This summer promises to be a big one for Harry Kane. Though he was rested for Thursday’s friendly win over Costa Rica, the Tottenham Hotspur striker’s contribution will be vital from this point forward if England are to advance deep into the knockout rounds of the World Cup. Gareth Southgate will not only be relying on Kane for goals, but for leadership. It is a heavy burden for the 24-year-old to carry.
Tournaments test players in a number of ways. The most important examination comes on the pitch, of course, and assuming that England proceed from the group stage, Kane will face some of the finest defenders in the game. Any deficiencies in technique, movement or temperament are exposed. Yet Tottenham’s experience in the Champions League suggests he can trouble the best centre-backs in the business.
Kane lacks a little pace but makes up for it with his strength and ability to find space in congested areas. He strikes the ball early. Unless markers are very close, he’s able to fire off shots in situations where other strikers like to take a touch.
The bigger question is whether Kane can handle his other duties.
Is he a leader? Goal scorers are notoriously selfish and generally less interested in the side’s overall performance than their own ability to put the ball in the net.
The forward’s reputation as a selfless worker for the team was challenged in April when he claimed the winning goal in the 2-1 victory over Stoke City. The strike was originally given to Christian Eriksen, but Kane’s determination to add the score to his personal tally was clear. “I swear on my daughter’s life I touched the ball,” he said after the game.
When the Premier League panel agreed and awarded the goal to Kane, a number of fellow and former professionals — including Mohamed Salah and Gary Lineker — took to social media to express surprise and mock the striker. Kane’s public image suffered, though the mockery was unfair. A forward’s job is to score and to criticise a player for wanting to claim goals is misguided. The hunger expressed by the Spurs man is exactly the sort of appetite that some of the great goal scorers before him (including Lineker) possessed.
Those around Tottenham speak highly of Kane’s ability to rally teammates and inspire them during difficult periods. Mauricio Pochettino’s team have struggled to maintain their discipline and sense of purpose at times over the past three seasons, but Kane’s mental toughness under pressure has been the least of their concerns.
A World Cup brings other stresses. The squad spends more than a month together and tensions can build in the hot-house atmosphere this close proximity creates. England’s approach has made the situation worse in recent tournaments. In South Africa in 2010, some of the players felt like they were in prison. In France at the Euros two years ago, a mood of confusion and a lack of belief bedeviled the camp, but the early indications are that Southgate is creating a more relaxed environment. At England’s media day, all 23 players were available to talk to the press and the mood was light and upbeat, lacking the us-and-them undercurrents that existed in the past.
Kane’s captaincy and his laid-back personality will therefore be a key component of the setup. If England begin to feel they are under siege once they get to Russia, the spirit could evaporate.
Even if this doesn’t happen, there will be other issues. Personality conflicts exist in every group, and the role of the captain is important here too. There are other dynamics that affect players like Kane. Often, discussions take place about the working conditions at various clubs and the salaries available. Players can become distracted by the temptations of other teams while on international duty. In Portugal at Euro 2004, Steven Gerrard was subject to a concerted effort by the Chelsea players in the squad to persuade the Liverpool midfielder to move to Stamford Bridge.
There are five Spurs players in the squad, and they may find the observations of former teammate Kyle Walker interesting. Walker moved to Manchester City last summer, doubling his salary as well as earning League Cup and Premier League winners medals during the course of the campaign. Kane is happy to remain at Tottenham and keen to lead the team into the new White Hart Lane stadium next season, but as one of the hottest goal scorers in the game, he may wonder how Walker, a right-back by trade, commands a bigger wage.
In the next few weeks, Kane will be charged with leading the line on the pitch while buoying morale and staving off boredom on non-playing days. He is not scarred with the cynicism of the so-called “Golden Generation” of England players, whose tournament experiences inevitably turned sour. He will be helped by Southgate, whose sensible attitude and ability to communicate in a clear manner makes up for what the manager lacks in tactical acumen. The relative youth of the squad is a plus, too; the team is eager, not jaded.
The Three Lions bring freshness and pace to Russia. Both will stand them in good stead. The key to success, though, will be Kane. As a goal scorer and leader, the striker is crucial to England’s hopes.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.