Harry Kane question answers itself as England role comes under focus again

Harry Kane question answers itself as England role comes under focus again

England need a No9. Not a nine-and-a-half. Not a nine and 10 all rolled into one, but an old-fashioned No9 to prowl the penalty box and snaffle up chances, as limited as they are in international football.”

So began a column in these pages on June 14, 2021 — at exactly the same stage of the last European Championship — about Harry Kane’s best position following a subdued display from the England captain in their opening group game, a 1-0 win over Croatia.

Kane was then a Tottenham player and coming off the back of a remarkable 2020-21 season in which he finished with the most goals and assists in the Premier League. He had proven the ultimate hybrid forward, a goalscoring No9 and a creative 10 in one.

Even so, the view — expressed by a colleague — that Kane should forget the play-making bit and stick to being a traditional target man for the national team was fairly pervasive at the time, amid a sense that his habit of dropping deep was stifling England’s build-up play.

Kane and Gareth Southgate, the England manager, always insisted he could play both roles but, fast forward three years, and that may be changing at Euro 2024.

Kane was visibly more an out-and-out No9 than usual in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Serbia, remarkably finishing the first half with just two touches.

He was more involved after the break, but largely as an outlet for an England side under pressure, though he was denied a goal by a spectacular save from Serbian goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic.

Harry Kane was particularly quiet in the first half against Serbia (AFP via Getty Images)
Harry Kane was particularly quiet in the first half against Serbia (AFP via Getty Images)

On the one occasion at the start of the second half when Kane did drop into a pocket and looked to arrow a trademark diagonal into the path of Bukayo Saka, his pass struck the referee. Had England gone on to score, it might have been a significant moment in shaping the narrative around Kane’s role in the team.

Afterwards, Kane insisted his position would vary depending on the opponent, saying: “Sometimes you will see me drop in and sometimes see me play higher up.”

We are, though, obviously entering the age of Jude Bellingham, an era which will long outlast Southgate and Kane when the England team will be built around the young but already talismanic Real Madrid midfielder.

To ensure Bellingham, who Southgate is using as an all-action No10, is at his best, others may have to make sacrifices, even England’s captain and record-goalscorer and the Premier League player of the year Phil Foden, who was subdued from the left against Serbia.

“There’s not space in that front line for everybody to be on the ball at every moment,” acknowledged Southgate, who said that England would need “a different match-winner” every game if they are to be crowned European champions.

The problem for Southgate is that Kane is not Erling Haaland, namely a natural poacher who is happy to sit out the build-up and operate within the width of the penalty box. It is a myth that Kane has gradually developed into a forward who drops deep; it has always been his game, as far back as his youth days, when he played in midfield.

Consider Kane’s first appearance of his breakthrough 2014-15 season for Spurs, when he picked up the ball in a pocket midway inside West Ham’s half and slid through the perfect pass for Eric Dier to score a last-minute winner.

Asking Kane to play as a high No9 and nothing more is to ask him to sacrifice his natural game, akin to telling England’s Test cricket captain Ben Stokes, a brilliant all-rounder, to stop bowling. Stokes would certainly do it for the good of his country, but the team would lose a key element of a world-class package.

Perhaps Kane is right and he will be more free to get involved in the build up on future occasions at the finals, starting against Denmark on Thursday.

Or perhaps England are simply so stacked with creative players, they genuinely do not need the skipper’s creative qualities to go all the way in Germany.

It seems unlikely, however, that England’s best route to glory this summer is by shackling a player as brilliant as Kane, and increasingly the biggest challenge for Southgate is to find a way to maximise the generational talent of his play-making forwards.