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Why This Slow Start Is Different for Harry Kane

The Tottenham star is a notoriously slow starter, but on the heels of a failed attempt to secure a summer transfer and with his supporting cast dealing with issues as well, there appears to be more to it this time around.

Perhaps there is nothing to worry about. Harry Kane has looked sluggish and uninspired so far this season, but then again he often does when coming back from a long break. This is a player who has scored 166 league goals, but only five of them have come in the first month of a season. In his first two seasons as a Tottenham regular, he didn’t start scoring until the final weekend of September. With a couple of goals against Arsenal on Sunday, recent uncertainty may be forgotten. But given his efforts to leave the club in the summer, every poor performance is inevitably invested with additional significance.

The optimism at Tottenham brought by three successive 1–0 wins at the start of the season, one of them over Manchester City, has rapidly evaporated. Going into the international break, Tottenham was top of the table and Arsenal bottom. Should Arsenal win by two on Sunday, it will go above its North London rivals. Last week’s 3–0 defeat to Chelsea is perhaps nothing unexpected, and Spurs played well in patches, but the previous weekend’s 3–0 reverse at Crystal Palace was grim. There was little creativity, and Kane, lumbering increasingly deep, was at the heart of that. He has no goals in four Premier League appearances and, prior to Wednesday's League Cup match vs. Wolves, scored just two for Spurs in all competitions—both coming in an August Europa Conference League match vs. Paços de Ferreira. He had scored more goals for England (three) since the Tottenham season started.

But the disappointment must go two ways. Spurs fans are understandably frustrated with Kane, and particularly that curious week at the start of preseason when he remained in Florida insisting he had arranged to have a longer break after the Euros, while the club said it had been expecting him back. Given what a slow starter he often is, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether an extra week of training might have brought him to sharpness a week earlier.

Harry Kane has struggled for Tottenham to start the season

At the same time, with each poor performance, each result that takes Spurs further away from Champions League qualification. Kane must wonder whether he could have agitated harder for a move, whether there was any way he could have secured a transfer to Manchester City, which, among its regular thrashings of lesser sides, has already produced a couple of displays in which it has looked in need of a high-class center forward. Mutual dissatisfaction rarely ends well.

But as well as the headline ramifications of the summer’s most drawn-out saga, there is also a tactical issue. There has been significant grumbling, as there was with England in the summer, about Kane’s tendency to drop deep. But it’s a very old-fashioned view of a striker that he should only occupy the opposing box (albeit one that works for some players, notably Dominic Calvert-Lewin last season, who thrived after being told by Carlo Ancelotti to think about nothing other than scoring goals).

Kane, who has suffered a number of ankle injuries, is not as quick as he once was. He has adapted his game accordingly, playing not on the last man, but looking to create space for others to run into. His relationships with Son Heung-min for Tottenham (and, to a lesser extent last season, Gareth Bale) and with Raheem Sterling for England are evidence of how that can work.

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But Bale has gone now and Son missed the Palace game with a calf injury. Without them, Kane is diminished. Lucas Moura’s work rate cannot be faulted and occasional performances—that hat trick away at Ajax in 2019, most notably—have hinted that he could yet become a truly special player, but he is not there yet, while Steven Bergwijn impressed against City but remains inconsistent. Last season, Lucas was Spurs’ fourth-highest league scorer, with three goals; Bergwijn scored one.

Tottenham's Harry Kane and Lucas Moura

And that’s problematic. Kane scored 23, Son 17 and Bale 11. With Bale gone, if Kane and Son aren’t scoring, the danger is that nobody else is either. Yet the weirdness of that statistic is that it comes at a time when Kane is facing criticism for dropping too deep, for trying to bring others into the game. He has come almost to define himself as a non-selfish striker, and yet the goals are still not being shared around. Spurs need Dele Alli to rediscover his form, or for Tanguy Ndombele to settle. They need more angles of attack.

Under José Mourinho, too much became focused on Kane, which is never healthy for any side, but of course that problem is magnified when the player on whom so much is based becomes disaffected. Even a drop in application of a couple of percent can be hugely damaging.

The paradox now is that the less happy Kane is, the less well he and Tottenham perform—and the less likely any suitor is to try to sign him next summer.

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