It started with a twist. Swivelling on the edge of the area, Harry Kane drifted away from Nemanja Matic and rolled the ball beyond the reach of Thibaut Courtois. In one seamless sequence, he eluded both an elite defensive midfielder and the man who was then arguably the world’s leading goalkeeper, scoring Tottenham’s fourth goal in an eventual 5-3 victory over Chelsea.
But Kane had done much more than that. On that evening, New Year’s Day 2015, Kane had announced himself to the planet as one of its top strikers.
Listening back to the BBC’s account of that evening, you can clearly hear the disbelief in the commentator’s voice. “That is a world-class finish by an English goal scorer,” says Jonathan Pearce, as if bewildered that one of his fellow countrymen could have conjured up such a strike. Pearce could have been forgiven; just three years earlier, Kane was on loan at Millwall, a universe away from the grandest stages that he would eventually take, with little sign that he would ascend to the very top of the game. Or perhaps most of us were just not looking closely enough. It was at Millwall, where Kane found himself fighting a relegation battle, that his mental strength was first truly tested; and, with seven goals in his last 14 games, proved to be utterly robust.
A further clue to why Kane was underestimated lies elsewhere in Pearce’s commentary that evening, where he refers to Kane as “the local lad, the Tottenham fan.” Football is now a globalised game. It is far removed from the days when a team could win a European title with an entire team born within a few miles of its home ground, as Celtic did in 1967. Talent is now sought from all over the world; a player who grew up down the road from the stadium isn’t meant to make it at his home club. The odds against it are so significant that to proceed despite them seems like folly. And yet, Kane proceeded.
In fact, Kane proceeded so successfully that, this summer, he claimed the Golden Boot as the World Cup’s leading scorer and then, against Arsenal last weekend, he became the joint-top goal scorer in Premier League North London derbies (alongside Emmanuel Adebayor, on eight). Before that, he had helped himself to at least 21 goals in four consecutive Premier League seasons.
What’s Kane’s secret? If there is one, it seems to lie in his unassuming style of play. Whilst some centre-forwards are Lamborghinis — flashy, spectacular and infamously high-maintenance — Kane is an Aston Martin, quietly and elegantly easing through the gears, his advance almost inaudible. Yet there is another still more important factor: supreme versatility, a characteristic that he shares with another famously hardworking striker, who in his playing days was also not especially quick. That striker is Raul, of Real Madrid and Spain lore. Fernando Hierro, Raul’s teammate for club and country, once remarked to Sid Lowe that “he was not a 10 out of 10 in anything but he was an 8½ in everything.”
It is interesting to look at Hierro’s words and how they explain Kane’s place among his peers. The other leading centre-forwards in world football — that is to say, those who not only lead the line but score in high volume — are probably Sergio Aguero, Robert Lewandowski, Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Looking at them in turn, Kane is probably not as good a finisher as Aguero, not as strong as Lewandowski, not as good in the air as Cavani, not as relentless in pressing as Suarez, and not as quick as Aubameyang. However, and crucially, he is the perfect blend of all their talents; if you were to make a Venn diagram of everything Kane’s contemporaries did best, he would be at the centre.
One of the defining goals in the recent history of England’s national team is notable because when it was scored, Kane was nowhere near the action. As Raheem Sterling thrashed a rising drive beyond the reach of Spain’s David De Gea, putting England 1-0 up in a UEFA Nations League tie, Kane was 40 yards back, having dropped deep in order to build the play.
This is a role in which he has long been comfortable, and which possibly nods back to his youth, a time when he was once even deployed as a holding midfielder. It’s also what differentiates him from many other forwards: his ability, if he so wishes, to be equally dangerous as a provider or predator. He is not a jack-of-all-trades; he is a master of them.
The quintessential example of this came last season in Spurs’ 3-1 home victory over Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Champions League. There, Kane laid on one goal (for Son Heung-min) and scored two others, in the process displaying a rare blend of strength, skill and guile. Yet there has seemingly been an evolution in Kane’s game of late; though he is still primarily a selfless player, he has clearly made the step from supporting cast to leading man.
In the past few seasons, Kane has recorded slightly fewer assists in the league — dropping from a peak of seven two years ago to only one so far this season — which suggests that he is now more occupied with finishing moves off than starting them. Though his pursuit of goals was much mocked last season, especially in the infamous incident where he claimed a contentious strike against Stoke City, it revealed a man with the necessary professional ruthlessness to be the game’s very best.
Kane is remarkable in that unlike many of football’s greatest assassins, he does not have a signature move. Kane doesn’t cut in from the right like Arjen Robben and unleash thunder; he doesn’t peel away to the left and roll the ball into the far corner, like Thierry Henry. He doesn’t even appear to have the foreboding aura of a goal scorer. In the old days, Gabriel Batistuta swaggered; now, while Neymar sparkles and Kylian Mbappe accelerates, Kane just accumulates.
Indeed, if Kane were a tennis player, he would be Novak Djokovic; an athlete of relentless intensity, of the cleanest, most orthodox technique and blessed with no obvious weaknesses. That is precisely why he is so difficult to stop and why he would fit comfortably into any leading club side; should he ever grow tired of White Hart Lane, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid would be particularly wise to enquire after his services.
Like Raul, though, Kane has the chance to become timelessly iconic in the white jersey of his club and country; and, like Raul, a man of similar passion and perfectionism, he seems set to stride calmly on into legend.