On a sparkling Sunday afternoon 30 days ago, Tottenham Hotspur turned in what remains the best 45 minutes of this young 2016-17 Premier League season. Spurs overwhelmed and overran then-unbeaten Manchester City and sprinted to a 2-0 halftime lead.
The second goal came after Erik Lamela picked up a ball in midfield and found Heung-min Son, through whom Spurs broke. Dele Alli joined the two, and Son eventually slid in Alli for a sweeping goal.
The flowing moves forward, punctuated by Alli’s strike off Son’s assist, came two weeks after Tottenham learned that it would be without striker Harry Kane for more than a month. The initial reaction was worry; Kane played in every single one of the club’s 38 league games a year ago, and logged 3,370 of a possible 3,420 minutes. Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs knew nothing of life without him.
In his team’s first big test since the loss of Kane, Pochettino inserted Son up top in Spurs’ customary 4-2-3-1, and the result was splendid. Son’s interchanging movements troubled City’s defense; he eagerly sought space in behind it; any potential problems seemed to be nipped in the bud.
But since, those very problems have arisen as first feared. Tottenham has scored just one goal from open play in five matches in all competitions. Two wins against the trio of West Brom, Bournemouth and Leicester would have seen Spurs climb to the top of the league. Instead, three draws have sunk them to fifth.
The worst of the three, a 0-0 tie at Bournemouth, was a microcosm of the issues that have befallen Tottenham with Kane sidelined. Perhaps entranced by Son’s performance against City, Pochettino again went with the South Korean as a lone striker against the Cherries two matches later. Son’s lack of influence was alarming. He was swallowed up by one of the worst back fours in the league, and didn't even attempt a single take-on or forward pass in Bournemouth's half. Over the first 45 minutes, Tottenham attempted a total of four passes into the opposition’s box, fewer than Son attempted on his own vs. City. There was no penetration, no space and no joy. The attack was toothless.
Vincent Janssen, a more traditional striker, replaced Son 16 minutes into the second half and gave Spurs a different dimension. But that dimension failed to give the visitors any life, and Tottenham limped to its worst attacking output of the season:
The expected goals map diagnoses the problem for Tottenham without Kane. It’s not only—or perhaps not at all—Kane’s finishing that Spurs have missed. They’ve lacked a versatile threat that has, over the past two years, helped them create chances, not just bury them. Both Son and Janssen have their strengths, but neither shares the other’s strengths. That turned the Spurs-sans-Kane attack into a one-dimensional raid bound to be repelled.
Son was so vibrant against City because the game made his dimension a valuable one. It offered him space in behind into which to run, and counterattacks on which to thrive. His pressing without the ball was also useful. He drifted into space (vacated by City’s fullbacks) on either wing, dragged John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi all over the field, and allowed players like Alli to burst forward through the middle.
Against Bournemouth, there was no room to run in behind, no counterattacks, no interchanging. There was, on the other hand, more positional responsibility if Spurs were to trouble Bournemouth centrally. Son, a natural wide forward, looked lost trying to occupy Bournemouth’s center backs. There was no need for those center backs to follow him wide. This time, that movement sapped a slower, more deliberate Tottenham attack into stagnation.
This was, it seemed, a game for Janssen. But only in theory. The Dutch striker gave Spurs a target, but not the ability to connect passes in tight spaces. The same was true this past weekend against Leicester, when Janssen played from the start and completed just two forward passes: one 50 yards from goal, the other 30, and both more or less lateral toward the sideline. Though it’s far too early to label the 21-year-old summer signing a bust, he’s underwhelmed so far in North London.
Most importantly, though, Kane is a player with whom Tottenham, as a unit, has become accustomed to playing. It’s not as if the England international is an all-around superstar. But he does ultimately do almost everything just well enough to make Spurs multi-dimensional. He's certainly adept enough to allow Spurs to adjust the shape of their attack based on the dynamics of a given game. He can play on the break and in tight spaces–at high speeds and slow ones–with a responsibility to lead the line and without it. He can drop deep or wander wide when necessary, but doesn't need to to impact the game.
Tottenham’s struggles without Kane aren’t an indictment of Son. In fact, in his second year in the Premier League, the Korean has been a small-scale revelation. But outside of that unique game against City, the likes of which Spurs aren’t likely to find themselves in any time soon, all of Son’s success has come from the wing.
It’s from there that he scored two and assisted one at Stoke. It’s from there that he bagged a brace against Middlesbrough. It’s just that when a game doesn’t allow him to receive the ball on the move and facing toward goal, he’s ineffective. And as a striker, that’s going to be the case more often than not against the bottom half of the league.
Fortunately for Tottenham, Kane’s return is imminent. He won't feature Wednesday in the Champions League against Bayer Leverkusen, but he could return for Sunday’s North London derby at Arsenal. Either way, his first steps onto the pitch will be a welcome sight.
Spurs desperately need their striker back. Now. And based on their performances without him, they can’t afford to lose him again if they’re to hang around in the Premier League’s top four.