Why it doesn’t matter if you think Harry Kane is World Class or not…
Harry Kane is in a rich vein of form and seems to have been for the last three years. Having shaken off the “one season wonder” tag, there are now increasingly louder voices calling for him to be considered “world class”, whatever your particular definition may be. The debates have raged on and, ultimately, they don’t really matter. The simplest reason is that the label “world class” is subjective and without defined parameters, thereby making any discussion moot. However, it’s worth exploring why it is being widely discussed and why each side of the argument is convinced of their opinion.
Having once again not scored a single goal in August (which is an extraordinary statistic), Kane opened his account for the 2017/18 season on the 1st of September with a brace for England. On the 30th of September he bagged another brace to take his total to 13 goals in 8 games for club and country in the month; with that brace he equalled the record for goals scored in a single month set by Lionel Messi (March 2012) and Cristiano Ronaldo (October 2010). Nobody can say that that isn’t wholly impressive. The young England striker had his breakthrough year in the 2014/15 season as he scored 21 league goals in 34 appearances. In each season since, he has improved on that tally, netting 25 in 38 in 2015/16 and 29 in 30 in the 2016/17 season and not many would bet against him improving on that even further this year. No player in England has scored more goals than him since his breakthrough season. He has 16 goals in his last seven away games. He has scored 6 hat-tricks in 2017 so far. He has 10 goals in 21 England appearances. He is 24 years old.
Despite the impressive statistics, there are still some who have argued that he cannot be talked about in the same breath as the world’s best strikers, implying there is still some doubt about his ability. To an extent, I can see why they have these doubts. He hasn’t really stood out in the knockout stages of European competition; he hasn’t led his side to trophy winning glory; he hasn’t had that one standout performance against a top side; and he hasn’t done anything of note at an international tournament.
And this is the crux of the matter: It’s all about how these things contribute to the perception of the player. This is why it doesn’t really matter whether anyone thinks he is world class or not; it will come down to the perception of the individual viewer and what guides them.
His supporters will argue that the lack of long cup campaigns and trophies at club and international level isn’t his fault. It’s a team game, after all and Djimi Traore has a Champions League winner’s medal. Whilst this is clearly true, it is something that is taken into account when judging players. After all, what good are the goals if they don’t mean anything? This idea of how players are perceived is something that has benefitted Gareth Bale, for example. He was the stand out star in Spurs’ Champions League fixtures against the then European Champions, Inter Milan, as he scored a hattrick in the San Siro. This elevated his standing in European football and people took notice. From then on, it was only a matter of time before he was the subject of a big money move. Since joining Madrid he has won 10 trophies, scoring important goals and firmly establishing himself as one of the world’s best players despite no longer being the outstanding player in the side. More recently, Kylian Mbappe has broken onto the world stage largely because of his outstanding performances for Monaco in the Champions League knockout stages. He picked up 2 goals in the tie against Manchester City helping to knock them out; he scored 3 against Dortmund, gain helping to knock them out; and he picked up 1 goal against arguably the best defence in European football as Juventus knocked out Monaco. Had he not so tangibly contributed to Monaco’s European cup run I would argue that he would not be talked about in the same way that he is now. The wider perception of his ability outside of France is coloured by these performances.
Let’s look at a contrasting example. If I asked you to think of the best strikers in European football in the 1990s and 2000s the list would probably include the likes of Thierry Henry, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ronaldo, Gabriel Batistuta, Romario, Raul, George Weah and Andriy Shevchenko. If you are a reader in the UK, you might add the likes of Alan Shearer and Ian Wright to that list but if you are a football fan outside of England, those two don’t tend to be mentioned as often. For Shearer it was his lack of trophies at any level (one Premier League title is a poor return for the goals he scored) and almost non-existent impact in European club competition that hampered him; for Wright it was his lack of impact at Champions League and international level that held back perception. Despite their formidable goal records neither player is talked of on the continent in the same breath as some of the others mentioned. And currently, this is what is holding back Harry Kane in discussions about the best strikers in Europe.
Looking at him specifically, people will also argue that Kane doesn’t seem to have any special skill; he’s not outstanding in any department. Again, this is something that hampers the perception people have of him. He doesn’t have a specific skill that we can see to set him apart from others; he’s not even particularly distinctive in appearance. For those thinking that this shouldn’t matter, you only have to look at Premier League rival, Romelu Lukaku, to see how appearance can influence perception. Lukaku is an outstanding physical specimen and consequently he has, all too frequently, been labelled as only being big, strong and quick. In Harry Kane’s case, it is the lack of any distinctive feature that seems to be hurting him.
In fact, the converse is a more apt way of looking at him, as the key to Harry Kane is that he doesn’t seem to have any discernible weakness. Whilst he doesn’t possess blistering pace, he’s no slouch and his intelligent movement means that he always seems to have a yard of space. He’s not a particularly good dribbler but he has an excellent first touch and the ability to shift the ball to give him the space he needs to affect play. He’s not known for his great strength or exceptional heading ability but at 6ft 2in he’s naturally built to hold off defenders and is tall enough to make his good heading skills a great threat. He’s not particularly creative; he’s not a great passer; he doesn’t get too involved in build-up play; all accusations that I have seen thrown his way but he is by no means weak in any of those departments. What does set him apart is less obvious to the casual observer. He has exceptional awareness and total understanding of where he is positionally on the pitch in relation to the goal. This allows him to get his shots off quicker than most, sometimes without even looking up, and he has clearly worked on shooting with both feet. It’s an old cliché but he comes alive in and around the box and any sight of goal will be taken advantage of.
He’s not just a poacher either as 10 of his last 60 goals have come from outside of the box. His work rate and desire to be the best have seen him improve his finishing and on the pitch he always works for the side. In addition, he rarely gets booked and is very reliable from an injury point of view. So, whilst he perhaps isn’t the best in any one department he is sufficiently accomplished in all of them to be an effective centre forward.
As I’ve alluded to in this article, Harry Kane will always suffer in comparison to other strikers as long as his goals are ultimately fruitless. The goals have to mean something. Fans attach emotions, feelings and memories to trophies, to huge European nights, to cup runs and to league titles. Spurs fans have those memories on a game to game basis with Kane but the wider footballing world are yet to truly see him at his best. Imagine an Inter Milan fan’s perception of Bale after witnessing the chastening he gave to Maicon in the Champions League; think about how the world felt as they witnessed the introduction of Michael Owen at the 1998 world cup; remember how Paul Gascoigne announced himself at Italia ’90. These are a few examples of players whose performances in big tournaments elevated their recognition on a wider scale and their status in the game. For now, the arguments about Harry Kane being world class or not will hinge on the criteria used by the individuals in the argument but what is not in doubt is his goal scoring. When his career is over he will be judged not just on his goals but also his achievements in the game. He may end up like Alan Shearer or Matt Le Tissier with fans wondering what might have been or he may leave us in no doubt, making an indelible mark on footballing history. Ultimately, that is what matters not a meaningless label.