TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR STADIUM — Tottenham fans have seen two versions of Harry Kane this season. There’s the Kane who has torn up the Europa Conference League, scoring five goals in three games including a 20-minute hat-trick against NS Mura in midweek, and there’s the Kane that has now slogged through six Premier League fixtures without a goal.
While the disparity in the quality of opposition he’s faced may go some way to explaining that inconsistency, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Where, in the less pressurised environment of Europe’s third tier, Spurs have taken a front-foot approach which has allowed Kane to do what he does best – ghosting into the box amid the chaos to apply a calm, decisive finish – the three consecutive league defeats which preceded this game were characterised by cautious tactics which, in the north London derby last weekend, descended into passivity.
Kane cut a lost and lonely figure against Arsenal, struggling to touch the ball let alone roll it into the back of the net. As Spurs’ defenders resorted to lofting aimless passes from deep in the hope of finding Son Heung-min, Kane was effectively bypassed and found himself traversing barren areas of the pitch in search of something resembling service.
While they were more assertive here against Aston Villa, Spurs still seemed geared towards counterpunching rather than domination. For Kane, the first 25 minutes were remarkably similar to the north London derby: very few touches in and around the box, little movement around him and, accordingly, a meagre output of two speculative efforts from distance.
Man City suffocated Liverpool – but if you have Mo Salah, you always have a chance
Luckily for Nuno Espirito Santo, Son had more success in running the channels out wide than he did last weekend. Where Kane remained isolated for long periods, forced to drop deep time and again when he could have been hunting for goals in the area, Son gave Spurs the necessary outlet. It was his galloping run up the right flank and pinpoint final ball which gave Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg the opener, though Hojbjerg did well to pause, take a breath and guide his shot beyond the desperate leap of Emi Martinez. Son also set up the winner after roaring up the left and teeing up Lucas Moura for a tap-in, only for Matt Targett to get the final touch.
While a win will relieve some of the pressure on Nuno, this was far from a complete performance. Villa never really clicked in attack, but they still managed to create several presentable chances and threatened to turn the game on its head when Ollie Watkins scored midway through the second half. Where Spurs could have gone for the jugular after Hojbjerg’s goal, they were content to continue counter-attacking through Son and applying pressure in fits and bursts. Villa came within inches of scoring when Targett forced Cristian Romero into a last-gasp block at the far post early in the second half and, while Spurs were well on top for the last 20 minutes or so, the game felt closer than it should have.
In the long-term, it’s hard to see how Spurs can sustain a revival without getting the most out of Kane on a regular basis. For however long he remains at the club, he will be this team’s talisman and they will need him to produce his usual magic. Without a game plan which encourages him to take up more dangerous positions, he is highly unlikely to match his numbers from the last few seasons. That could be the difference between a lasting recovery and mid-table mediocrity for Nuno’s team.
It’s no coincidence that Kane grew in influence towards the end of the match as Spurs looked to kill the game and became more authoritative in attack, just as they have been in Europe. He ghosted in behind the Villa defence twice in the last 15 minutes, dragging his first effort wide before Martinez saved the second. If his finishing let him down late on, it may well be down to the long spells he spent wandering in the wilderness beforehand. It’s not easy to switch from forager to predator so late in the game.
James Milner survives penalty appeal and possible second yellow card as Liverpool draw with Man City
Kane is now on his longest goalless streak in the Premier League since the start of the 2015-16 season, when he also failed to net in his first six games. He went on to score 25 times in the league that term, with Spurs finishing third.
If Nuno wants to propel his team up the table, he needs to preside over a similar resurgence in form. That may require him to rethink where Kane fits into his tactical blueprint and how it can be redesigned to get the most out of him.