While it can be easy to stereotype soccer players as soft, guys like Harry Kane are no strangers to playing through pain. The Tottenham and England forward has a history of ankle injuries but, barring two spells on the sideline in early 2019, hasn’t missed much time. By and large, he’s ready to get back on the horse and get back to work.
The same has been true during the 2022 FIFA World Cup, as Kane absorbed an ugly tackle during England’s opening match against Iran. He played on for roughly 25 minutes, then took part in the Three Lions’ Black Friday date with the United States. Beyond that, it’s safe to assume the striker will keep playing for as long as Gareth Southgate’s squad is in Qatar.
If you’re an England fan, that may seem like a positive. You want your best players on the pitch, after all. But, at a certain point, discretion becomes the better part of valor.
If Harry Kane isn’t at his best, someone needs to intervene for England’s sake
Before going any further, I’ll take off my Arsenal-colored glasses and acknowledge a central truth of this post: Harry Kane isn’t a perfect player, but he’s very good at doing some of the most important things on the football field.
When all systems are go, the forward is one of the best pure finishers around. If he gets two chances in the box, he’ll usually score one. That’s incredibly important at Spurs — Antonio Conte’s teams don’t always generate a boatload of offensive oppertunities — and in a tournament like the World Cup. When things come down to fine margins, you want someone who’s going to take their chances and hit the back of the net.
Kane has also developed a tendency to drop deep, get on the ball, and play passes to his wide player in transition situations. While there’s room to debate that choice, as you’d usually want him in the box receiving the cross, it has proven to be an effective strategy.
That desire to get on the ball, however, does expose one of the England captain’s big weaknesses. Even at his best, he was never the most athletic man around. Add more than a decade’s worth of professional football and several ankle injuries into the mix, and it can sometimes feel like Kane is running uphill in mud to make it back into the box. That, of course, is where he’s at his most dangerous.
We’ve also seen over the years that these ankle injuries can take a toll on the forward. While he’s missed less and less time, he’s still less effective when working through the pain. That’s been true for both Spurs and England.
He’s not going to take himself out of the lineup, though. As a key player for both club and country, Kane is going to say he’s able to play. It’s up to the manager to make the big call. Gareth Southgate, however, hasn’t done that.
Kane stayed on against Iran and didn’t score. He failed to make much of an impact against the United States, and you can bet he’ll start against Wales. While you could argue that the third match is a must-win game that requires all hands on deck, I don’t see anything wrong with keeping the striker on the bench for emergencies. With all due respect to Wales, a front three of Raheem Sterling, Calum Wilson, and Bukayo Saka should be more than good enough, especially if Phil Foden plays in behind and Jude Bellingham pushed forward. Saving Kane now would allow him to be closer to his best when you’re facing tougher opponents.
And, lest you think this is just an Arsenal supporter with an axe to grind, I’m not the only one wondering about Kane’s fitness. On Sky Sports, Graeme Souness wondered if the striker needed “saving from [himself]” against Iran. Alan Shearer also mused about the forward receiving a rest in a BBC column.
Given the tightly-packed season, Kane’s ankle could also become a problem for Tottenham
If you want to really point the finger at Gareth Southgate, you could argue that he created this situation himself. By leaving the likes of Tammy Abraham at home and only bringing Calum Wilson as the alternative striker, England’s boss has made Kane that much more irreplaceable. Moving over to the club side of things, Tottenham have a similar reliance on the star forward.
While things are a bit more complicated for Spurs — they can’t just call up any English player they desire — Antonio Conte’s squad isn’t the deepest. Richarlison is theoretically the backup striker, but he’s far from a consistent goal-scorer. Heung-min Son can also play centrally, but 1) He hasn’t exactly been on form this year, and 2) moving him off the wing would create a domino effect. That means that, whenever possible, Kane needs to play.
Under normal circumstances, that wouldn’t be a problem. Even if the World Cup overlapped with preseason, you’d generally have some time to rest, recover, and shake off any nagging injuries, even if that meant missing a few early league matches. This year, though, things are different.
Even if they don’t win the whole thing, it’s safe to assume England will make a deep run in Qatar. If we pretend they reach the semifinals and lose, the Three Lions will probably return home around December 16th. The Premier League resumes on the 26th.
And while you could argue that Kane could rest for the Boxing Day date with Brentford and the New Year’s Day engagement with Aston Villa, that would still be risky. Richarlison will probably be just as tired as Kane, meaning that he’s not the ideal backup. Antonio Conte also won’t want to take a chance by playing too weak of a lineup against two teams who will be well-rested and chomping at the bit to produce a statement win.
So, if you’re a Spurs fan, this is what you’re dreading:
- Harry Kane keeps starting, and, despite his struggles, England keep winning.
- Those single-elimination games mean Kane can’t rest, and his ankle never fully recovers.
- England fall short of the World Cup title, making those efforts largely meaningless.
- He returns to Tottenham without much time off and feels like he has to get back into the lineup ASAP.
- Antonio Conte, not really having another alternative, starts Kane through the festive period. While that doesn’t make his ankle worse, it doesn’t give the striker any time to recover.
- Kane keeps hobbling along, playing at something less than his best. He eventually recovers, but playing through the pain slows the entire process down. Not only does that cost Spurs points now, but it gives them less time with a healthy roster to try to close the gap.
Will that nightmare scenario play out? Will Kane get a bit of a breather where he can, even if he still starts? Will he simply power through and get back to his best before we know it?
At this point, we can only cross our fingers and watch what happens.