How Harry Kane Keeps Getting Better in a Tottenham Team That is Getting Worse
If this is to be goodbye, it will be a sad way for Harry Kane’s Tottenham career to come to an end.
As we approach the conclusion of the 2022-23 season – one that Spurs fans will be keen to forget – Kane’s future is again up in the air. That’s because next month he will enter the final year of his Tottenham contract. That, by the way, is the six-year contract he signed in June 2018. Back then, he was 24 years old and playing under Mauricio Pochettino in a Spurs side who had finished third, second and third in the last three Premier League seasons. Only Manchester City – who in 2017-18 became the first team ever to break the 100-point mark in a Premier League season – won more points in total over those three seasons than Spurs. Kane’s club was on an upward trajectory to match their star player and his ambitions.
It’s fair to say a lot has changed in the five years since he committed six of the best years of his career to Tottenham. And it’s also fair for Kane to have expected his club to achieve more in that time. Instead, Kane has played under five different managers (three permanent, two interim or caretaker) as results on the field have got progressively worse. Spurs have finished fourth, sixth, seventh and fourth, and are likely to come eighth this season. Five teams have picked up more points than Spurs in that time and, as has been well documented, they and Kane have won absolutely nothing.
That’s all in spite of Kane’s heroics on the pitch. Arguably the only consistent theme throughout his time at the club is his goalscoring. Already the highest scorer in Tottenham and England’s history, Kane is currently on 211 Premier League goals. He has Alan Shearer’s record of 260 well within his sights.
The three aforementioned top-three finishes for Spurs were Kane’s best in front of goal. In chronological order, he scored 25, 29 and 30 goals in those seasons. Kane scores goals; Tottenham do well. Makes sense, right? Well, yes, but this season, Kane has continued to score at an astonishing rate while Spurs have been well below par.
He has 28 goals for the season with Spurs on course to finish outside the European places. Unless they better Aston Villa’s result on the final day of the season (Spurs go to relegation-threatened, Sam Allardyce-fuelled Leeds; Villa host Brighton), Spurs will end the season eighth. That would be their worst league finish since 2008-09. If you don’t remember 08-09, that was the season when Spurs took just two points from their first eight games before Juande Ramos was sacked and Harry Redknapp, cape and all, flew to the club’s rescue and dragged them up to (*checks notes*), erm, eighth. On Sunday, there is even the possibility that Spurs drop down to ninth, with in-form Brentford – 3-1 winners at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last weekend – in hot pursuit and still chasing a European dream of their own.
There really is no overstating just how impressive Kane’s goalscoring has been this season. His 28 goals would have been enough to win the golden boot in 19 previous Premier League seasons. But for the superhuman Erling Haaland, he would have won it this year.
If Spurs finish eighth or below, it will be the Premier League’s lowest ever league finish by a team with a player who has scored more than 25 goals. Shearer scored 31 goals for Blackburn in 1995-96 and Kevin Phillips hit 30 goals for Sunderland in 1999-2000, both in teams that came seventh, but Kane looks set to go one better – well, worse – this season. His consistency is highlighted in the fact he has scored in 25 different games this season. A goal at Leeds on Sunday will mean Kane equals Andy Cole’s Premier League record of 26, though he achieved that in 1993-94, which was a 42-game season. Kane’s 25 in 2022-23 is therefore already the record for a 38-game season.
His 28 goals have come from just 20.5 expected goals. The 7.5 goals he has outperformed his xG by make up the vast majority of Tottenham’s overperformance in front of goal this season. Spurs have scored 66 goals from 55.6 xG in 2022-23, with their difference of 10.4 the third highest in the Premier League behind Manchester City and Arsenal. Kane’s elite finishing ability – he has ‘beaten’ his xG in all but one of his Premier League seasons since becoming a Spurs regular – has this season very nearly been the only reason Tottenham have outperformed their underlying numbers.
Without him, clearly, they’d be far, far worse off, and he is essentially responsible for ensuring their dreadful defensive record – which is the sixth worst in the league – has not had an even more catastrophic impact on their campaign.
