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Should we be worried about Harry Kane?

What can the stats tell us about Kane’s start to the 2019-20 season?

Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For a short time during the 2017-18 season, Harry Kane was arguably the best striker in the world not named Cristiano Ronaldo. The reason why isn’t a mystery. The man does two things extremely well: First, he takes a lot of shots. Second, he finishes at an above average level. When you combine those two skills, you have an elite goal scorer.

That this was what made him great has been clear for some time. Here is a radar from when he was 20-years-old:

This development continued up until March of 2018, at which time he suffered yet another ankle injury in a match against Bournemouth. Kane was out for two months and then rushed back to finish the season—a move many criticized at the time as being too quick a return, particularly with the World Cup coming that summer.

Kane struggled for the rest of 2018 and then continued to early in the 2018-19 season. Ted Knutson’s radar tells the story. This is Kane prior to the Bournemouth injury:

The second radar shows Kane’s normal shot monster numbers. The first shows his numbers from the time he came back from injury through the end of the 2017-18 season.

This shows his performance for the opening weeks of the 2018-19 season:

By season’s end, he was back up to 3.6 shots per match. That would obviously put him much further out in Knutson’s radar. Even so, in 2017-18 he averaged 5 shots per match, in 2016-17 he had averaged 3.7, and in 2015-16 he averaged 4.2. So his output of 3.6 was his worst mark since the 2014-15 campaign when he was only 21 years old.

That brings us to this season.

Harry Kane Performance

Match Shots Touches Passes xG xA
Match Shots Touches Passes xG xA
Aston Villa 8 37 21 0.83 0.11
Manchester City 1 25 14 0.01 0
Newcastle 1 24 14 0.44 0
Arsenal 3 33 14 0.11 0.13
Crystal Palace 1 29 15 0.03 0.41
Olympiakos 4 35 19 0.5 0

In this table I’ve included shots, touches, and passes. I did this because getting into position to take shots is partly a function of mobility and mobility is tricky to measure with stats. Touches taken and passes played, however, seem like good (if extremely basic) ways of indicating how relatively involved Kane was in the attack, which would generally correlate with overall mobility.

This is where it gets a bit frustrating. The opening fixture against Villa was a vintage Kane shot monster game. That this coincided with a fully fit Tanguy Ndombele making his debut and a vintage Christian Eriksen performance off the bench is not a coincidence. While Kane is extremely good at getting shots off in unlikely positions, he still needs service. Ndombele and Eriksen provided that. So based on that one performance, there was reason for optimism.

The rest of the fixtures, however, tell a less hopeful story. The Man City result should be ignored, as that performance is pretty much entirely the fault of Pochettino, whose tactics were all wrong for resisting Manchester City. The other results, however, are more alarming. Newcastle and Arsenal can be attributed to a lack of service, but even so you would hope to see a bit more involvement than that. It is particularly jarring to see that Kane’s overall performance against Newcastle is almost identical to Man City, save that his one shot at Newcastle was much closer to goal than his attempt against the Citizens.

What’s more, the Crystal Palace match is concerning. One possible reason for Kane’s diminished shot numbers is that since the arrival of Lucas Moura, it has become common for Kane to play with a striker partner, either Moura or Son-Heung Min. Both Moura and Son tend to play a more advanced role with Kane sitting deeper as a number ten where he can use his elite passing ability and hold-up play to build the attack.

But while Kane did contribute a great deal in the attack against Palace via a couple crucial passes, his overall involvement was not what you would expect. He took only one shot, had only 29 touches (a number closer to what he had in the nightmare against City than against Villa on match day one), and played only 15 passes.

For perspective, Kane averaged 20 passes per game last season, 18 during the 2017-18 season, 20 during the 16-17 campaign, and 25 in 2015-16. So we’re seeing a decrease in shots and, actually, a decrease in general involvement in the attack.

The one caveat here is that opening performance against Villa. Because it is early days and because we still haven’t figured out our first team midfield, it is possible that the Villa performance is more what this season will look like once Ndombele, Eriksen, Dele Alli, and Giovani Lo Celso are all integrated into the team. With all four of those players supporting him, Kane should not lack for service this season.

But with Dele only just returning to fitness and Ndombele and Lo Celso yet to play major minutes while fully fit, it’s possible that Kane’s problems so far this season are attributable to playing ahead of a midfield consisting of Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko.

Should Spurs fans worry? Given the sheer volume of injuries Kane has had and the drop-off in his shot volume and overall involvement in the attack, I think a bit of worry is reasonable. But it’s possible that the Villa game signaled a return to form, provided the English number nine is given sufficient service.

So the honest answer, at this point, is that we won’t know with any certainty whether or not to worry until we see Kane play a few matches with a functional midfield. With Dele and Ndombele returning to fitness, we will hopefully have our answer soon. I just hope we like it.