There’s a lot of blame to go around for Tottenham Hotspur’s 1-0 loss to West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthornes on Saturday. You can blame the players who despite a lot of possession didn’t seem to have the drive or the quality to put the ball in the back of the net. You can blame the odd tactical decision to play a back three against a team that is known for parking the bus and playing super defensive football.
But Saturday’s loss, stupid as it was, was just the latest symptom in a problem that has been festering for the past four weeks. Credit should be given to West Brom, of course — they played well and are now one step closer to completing the greatest of great escapes and avoiding relegation. But to put it plainly, Tottenham haven’t been very good since Harry Kane came back from his ankle injury, and while we don’t like to think about it, we can lay the bulk of the blame at Mauricio Pochettino’s feet. Kane was rushed back to the squad on a half-healed ankle, and Tottenham’s offense has suffered for it.
When Kane went down injured during Spurs’ 4-1 win over Bournemouth, he was given a recovery time of 3-6 weeks. That’s fairly typical for the kind of ankle injury that he sustained — he strained his ligaments, something he’s done a couple of times now, but it didn’t appear that anything was ruptured or broken.
In the meantime, Spurs were on a good run of form up to that point and continued it in Kane’s absence. In fact, Tottenham were pretty darn good with Son Heung-Min deputizing for Harry at striker. Spurs rolled to a 3-0 FA Cup quarterfinal win over Swansea, and followed that with a historic 3-1 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. While everyone hoped Kane would return for Tottenham’s run-in, it sure looked like everything was going pretty well in his absence.
Since Kane’s return in late cameo appearance during the 2-1 win over Stoke on April 7, Spurs have seemingly taken a nosedive. In the period since Kane came back into the side, Spurs are just 1-3-1 in all competitions. Anyone who has watched Spurs with any sense of interest could come away noting that everything looked rather... anemic. Kane most of all — he has struggled mightily since coming back, only shooting about half as often as he did before his injury, and looking much less incisive with his movement and passing.
Even Spurs’ 2-0 win over Watford last weekend looked unconvincing, with Harry in particular looking like he still had a ways to go before he hit his stride.
It seems counterintuitive to blame Kane for Tottenham’s run of poor form. He’s Spurs’ talisman! He’s scored 27 league goals this season, and without him they are probably not anywhere close to qualifying for the Champions League next season.
But Kane’s importance to Tottenham doesn’t just come from his goals. Spurs’ offense is reliant on his movement and his ability to create space and opportunities for others, and without those factors the entire offense grinds to a halt.
Kane’s ability to create scoring opportunities seemingly at will means that opposition defenses must key in on him lest he destroy defenders one on one. More than that, his movement on and off the ball forces defenses to adjust. That frees up space for other players such as Sonny, Christian Eriksen, and Dele Alli to move into and exploit. Take away Kane’s ability to create and his movement, and suddenly teams aren’t as afraid of Kane anymore. He’s double-teamed less often, and defenders are allowed to hedge more and cover Spurs’ other threats.
Kane’s dynamism is central to Spurs’ offense, and it is severely hampered when he is playing and is not 100%. It leads to xG maps and possession stats like what we saw today and earlier: tons of time on the ball, but very few quality chances. It has been very clear that Kane has not been at 100% for several weeks now.
You could blame Tottenham’s physios, if you wanted, but this doesn’t feel right. They have the power to prevent even the biggest of stars from playing if they deem it necessary, and I find it unconvincing to think that any team doctor would allow a player to return if there was any chance that he could re-injure himself. No doubt Kane was given the green light, if not without a bunch of caveats.
You could also blame Kane for this, of course. He had to know that he was playing on an ankle that wasn’t completely healed. Some athletes might voluntarily pull themselves from competitive play out of concern for their recovery, but that’s not Kane’s style. He’s one of the most driven athletes I’ve ever seen in my years as a Spurs fan — desperate to score, to compete, to play. With Mohamed Salah ahead of him in the Golden Boot race, Kane’s competitiveness prompted him to return as soon as possible, even if he wasn’t really ready, because he’s a fierce competitor. It’s one of the reasons why he is such an amazing footballer. He will demand the opportunity to play, and will accept it if given. Wild horses couldn’t have kept him out of the starting lineup.
But Mauricio Pochettino could have. Poch surely believed that Spurs were better with their talismanic striker than without him, even if he was not at 100%, and yet it has been abundantly clear from the moment Kane first took the pitch against Manchester City that he was struggling. Rather than tell him that he needed more time to heal, Poch has started him in every match since. Kane has struggled, and the team has as well.
Pochettino should have put his foot down, stuck with Son up top, and given Kane the time to heal properly and work his way back into the team. Doing so would have been controversial — Kane certainly would’ve been unhappy at losing the chance to catch Salah for the Golden Boot, and it’s impossible to say whether Spurs would’ve done any better or worse in those same fixtures if he were focusing on his recovery and not playing football while unfit. But it would have been the correct decision.
Instead, Poch has talked about how the club needs to “show more” in big matches. While Kane is surely not the only factor in why Spurs have been playing so poorly, boiling it down to lack of desire or quality in a press conference feels overly simplistic when there’s an obvious solution — sitting Kane for his own good — staring him in the face.
Pochettino’s favorable treatment of Kane also strikes me as somewhat hypocritical when compared to how he has treated Toby Alderweireld after his long injury return. Toby’s benching was ostensibly for performance reasons despite the lingering contract dispute and Poch’s history of marginalizing players who aren’t singing from the same hymn sheet. And yet Kane is rushed back on a barely-healed ankle and given the run of the team? It has the smell of a double standard.
In fairness, I should note that for about a half hour on Saturday Kane looked like something a lot closer to his pre-injury form. That was nice to see — he moved well, was creating chances, and was dropping deep, holding up the ball to bring his teammates into space. He may have disappeared in the second half, but it was an encouraging improvement.
That may not be entirely a coincidence, as a Carty Free reader noted on Twitter on Saturday. If this were the first time we’d seen Kane since his injury, we might be talking more about the positive state of his first game back rather than continuing to discuss how he’s clearly still running on a gimpy ankle.
Funny his movement may be returning, since he's at the 6 week mark since the original injury, which had a 3-6 week recovery time.— Uncle J at rest (@BadUncleJ) May 5, 2018
To be clear, I’m not calling for Poch to bench Kane for Wednesday’s match against Newcastle. I don’t think he’d do it, for starters, and I think the psychological impact of such a move on the club’s and Kane’s morale could do more harm than good at this stage. It seems clear to me, however, that the situation with Kane’s injury could have been handled very differently, and possibly with more favorable results for the club.
Spurs now have two matches remaining, and a “magic number” of four to clinch top four, possibly fewer depending on the results of Sunday’s match between Chelsea and Liverpool. To be sure, Spurs are overwhelming favorites to pip Chelsea to fourth place when all is said and done -- FiveThirtyEight.com still has Tottenham with a 97% chance of finishing fourth or higher. That’s an encouraging number, but ask any Tottenham fan about this and they would tell you their gut says that on Spurs’ current form the odds are significantly lower. There’s already a sense of dread permeating the fanbase, especially heading into a match against a Newcastle club with nothing to play for. Spurs need results and they need them now.
There’s nothing more to do except wait and hope that the offense finds its sea legs again. Hopefully that means that Kane will find his scoring touch again before the end, reminding us of how good Spurs looked in February and March. Clinching Champions League is still the primary goal. Limping across the finish line is still finishing the race, and it’s still better than the alternative.