Last week, Harry Kane was asked whether he had a special goal celebration planned in tribute to former Tottenham Hotspur teammate Christian Eriksen following the Denmark midfielder’s recovery from cardiac arrest. “I’d have to score a goal first before I think of anything like that,” he replied in what felt like an unguarded comment revealing his frustration at a slow start to Euro 2020.
The 27-year-old had only played one game by that point, but Friday’s 0-0 draw against Scotland followed a similar pattern to the previous weekend’s opener against Croatia in that Kane was on the periphery from start to finish. So far in this tournament, Kane has totaled 156 minutes on the pitch, six touches in the opposition’s penalty area, three shots (none on target) and two substitutions.
That is not by itself a cause for panic: England remain in a good position to qualify ahead of Tuesday’s final Group D game and will secure top spot with victory against the Czech Republic (Stream LIVE: 3 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+). But if Gareth Southgate’s side are to trouble the favourites in the latter stages, the Three Lions surely have to get more from their talismanic centre-forward, who established himself as one of club football’s most prolific scorers prior to winning the Golden Boot at the 2018 World Cup.
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Much is expected of England in an attacking sense this summer. The plethora of options has heightened hopes that Southgate can mould a group of celebrated individuals into a cohesive unit. The 50-year-old’s task was complicated by a shortened timeframe to work with the players after Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea contested the major European finals at the end of the regular season.
There is also a concern within the camp that England can only go as far as their defence will allow them. Mindful of the importance the injured/unfit Harry Maguire has in holding England together at the back, Southgate has leaned towards a more conservative midfield composition, with both Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips screening the back four in their opening two games.
Against Croatia, this served a useful purpose given their quality on the ball. Against Scotland, it contributed to a lack of speed in their passing, which enabled their opponents to remain compact, denying space for Kane. It didn’t matter whether remained on the shoulder of the last defender or dropped deep to link up play, either.
Kane enjoyed a stunning season for Tottenham, scoring 23 goals and registering 14 assists in 35 Premier League games. His link-up play with Son Heung-Min was central to achieving these numbers.
Southgate may have had that partly in mind when choosing to persist with Raheem Sterling despite a poor end to the season with Manchester City; the only goal England have scored at Euro 2020 came from Sterling running into space vacated by Kane to collect a Phillips pass and fire home against Croatia. However, Croatia generally pressed England well enough to limit the number of runs in behind, while Scotland defended with great discipline to reduce them to playing almost entirely in front of their five-man defence. They became risk-averse in possession, stodgy to the extent even Southgate admitted their positional rotation and decision-making was not up to scratch.
England’s lack of creativity from open play is not a new problem. Nine of the 12 goals they scored on their way to the 2018 World Cup semifinals came from set-pieces. Even one of the three scored from open play was blind luck — against Panama in the group stage, Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s shot hit Kane’s heel as he ran away from the ball before flying in. Three of Kane’s six goals at that tournament were penalties.
This is not to detract from their achievement in reaching the last four in Russia, but it does underline how England’s inability to get the best from Kane is an issue that predates the past two games.
It also partly explains why the clamour for Jack Grealish’s inclusion against the Czech Republic has grown of late. His ability to beat players one-on-one and conjure opportunities by himself appears more vital if England are going to continue moving the ball at a pedestrian pace through midfield and not committing their full-backs forward as much as had originally been anticipated.
And then we come to Kane himself. He took the proactive step of speaking to media following Friday’s Wembley stalemate to dismiss talk he was either carrying an injury or had been affected by speculation over his future, having expressed a desire to leave Spurs this summer.
“I know what I’m capable of,” he said. “I could score a couple of goals on Tuesday and have everyone talking about the Golden Boot.”
He is more than capable: there have been plenty of Spurs matches in which he has looked off the pace, only to then find the net and confound his critics.
Kane’s professionalism is such that it is hard to believe talk of a possible move to Manchester City, Manchester United or Chelsea is genuinely a factor influencing his performances, especially given his sincere desire to be successful with the national team. Yet Southgate was sufficiently concerned about the general noise around Kane to take the unusual step of confirming more than 48 hours before kickoff that he would start against the Czech Republic, perhaps seeking to silence any talk of whether England would be better off trying something else.
Kane holds himself to the highest possible standards, inviting comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi rather than being unfairly or prematurely catapulted into that highest bracket by others. It will therefore rankle that he has not been able to make his mark on Euro 2020 as of yet.
Regardless, England have top spot in their grasp. They are yet to concede a goal, and the cathartic feeling from beating Croatia three years after losing to them at the last World Cup has not been entirely lost. However, they do need to discover the exuberance and invention that could reasonably be expected from the second-youngest squad at these finals.
Their travails in attack are a far cry from the leading debate around the team prior to their previous meeting with the Czechs in October 2019. The BBC ran a piece asking “Do England have the best front three in world football?” as Kane, Sterling and Jadon Sancho racked up the goals in Euro 2020 qualifying, scoring five against Kosovo and four against Bulgaria. That suggestion reflected a widely held view that England were developing from a team reliant on set-pieces to one able to overwhelm teams with their attacking prowess.
A day later, they lost 2-1 to the Czechs.
Tournaments are radically different to qualifying, but it says plenty about how quickly things can change that Sterling was the popular choice to miss out in the opening game, Kane finds himself under renewed pressure while Sancho didn’t even make the final 23 against Croatia. Momentum changes quickly, but England need a positive display with more coherence in attack; it’s not just important for securing the best possible finish in Group D, but it would also act as a signpost they are on the right path to the ultimate prize.
As Kane knows all too well, one goal can change everything.