Thursday October 22nd, 2015

One of the biggest surprises in the Premier League this season has been Harry Kane’s lack of goals. The young Tottenham striker set the league on fire last season, scoring 21 goals in 34 league appearances and nearly nabbing a shock Golden Boot award in the process.

But this season, Kane has managed just one goal in nine matches. Cue widespread speculation about what is going wrong, as well as some scathing hot takes questioning whether he was ever any good in the first place. At the Cauldron, hot takes are reserved for our beloved PFT Commenter, so instead let's explore the potential reasons for Kane’s dramatic decline in goal scoring.

The first logical place to look is the personnel around Kane. Take Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets away from Lionel Messi at Barcelona and replace them with Lee Cattermole and Cheick Tiote, and even the great Messi may find himself struggling to replicate his gaudy goal totals of seasons past. Has Kane fallen victim to a similar (if less exaggerated) personnel shift?

Probably not, though there is the minor issue of Tottenham’s more defensively-inclined central midfield. Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino has settled on a central midfield pairing of Eric Dier and Dele Alli, a duo slightly less suited to getting Kane the ball in dangerous areas than last season’s primary variations, which usually included two of Moussa Dembele, Nabil Bentaleb or Ryan Mason. Dier is a converted center back largely on the team for his steel and positional discipline while the teenage Alli is an outstanding athlete but not necessarily a Champions League-caliber player in possession.

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Still, despite the fact that neither Dier nor Alli is a brilliant passer, this is not a major shift as it relates to Kane. Further, Kane’s most important running mate, center attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen, actually is creating scoring chances more prolifically this season than last (one every 31.7 minutes, rather than every 39.5 minutes). All told, it seems unlikely that Tottenham’s squad has changed in such a way so as to negatively affect Kane’s goal scoring.

Another potential cause of Kane’s drop in production could be his own role within the team. He is still Tottenham’s lone striker, but has there been a subtle shift in his style of play? This idea could be slightly more promising.

Over the summer, Kane changed his number from “28” to “10,” which of course means nothing on its own. But it does seem to have coincided with a change in Kane’s play. In keeping with a more traditional number 10, Kane has looked to get himself more involved in build-up this season, dropping deeper into the midfield and pulling into wide areas more frequently than he did a season ago.

We can trace this shift in Kane’s play by looking at his chance creation numbers, which are markedly improved from a season ago. Playing as a more classic penalty-box striker last year, Kane created a chance just once every 100.9 minutes. But with his newfound emphasis on dropping deeper and setting up his teammates, Kane has significantly upped his rate to one chance created every 62.1 minutes. Viewed another way, in just nine games this season he already has created 48% as many chances as he did in 34 matches a season ago.

Watch how this played out in Tottenham’s 2–2 draw against Stoke City. Whereas last season’s Kane would have been inclined to hover on the back shoulder of the Stoke center backs, this year’s version is far more content to drop into midfield. At the 1:10 mark in the video, Kane picks up the ball in midfield before unleashing an outrageous chipped throughball into the path of Mason. Minutes later (and at the 1:30 mark of the video), he plays a similar pass to the onrushing Ben Davies, resulting in Spurs’ second goal of the game.

The above stats and video help illustrate that Kane has been more involved in the buildup this year, but a greater insistence on setting up his teammates is by no means completely correlated with a drop in goal scoring. We would only expect a drop in scoring on the basis of Kane’s increased assist potential if there were a corresponding drop in shot quality and quantity.

A deep dive into the numbers suggests this largely isn’t the case. Kane is shooting once every 25.3 minutes this year, compared to once every 24.1 minutes last season, a negligible difference. And he’s actually taking far better shots, firing 68.8% of his attempts from inside the box this year, as opposed to 59.3% last season. To be fair, Kane had an above-average conversion rate last year, scoring on 18.6% of his shots. But that figure is not remarkable — seven Premier League strikers had better rates — and his improved shot locations this season should be doing more than enough to ensure that his conversion rate ends up around the same place.

So if Kane is still getting shots, arguably in better areas than before, then why is he not scoring?

The answer is simple: random finishing variance. Rather than a changed Spurs system, poor form, or the dreaded “lack of confidence,” Kane is almost certainly suffering from a prolonged case of rotten luck.

On the vast majority of shots, strikers have only minimal control over whether the goalkeeper will make a save or not. In most goal-scoring opportunities, strikers are usually just attempting to hit the target with a well-struck shot. Some try to place their shots more than others, but the difficulties surrounding shooting a moving soccer ball with angry defenders closing in means that prime accuracy is difficult to attain. If it were easier, every shot would end up in the top corner. This means that for on-target shots, whether or not they go in is only somewhat within the striker’s control.

This is a difficult concept to understand, because our minds intuitively tell us that the best goal-scorers are perennial Golden Boot candidates primarily because of their elite finishing. But this is simply not the case. Consider that even in his Golden Boot-winning season in 2014-15, all-world striker Sergio Agüero finished behind the likes of Leonardo Ulloa, Steven Naismith and Marouane Chamakh in chance conversion rate.

The lesson? Finishing is only barely a repeatable skill. Instead, it is the striker’s ability to generate large numbers of shots for himself that is the far more reliable separator between the Agüeros and the Emile Heskeys.

Watch how this works on this Kane chance from that same game against Stoke earlier this season. Kane makes a darting run before making clean contact with the goal gaping. But somehow it doesn’t go in.

The drunk guy sitting behind you at White Hart Lane sees a boy who isn’t the same player as he was last year, or perhaps one who is letting the success and big-money transfer rumors get to his head. But the math sees a desperately unlucky striker, thwarted by Jack Butland’s inspired left arm and the random chance that his well-struck shot would end up in one of the only places in the goal where Butland could save it. Pile up enough of these unlucky near-misses, combined with a lack of lucky goals via either poor goalkeeping or deflections, and you can quickly get a once-prolific striker who is now scoring on just 3.1% of his shots, for a grand total of one goal this season.

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Such an explanation is not particularly satisfying, especially for the emotional sports fan in all of us. We want a more compelling reason, something juicy to discuss with our friends at the bar. Maybe he had a few too many margaritas on his summer holiday in the Bahamas. Maybe he is less than confident right now. Maybe Pochettino’s tactics are ruining his chances of scoring. Maybe he wasn’t that good in the first place. But decades of similar peaks and valleys for strikers — coupled with the fact that Kane is still getting plenty of quality looks — suggest otherwise.

Kane almost certainly will emerge from this drought soon. He is too good of a player, and one that is getting too many shots in good areas, to be held down for long. Keep in mind that just a few weeks ago, many were calling for Alexis Sanchez — on the heels of his own lengthy scoreless stretch to start the season — to drop out of the Arsenal team and get some rest. Sanchez promptly responded by scoring six goals in his next three matches, and he is now tied for second in the league with those half dozen. Don’t be surprised if Kane goes on a similar surge soon, starting this weekend at lowly Bournemouth.

All statistics courtesy of Opta.

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