His goals have been worth 24 points to his team, which is the joint most in the division alongside Haaland. He is also only two goals away from hitting 30 goals, and if he scores a brace on Sunday, he’ll become the first player ever to hit 30+ goals in two separate 38-game Premier League seasons.
The numbers behind his goalscoring really are astonishing, and he has done it in a team that has been decidedly off the pace, particularly compared to the way they were performing at the tail end of 2021-22, when they stormed into the Champions League places at the expense of rivals Arsenal with a free-scoring run of 10 wins in 14 games to end the campaign.
Creativity has been a big problem for Tottenham this season. Spurs rank eighth in the Premier League for expected goals, seventh for shots taken (507) and eighth for big chances created (61). And even when they do have shots, they’re low-value efforts. Their rate of 0.11 xG per shot is the 15th highest in the Premier League in 2022-23.
It speaks volumes that Kane is also among Tottenham’s most creative players, too. Dejan Kulusevski carries a lot of the creative burden, but he has missed a big chunk of the season through injury. The next best Spurs player behind Kulusevski for chances created from open play is Kane himself.
This leads into another point about Kane: he is a far now more than just a number nine. This season, in fact, he has been more than a number nine while also scoring like a world-class number nine.
A look at Kane’s involvement in Tottenham’s shot-ending sequences reveals some interesting numbers. He played a part in 5.2 such sequences per 90 minutes played in 2022-23, which is a similar number to recent seasons. In each of the three seasons prior to signing that contract in 2018, he was involved in more than six sequences per 90, and that figure has been below six in every season since.
Contrary to what you might believe having watched Kane play, he’s actually been involved in fewer of Tottenham’s shot-ending sequences as his career has gone on. We’ve all seen how creative he is, and also his goalscoring record speaks for itself. So, what’s happened?
Essentially, Kane has just become far more efficient in front of goal while adding creativity to his game. The number of times that Kane’s only involvement in a Tottenham sequence is him taking the shot has, for the most part, trended downwards. That fits with what we’ve seen on the pitch: Kane dropping deeper to get involved in build-up more often.
The number of shot-ending sequences in which his only involvement is in the build-up (not taking the shot or laying on the chance) is down at its second-lowest rate in any season in his Premier League career. That is probably down a stylistic change in Tottenham’s game, as they became less possession-focused under José Mourinho and Antonio Conte.
Meanwhile, his involvement as the chance creator in shot-ending sequences was at its highest rate in 2022-23 of all of his seasons as a regular starter for Spurs (1.36 per 90). Add in the sequences in which Kane’s involvement is in the build-up and creating the chance, and his 2022-23 rate is also the highest in his career.
In short, Kane is involved in fewer shot-ending sequences for Spurs than he used to be, is shooting less and creating more, but he is also more effective than ever in front of goal. As he gets older, he is getting more and more efficient, somehow managing to improve his incredible finishing.
In a team that struggled in so many different departments this season, not least in that Son Heung-min took until mid March to properly get going, Kane’s ruthlessness was critical. Son had shots worth just 0.27 xG per 90 in his first 24 appearances of the campaign, before that jumped to 0.47 xG per 90 in his final 11 games. The problem was never his finishing; it was simply that he wasn’t getting into good goalscoring positions. Kane could have done with more consistent help from his support act.
The way Kane has clearly worked on fine-tuning his game at the sharp end of the pitch really is amazing. He has gone from an elite goalscorer with other elements to his game to a creator and passer who gets into shooting positions less often but scores as much as ever before. There is so much he can do that calling him a number nine would be to do him a disservice.
There is a pretty common school of thought that Kane has to win trophies to prove his greatness. On the evidence of this season more than ever before in his career, it appears increasingly unlikely that Tottenham will be challenging for silverware any time soon. It would be understandable, then, if Kane had considered his options with that in mind as he approaches the final year of his contract. The all-time Premier League goal record that he will inevitably chase down in the next few seasons may not be enough to satisfy his ambitions. One thing that is for certain is Spurs will have an enormous job on their hands to replace their talisman if he does move on.
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