It isn’t that long ago that Spurs fans were wringing their hands over the form of Harry Kane. Any time your team’s primary striker is struggling you’re going to be concerned, of course, but given how essential Kane is to Tottenham’s system (and how irreplaceable he is for a club with Tottenham’s finances), the concern was especially great. And, given the stats, it didn’t seem that misplaced.
Harry Kane’s Regression in 2018
Through five games, Kane had only managed more than .38xG once. That came against Fulham where he finished with 1.17xG, but even there he only took four shots and nearly all the value came on two shots in the final 15 minutes when the already porous Cottagers were also chasing the game.
Those five games, of course, were merely a continuation of his poor form dating back to the end of last season when he rushed back from an ankle injury. Following his return, Kane’s shot volume fell off significantly. Here are the numbers:
Kane Shots and xG
|2017-18 until March 3||5.96||0.88|
|April 17, 2018 - September 15, 2018||2.75||0.44|
|September 22, 2018 - Present||3.9||0.71|
To put that in perspective, Lionel Messi over the past five seasons has averaged 5.42 shots per 90 and .87xG/90. Cristiano Ronaldo has averaged 6.46 shots/90 and 1.02xG/90. Moving down to the next tier of elite attackers, Luis Suarez has averaged 3.68 shots/90 and .81xG/90 and Robert Lewandowski averaged 4.62 shots/90 and .92xG/90.
It is no overstatement, then, to say that in the first 2⁄3 of last season, Harry Kane was playing at a level that really did have him in the conversation for the best striker in world football. The numbers after he rushed back from injury were, obviously, far more pedestrian.
That being said, since the end of September Kane has looked more active. It may well be that the renaissance began the week before with Liverpool, a fixture that came after the international break, though given that Kane played 120 minutes over that time for the English national team it is hard to say how much the ‘break’ helped him.
In any case, beginning with the September 22 fixture against Brighton, Kane has looked far better. His shot volume is trending up—he even managed eight shots against Wolves. His xG/match is also moving upward again, closer to where it was for much of last season.
You also, if you have seen the matches, will know that Kane has looked more explosive. He has been running at the defense more often and bursting into space in the way he routinely did in years prior.
Kane’s Contribution Throughout the Match
Kane also is influencing the match earlier in the game. Through the first seven games, over half of Kane’s shots (10 out of 18) came in the final half hour. And if you looked at xG, only 28% of his xG came from the opening hour of play. This suggested that though Kane’s stamina was good, he was not yet back to himself and so he was not able to consistently produce scoring chances until later in the match when the opponent had tired or, perhaps, play had opened up due to match conditions. (His best stretch in the season’s opening six weeks was the final 15 minutes against Fulham.)
As the season has continued, we’ve seen Kane making earlier contributions. Through 14 fixtures he has now taken 48 shots and only 35% of those shots have come in the final half hour. The shot quality has leveled off as well—60% of his xG has come in the final half hour, which is still disproportional but not as extreme as earlier in the season.
Obviously there are ways of quibbling with data or explaining away certain stats. Strikers are dependent upon service, to some degree, in order to produce shots and goals. Small sample sizes can lead you to an unjustified conclusion. Managers can ask strikers to do different things tactically, which influence their stats. (It is worth noting that Kane routinely played a deeper role in the season’s early days as Mauricio Pochettino experimented with turning Lucas Moura into a striker.) All that being said, it seems clear that from the spring of 2018 until sometime in September, Harry Kane was a shadow of his normal self. The numbers over the past couple months suggest a return to form. Whether he will get back to the astonishing level he hit last season remains to be seen, but the trajectory is good and that is good news for Tottenham.