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It’s time for some Kane Theory

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Harry Kane has not been himself lately, but what if it’s just mis-proprioception?

Tottenham Hotspur v Millwall - The Emirates FA Cup Quarter-Final Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Since he started his career, Harry Kane has never been the most explosive and speedy player. Indeed, it was that lack of explosiveness that made people think he was a one season wonder, and a tap in merchant. Way back in 2014, (one of our own) Michael Caley wrote this about Harry Kane in the Washington Post:

Kane had not been a highly-touted prospect before this season. Unlike the current youth stars of England’s national team, Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley, Kane is not an exceptionally gifted athlete. He has neither Sterling’s pace nor Barkley’s power. On the baseball scouting scale, Kane would probably rate a 50 for speed (average) and 60 for power (above average but not plus). What the Spurs forward appears to have is not raw tools but that ineffable striker’s skill of finding himself in dangerous positions with an opportunity to score.

Kane truly was (and is) a Moneyball player, a guy who didn’t look the part, and didn’t have the explosiveness you associate with great strikers, but he does have elite athletic talents that allow him to get shots off at incredibly high rates.

Since his ankle injury in March 2018, Harry Kane has not been the same player as he was for the prior 365 days. Kane was, arguably, the best 9 in the world from about March 2017 to March 2018. It seems far away now, but he was taking 6 shots per 90 minutes and scored 50 goals in calendar 2017. Then he sprained his ankle, was rushed back, and has looked not quite himself despite winning the Golden Boot this summer, and scoring well so far this year. His shot xG per 90 this season is down significantly from 2017-2018 and sits below 2016 and 2017. The match against Huddersfield on Saturday, was perhaps, the first match where he’d started to look like himself all season.

Did he really lose his elite Moneyball talents along with his injury? Kane has repeatedly told the media that he feels good, he says feels fit, and that he isn’t in pain. Spurs doctors seem to agree as he just keeps playing, and indeed, as Spurs’ matches have gone along this season, Kane has been at his best. As defenders tire (or play for Huddersfield), Kane has found more shots in the last twenty minutes of matches than he has in the first seventy, on average (collected by our own Jake Meador from Understat):

So if he’s “fit” and not in pain, what’s missing?

What are missing are the very, contra Caley, effable skills that have been, well, effed since Kane hurt his ankle. On a scouting scale, Harry Kane is a 50 speed, a 60 power, and an 80 balance and guile. We’ve all seen it. Harry Kane at his best had incredible balance and a sense of where his body was compared to defenders. The defender is leaning to the right? He can cut back to his left foot and take a snap shot at an unexpected angle. The ball is coming across goal? He sneaks inside his defender and lean all the way over and just gets a toe on the ball to deflect the ball in at the right angle.

Watch his goals from last season and it’s truly amazing just how unspectacular they are for the most part. He doesn’t have perfect touch, but so often manages to keep the ball at his feet and drag it back to just the right spot because he is, at his healthiest, one of the best in the world at keeping his balance when nobody else could and getting a shot off when nobody else would, and just always knowing where the goal is relative to his body. But without his elite talents in those areas, he looks more ordinary.

I spoke to some physical therapist friends who told me that we should not be surprised Kane is not back to elite at those skills. Ankle injury rehabilitation progresses from reduction in swelling and increase in range of motion, to strength training, to “pain free gait,” and finally, as “the patient achieves full weight bearing without pain, proprioceptive training is initiated for the recovery of balance and postural control.”

Proprioception? Proprioception is one’s sense of what one’s body is doing, where it’s going and moving in space. After an ankle sprain, athletes (and everybody else) lose some of that ability. When you watch Harry Kane and his best, you see he knows exactly what his body is doing, even as we think he’s about to topple over or lose the ball, he’s cutting back correctly. More recently, he’s seemed unwilling or unable to make those moves.

Various devices have been specifically designed for this phase of rehabilitation, and their use in concert with a series of progressive drills has effectively returned patients to a high functional level.” If you’ve ever seen athletes using a wobble board in training photos, one thing they are training is ankle proprioception.

Harry Kane takes excellent care of himself, but “some neural changes may require weeks, months, or even years of practice.” He is almost certainly working hard with the team’s trainers to regain his balance and proprioceptive abilities (indeed, Spurs’ training photos frequently show players working with the balance board, a classic tool for balance and proprioceptive training). Injuries take time to recover from, and Kane gave himself almost none by rushing back and jumping straight into the World Cup.

Will he regain those talents? I imagine so, as I trust his training obsessiveness, but it will just take a bit more time. Harry Kane isn’t explosive, but he is a great athlete. It’s just that his great athletic skills come back perhaps more slowly than speed and power, and he cannot afford to lose them. In the future, if Kane re-injures his ankle, Spurs (and England) need to give him longer to focus on regaining proprioception and balance. Without those elite talents, Harry Kane simply isn’t an elite goal scorers. He is not, however, Torres’d. He just still needs time to get back to his best. Maybe we’ll even see it on Wednesday at Wembley as Spurs host Barcelona.