Harry Kane scored a goal against Fulham last Saturday. It wasn’t a remarkable goal. Erik Lamela did most of the work driving through Fulham’s defense before freeing Kane on the left side of the penalty box. The Spurs striker cut back onto his right foot, shaking a defender to create enough space to finish precisely across the keeper, tucking the ball inside the right post. Fairly standard Kane type stuff. What makes that goal important is that for months Kane hasn’t been doing the standard stuff that turned him into a superstar.
In March of last year Harry Kane suffered an ankle injury in a match against Bournemouth. The injury didn’t keep him out very long. He only missed two matches. But the differences between his performances before he had his ankle stepped on and after were striking. Up until the match Kane was averaging 5.75 shots per 90 minutes and 0.77 xg per 90. Those are astronomical numbers, arguably best striker in the world type numbers. After the injury, his shots per 90 dropped substantially, falling to 3.06. And his xG came down with it, dropping to 0.44. Those are still fine numbers, but they’re the numbers of a good striker, not the numbers of the one who’s at the top of world football.
Often times, of course, injuries take time to heal, and players aren’t quite at full fitness when they return to the lineup. It’s perfectly natural that Kane might take a while to get to get the fire back into his full fire breathing dragon form. But, and this is an incredible sentence to write, despite winning the Golden Boot at the World Cup, Harry Kane’s finishing still didn’t return to form this summer. His shot chart is pretty barren.
Strip out the penalties and all that’s left is three goals on 11 shots in six games, and an even less impressive xG of 1.52. There are reasons beyond just himself that Kane struggled of course. England played a sound, but ultimately unimaginative, style, and Kane spent much of his time dropping into midfield to help progress the ball while Raheem Sterling or Marcus Rashford tried to run in behind opposing defenses. With relatively little extended possession in the final third, England didn’t work effectively to create chances for Kane, even as Kane seemed unable to create them for himself.
So, Kane watch continued, and the concern grew. Football is chock full of players whose careers have been permanently slowed by injury. The obvious and recent example of course is Fernando Torres (even ignoring a slight late career renaissance with Atletico Madrid). It’s an inexact comparison because Torres’s game with Liverpool was built on top of his speed. He played in a side specifically constructed to squeeze him in behind defenses and let him outrun them. When Torres’s hamstrings decided they’d had enough, it took away the foundation of what he did so well. Kane, on the other hand, does not have a game built from speed. He gets in great goal scoring positions not by fastest to them in a sprint but by being first to them in more congested areas. That’s not to say he’s not a prodigious athlete. He is. It’s just that the interplay between entirely healthy legs and his ability to score goals is more complicated than how the speedy Torres works. It’s certainly possible that Kane’s ankle injury could permanently hamper him, but the story would have to be more complicated.
Which brings us back to Kane’s goal. The process of scoring that goal involves tons of tiny decisions, even as Lamela did most of the creating. Here’s how the shot ended up.
In order to get into that position Kane first decides to stay outside Calum Chambers as Lamela drives forward. It’s a smart and simple decision, although sometimes a striker in that position will make a run from out to in, trying to split the two defenders and either receive a pass or drag the defenders with him and create space for the ball carrier. Kane holds his position and Lamela plays him in.
Chambers is in a relatively strong defensive position when Kane gets the ball, and again the Spurs striker has multiple options. The simplest thing to do would be to let the ball run to his weaker left foot, and rather than try and confront the defender, simply blast the ball on net from a tighter angle. Kane declines that option, and instead opts to do something harder. He takes a touch to cut the ball back to his right. There’s a cost benefit analysis there. On the one hand it gives Chambers a chance to make a play, sacrificing a sure shot on goal. On the other, successfully shifting the ball back to his right opens up the goal and creates a better scoring opportunity. To put it nerdily, Kane’s decision decreased the chances of getting a shot but increased the xG of the shot he’d ultimately end up taking. The theoretically correct decision depends on whether the increase in xG makes up for the times that he’s dispossessed, you could make an equation out of it and everything.
Part of Kane’s skill as a striker is that he’s excellent at making those decisions instinctively. There are a million little moments in a game that players have to confront, and strikers and defenders alike are constantly evaluating those moments and making choices, taking into account factors that most of us mere mortals can’t even dream of. And the margins are tiny. If Kane’s assessment is wrong, and Chambers had just a split second more time to react than Kane expected, then the defender would have disrupted the play, Kane wouldn’t have gotten the shot off, and we’d still be worrying about his performance. As it was, he walks away from the game with four shots, and a goal, and everything seems fine.
The challenge of analyzing these specific tiny moments is just how many different things are at play. Imagine a world where Kane cuts back and Chambers sticks his foot in and disrupts the play. One possible reason for that is that Kane’s ankle is still not quite right, and the Spurs star is making decisions based on the way his body used to react, as opposed to how it’s reacting now. That’s scary. That way lies Torres. But, there are plenty of other things that can go wrong as well. Maybe the ball took a tiny unexpected bobble, maybe Chambers is simply slightly better than Kane anticipated, or the turf is slightly looser, or maybe the Spurs forward just got his calculations wrong. Life is complex. And, to further complicate things, even an unhealthy Kane will execute that move successfully some percentage of the time.
That’s why we use aggregates. Looking at any one decision and definitively attributing it to lingering ankle woes for Kane (or anything else) is likely a fool’s errand. But, looking at the results of lots of decisions he made before he was hurt, and lots of decisions that he made after the incident, and seeing that on average the outcomes are worse, that’s powerful. We know that Kane’s results were worse after his injury. Were still waiting for them to bounce back.
Last weekend Kane played well. He had a goal and four shots. That’s the kind of performance you’d expect from a healthy star forward against relatively weak opposition. A close examination of the goal shows just how fine those margins can be though. The trick is to both recognize the match for what it was, a good sign that Kane might be back to his usual self, while not discounting that if Chambers was just a fraction of a second quicker, Kane’s results would look a whole lot different. Overall, a healthy Kane will get those decisions right over the course of time. It’s encouraging that the did so last weekend. Now the question is, will he continue to?