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Harry Kane’s new, deeper role under Jose Mourinho is opening up Tottenham’s attack

Harry Kane has added a new arrow to his quiver under Jose Mourinho: deep-lying playmaker.

West Bromwich Albion v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

Son-Heung Min may have just won the Premier League Player of the Month Award for October, but Harry Kane has not-so-quietly been absolutely stellar for Spurs since the beginning of the season. Kane must have been delighted to hear that the season was starting in September, not August, due to the somewhat mythical dry spell he endures at the beginning of every season.

Things have changed for the ‘20/’21 season as Kane has been directly involved in 17 goals (8 goals and 9 assists) in 10 games across the Premier League and Europa League. Those are staggering numbers, and anyone would be forgiven for thinking his performances are an abnormality, something that’s unsustainable.

Yes, it would be incredibly difficult for Kane to maintain a .85 goal to game ratio throughout the rest of the season. It goes without saying that maintaining consistent performances over the course of 38 games (not to mention 50+ when Europa, League, and FA cups are taken into account) is the defining reason that winning the Premier League is so damn difficult. Throw in injuries, fatigue, and other external factors that influence player performance and it’s no wonder that consistency can be hard to predict.

Harry Kane’s heatmap for the 2020/21 season so far.

All that said, there are three overlapping, different ways that Kane is helping Spurs in addition to his efficiency in front of goal: playing as deep playmaker with long passing, dragging defenders out of position, and increasing midfield numbers for numerical superiority and a platform for attack.

Deep Playmaker - Turning Defense Into Attack With Long Passes

Pochettino’s Spurs looked to create counter-attacking opportunities high up the pitch with high pressing. Klopp’s famous gegenpressing at Liverpool necessitates a more intense press but with a potentially greater reward. Mourinho, on the other hand, is known for parking the bus and setting his sides up defensively. This is an oversimplification of how football systems work - the main proof here being that Spurs are allowing 12.94 passes per defensive action (PPDA), a better rate than the likes of Arsenal (admittedly not saying much this season), Chelsea, Leicester and West Ham. (For context, Leeds is leading the pressing stats in the league, allowing 9.34 passes before making a tackle or intercepting a pass.)

This is a long-winded way of saying “Mourinho teams don’t press,” but it is simply wrong. This season Spurs set up with a mid block typically in a 4-4-2 and press the opponent if they have the ball in the central zone. When Spurs gain possession they shift the ball horizontally first and then find a vertical pass for an onrushing winger or midfielder.

When Kane is involved in the buildup (i.e. is in the middle third) he has the range of passing to quickly find one of Son or Bale. We saw this on display when Kane racked up 4 assists as Spurs tore Southampton’s high line apart.

Kane has dropped to become a passing option for his midfield. As soon as he receives the ball almost instinctually he lofts a pass towards Son, who goes on to score.

More and more, we’re seeing this connection between Kane and Tottenham’s wingers.

Sissoko picks the ball up on the left channel and centers it to Kane while continuing his run. Kane has the time to spot Gareth Bale’s run and makes the pass.

It’s actually pretty clever - Mourinho has set up Kane to both shine in front of goal and further empower his midfield. Tanguy Ndombele, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and Moussa Sissoko all play integral roles in making Mourinho’s system work. Hojbjerg has ubiquitously gained praise for his industrious work in breaking up opposition play and pulling the strings from the back. Sissoko is one of the most athletic players in lilywhite, and Ndombele has fully redeemed himself in the manager’s eyes. None of these players, however, are known for making long passes. In lieu of a Luka Modric, Kane has been tasked with that deep playmaker role.

Pulling Defenders Out of Position

The knock on effect here is that he can open up space for Spurs to attack when Spurs are in possession higher up the pitch.

The clearest, most successful example of this was against Manchester United. Kane receives a pass and moves towards the middle third with Maguire chasing him. Lamela shifts towards the space that Maguire has opened, dragging his marker with him. This opens acres of space for Aurier who does not need to be asked twice to make an attacking run.
Kane drags the West Brom defender out of position and opens space for Reguilon to run into.

It’s clear that Mourinho relies on Kane for this role due to his unique mix of athleticism, ability to read the play and make an accurate long pass (although, as seen above, it’s not always up to Kane to play the pass that takes a defensive setup apart.)

The most dangerous part of Kane’s movement, however, is that he can play that smart, inch perfect pass. His passing ability forces opposition players to try to restrict the space he operates in as much as possible - as seen above, this opens gaps elsewhere for Kane’s teammates to exploit.

Building a Platform for Attack

But Harry Kane does not need to launch a 60 yard pass every time he’s in the middle of the pitch. His presence can often give Spurs numerical superiority, or at least parity, in the midfield. Short, smart passes to Ndombele, Sissoko, or the fullbacks to progress the play can be just as effective as long lobbed pass.

Higher up the pitch, Kane drop to pick up a pass from Hojbjerg. He attracts the attention of two West Brom midfielders, and makes a clever pass towards Sissoko that the French midfielder picks up and drives towards the West Brom goal.

If Kane isn’t making the pass that releases a Spurs player into space, then he makes the pass before it.

Unlike the West Brom example, this one has little to do with clever passing and everything to do with with his positioning. His positionining gives Davies an outlet and Spurs a foundation to build from - through simple passing Ndombele receives the ball Spurs are on the attack.

If Hojbjerg is the the heart of Spurs defensive midfield, Harry Kane ought to be in the conversation for being the heart of Tottenham’s midfield ball progression.

Even when Kane is higher up the pitch he reads a situation in which his dropping deeper will be helpful for the team. Davies is surrounded by three Burnley players effectively cutting out passing angles. Davies finds Kane as he comes to the ball (off screen), who lays it off to Ndombele, and once again Spurs are on the attack.

Final Thoughts

Spurs have struggled to link the midfield to the attack ever since the departure of Mousa Dembele, and although Lo Celso and Ndombele were suitors for the role Mourinho has found an unlikely answer in Kane.

It begs the question how this will affect Lo Celso/Ndombele moving forward, and questions arise of depth for the roles mentioned above.

For example, the only player who can take on Kane’s role full on and provide similar, if not equal, attacking and creative output is Dele Alli. However, Dele’s future at Tottenham is murky, at best.

Dele Alli starts in Antwerp and plays the Harry Kane role of dropping deep and being the conduit between midfield and attack. Lo Celso regains possession just outside zone 14, and squares the ball to Dele Alli. Dele, with time and space, picks his head up and lofts a pass for Vinicius to run onto.

In central midfield, Winks is a cross between Hojbjerg and Sissoko, adequate in multiple skill sets but not quite good enough in any of them. This is to say that if injury or suspension rules out one starting central midfielder, that might cause Mourinho to change the system.

For now, it’s been an absolute pleasure to see Kane excel in a brand new role. It feels weird to be excited as a Tottenham fan but I’m here for it.