Tottenham: Can Spurs really thrive without Harry Kane?
Tottenham’s 1-0 victory over Manchester City on Tuesday night in the first leg of their Champions League Quarter-Final tie might not have been monumental – City are certainly capable of turning the deficit over in the return leg at the Etihad next week – but it certainly felt that way. The second game in Spurs’ new stadium could hardly have gone any better for Mauricio Pochettino’s side.
There’s an argument to be made, in fact, that the result was the best one achieved by Tottenham in Europe since Pochettino took over in 2014. Sure, his side defeated Real Madrid last season, but that was a group stage game, under far less pressure than Tuesday night’s win.
Unfortunately though, not everything went to plan for Spurs. The old saying is that every cloud has a silver lining, but in this case, it was more like every silver lining has a cloud. Star striker Harry Kane – who has scored 17 Premier League goals and 5 goals in Europe this season – was involved in an unfortunate clash with City’s Fabian Delph, a clash which ended with him limping off the field with an apparently bad injury to his left ankle.
Even a victory as brilliant as Tuesday’s was slightly overshadowed by the England captain’s injury. Kane has already spent 6 weeks on the shelf with an ankle injury this season, missing numerous games, and after leaving the stadium on crutches and wearing a protective boot on Tuesday, it’s already being suggested that he could be out of action for the rest of the domestic season – and could even miss England’s games in the finals of the UEFA Nations League in June.
Tottenham are already likely to be without the injured Serge Aurier, Eric Dier and Erik Lamela for at least the next few weeks, but to lose their star player is another thing entirely. It’d be unfair to suggest that Pochettino’s side are a one-man team – as Pep Guardiola infamously did when he labelled Spurs “the Harry Kane team” in October 2017 – but can they really survive the 2018/19 run-in without him?
Things might actually be more promising than they initially make out. Despite a lot of worries, Spurs were fine without Kane during his six-week absence earlier this year from January to February. Kane injured his ankle in Tottenham’s loss to Manchester United, but without him, if anything, they thrived. Fulham, Watford, Newcastle and Leicester were all beaten in Premier League action, while Pochettino’s side produced a masterclass to destroy Borussia Dortmund 3-0 in the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie.
Sure, Tottenham were eliminated from both domestic cups during this period – slumping to a 2-0 defeat to Crystal Palace in the FA Cup and losing to Chelsea in the semi-finals of the EFL Cup following a penalty shoot-out, and admittedly, their Premier League wins relied heavily on late goals. But a win is a win, and it was only when Kane returned, surprisingly enough, that Spurs’ form dipped; they were beaten by Burnley, Chelsea, Southampton and Liverpool and were lucky to escape with a point against Arsenal.
But can you blame that dip on Kane? Of course not; the striker did look rusty against Burnley and Chelsea but quickly looked back to his best when he scored the winner in the return leg in the Champions League against Dortmund, and in those games, he actually scored 4 goals. If anything, the rest of the team were more responsible for the dip. But judging on their last two games, that dip has now ended.
One thing that was notable during Kane’s last absence was the way in which other players stepped up to the forefront in his absence. Heung-Min Son was fantastic, playing in a more central role, and it was the South Korean who scored the key goals and pulled the strings in Tottenham’s wins during that time. And of course, it was Son who popped up to score the winner against Manchester City last week.
But Son wasn’t the only outstanding performer; Fernando Llorente came under much criticism for essentially not being Kane – the Spaniard simply doesn’t offer the same overall game as the England striker – but he still scored the winner against Watford and also found the back of the net in that 3-0 win over Dortmund. And others stepped up too – rare goals from Davinson Sanchez and Harry Winks also made a huge contribution to ensuring Spurs picked up maximum league points without Kane.
Statisticians would try to claim, in fact, that Pochettino’s side are better off without Kane. With him this season they’ve won 24 of their 39 games – a win percentage of 61.5% - while without him they won 6 of 9, a win percentage of 66.7%. And their average goals scored per game – 1.9 – was the same during both periods. But of course, stats only tell half of the story and only a blind man would claim Spurs are more dangerous without Kane.
In 2017/18, for instance, Kane scored a total of 30 Premier League goals in just 37 games; Tottenham scored 74 overall, meaning Kane was responsible for 40% of all of their league goals. In 2016/17 that was 33%, and in 2015/16 it was 36%. That’s a pretty hefty percentage of Spurs’ goals – and Kane is no flat track bully either, as his goals have always come against any level of opposition.
But forgetting being more dangerous for a second; can Tottenham actually survive without him and still reach their goal of a Champions League spot this season? I’d say almost definitely. Right now Spurs are 4th on 64 points, one ahead of Arsenal and 3 ahead of Manchester United. They’re 2 behind Chelsea, but then Chelsea have played one more game than Pochettino’s men.
More to the point, their remaining fixtures – home games against relegated Huddersfield, Brighton, West Ham and Everton, and away matches against Manchester City and Bournemouth – all sound winnable with the exception of that match at the Etihad. If Spurs take 15 points – or even 12 or 13 points – then I’d wager that a Champions League spot for 2019/20 will be theirs.
The Champions League is another matter, but then Spurs were never supposed to win that trophy this season; get past Manchester City and they’ve already made history, and if they end up losing in that second leg at the Etihad, they’ll always have Tuesday night, and they were up against the favourites for the competition anyway.
Essentially, while Kane’s injury has come at what should be a horrific time on paper, in reality, it may be just the catalyst to drive Tottenham’s other players on even harder. They already have one foot in the Champions League semi-finals – history in itself – and at least 5 winnable league games left to secure their Champions League ticket for next season.
Tottenham will certainly miss their best player – any team would mourn the loss of a striker as good as Kane – but if the doubters are really expecting this to mark the end of Spurs’ season, they should perhaps think again. Pochettino’s team are made of sterner stuff than to simply collapse in the face of this injury – and to see Kane return to take place in the Champions League final might not be as impossible as some might think.