. But recent evidence suggests Kane’s route to achieving the kind of status he craves – as discussed in that meeting with Mourinho last year – involves creating as well as scoring.
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