Harry Kane was yanked off the pitch at halftime of England’s 2-1 Euro 2016 win over Wales for Jamie Vardy, a move that felt both understandable at the time and a little harsh to the Premier League golden boot winner. England had, up to that point, endured a somewhat miserable half of football against a bunkered Wales defense, and trailed thanks to a long free kick from Gareth Bale that was bundled into the net by a red-faced Joe Hart.
Roy Hodgson opted to address England’s anemic offense by taking off Kane and Adam Lallana for Leicester hero Vardy and Daniel Sturridge. Kane was somewhat pilloried on social media after the substitution, and while he wasn’t great, it probably isn’t fair to lay the blame solely on his performance: some of the responsibility must go to how Hodgson set England up to play.
Kane is a striker that thrives on service and excels through workman-like effort, and most of that starts with the performance of the midfielders. At Tottenham, Kane had the luxury of two exceptional midfielders behind him: Eric Dier breaking up play and Mousa Dembele pressing and shuttling balls to open teammates. Most critical to Kane’s success at Tottenham this season was the play of Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela in the attacking midfield just behind him, who allowed him to stay high and receive dangerous passes in the attacking areas.
The key to stopping Kane is to isolate him: to force him to drop deep into the area usually dominated by the #10 in order to receive the ball. That’s exactly what happened in the first half against Wales: when Kane did get the ball, it was in extremely deep (or wide) positions, and never in the box.
Source: FourFourTwo StatsZone
That Kane was forced to drop so deep so often to get the ball was primarily influenced by Hodgson’s three-man midfield of Eric Dier, Dele Alli, and Wayne Rooney. Dier continued in his usual role of defensive shield, and put in a solid performance, extending what has been a strong tournament for him. Strangely, neither Alli nor Rooney were tasked with pushing forward with the ball very often. In particular, while Rooney completed 70 of 79 passes, his distribution was much more lateral than progressive, and he preferred to shuttle balls to the fullbacks or to the increasingly isolated Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana on the flanks, leaving Kane all alone in the middle.
All this was compounded by Wales playing with a back three, which ensured that, even when Kane did get the ball, he was outnumbered by defenders. In short, while Kane did not play especially well against Wales, or even against Russia, he was not helped at all by the tactics of Roy Hodgson.
England’s two goals came by, essentially, throwing five strikers against Wales and hoping for the best. And it worked! Vardy fluked an equalizer, and Sturridge’s nice bit of skill ensured England will probably progress out of the group stage. Roy’s a genius, right?
In post match interviews, Hodgson indicated that Kane’s substitution had more to do with exhaustion than performance.
“I had no hesitation in putting him on at half-time. Harry was looking a bit tired in the first half. He'd worked hard against Russia and had a long season, so it was great to have someone like Vardy to step into his shoes, and Marcus Rashford and Daniel Sturridge, in particular, to come on and give us something different when we need to ask questions of a packed defence.
“The games come thick and fast. Each team has 23 players. In those 23, there'll be a lot of players who feel hard done by when not selected. You sometimes find it hard to look beyond them. It's going to be a feature of the tournament. Watching France play Albania last night, it was a similar situation when Pogba and Griezmann came on, which helped France get the victory they deserved.”
Kane probably is extremely tired, as he has probably played in as many games this season as anyone else in the England squad. That hasn’t helped. And to be fair, the media seems to be giving him the benefit of the doubt, using exhaustion as an excuse for him not banging in goals every ten minutes. He’ll probably be benched for either Vardy or Sturridge in England’s last match against Slovakia, and at a surface level you can understand why. If Roy keeps his tactics the same, it will be interesting to see if the same sorts of problems with England’s attack persist, or if the team can get out of its own way.
However, it still feels a bit unfair to Harry, who is a fantastic striker in an England set-up that is not built to suit him. When you have a player like Kane on your team, you build the team around him to suit his skill set and strengths. Roy Hodgson instead decided to build his team around Wayne Rooney as an out of position central midfielder. Unfortunately, it seems that despite England’s successes, it’s Kane that will be the recipient of much of the post-tournament navel-gazing.