Football is never “an easy game” and Harry Kane should have known better.
Football is a game that takes even the most level-headed through the emotional wringer and Harry Kane can be forgiven.
Take your pick, but it was not so much tempting fate as giving fate a firm kick in the nethers when Kane suggested he was on easy street on this very same weekend last year.
Of course, fate was bound to kick back, but what a vengeance it has taken.
Spurs sat giddily on top of the Premier League after a 2-0 north London derby win over Arsenal on December 6, 2020. It was their first game back in front of fans, albeit just 2,000 of them, at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium since the pandemic struck in March.
Talk was of a sustained title tilt, Jose Mourinho had a glint back in his eye and seemed to have his magic touch back, and the Harry Kane and Son Heung-min combination was poised to break all records.
“They are working like animals, with all due respect to animals, I love animals,” Mourinho said of his front two.
A year on, so much has changed.
What happened that day
The basics are these: Kane created a glorious 13th-minute opener with a pass through for Son, the finish a delight. England captain Kane netted a similarly impressive second on the stroke of half-time following a pass from Son. Arsenal had almost 70 per cent of possession but could not make it count.
Kane became the all-time leading scorer in derbies between the teams, with his 11th goal against Arsenal taking him past Emmanuel Adebayor and Bobby Smith in the history of the rivalry. The goal was the 250th of his career at club and international level, with 202 of those having come for Spurs, 32 for England, nine for Millwall, five for Leyton Orient and two for Leicester City.
Spurs could celebrate having won consecutive derbies against Arsenal for just the third time in the Premier League, after a 1992-93 season double and wins in April and November of 2010.
They were on a high, and the fanfare was loudest about the Kane and Son combination.
Their spectacular start to the 2020-21 season had seen them register an astonishing 11 direct combinations for goals – where one of the pairing has the assist and the other scores – in the opening 11 games of the season. That took them to 31 goal combinations in total during their time together at Spurs, just five short of the Premier League era record, held by Chelsea greats Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard. They had overtaken Arsenal’s Thierry Henry and Robert Pires (29), Manchester City’s David Silva and Sergio Aguero (29) and Tottenham’s own Teddy Sheringham and Darren Anderton (27).
Kane’s assist was his 10th of the season, and no player has ever reached double figures for Premier League assists in fewer games from the start of a Premier League season. The only player to match Kane in that regard has been Mesut Ozil for Arsenal in the 2015-16 season.
These were dizzying heights and Kane, speaking on Sky Sports, said of his Son alliance: “When I’m passing him through and he’s cutting inside and whipping them into the top bins it is an easy game for me.”
What could possibly go wrong?
Between them, Kane and Son were making Mourinho’s job look easy. A haul of 24 points from 11 games meant Spurs led Liverpool on goal difference. They had taken seven points from their previous three games: against Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal.
In January, the deadly double act reached 13 direct combinations for the season when Kane crossed for Son to put Spurs 2-0 up during a 3-0 win against Leeds, and that matched a Premier League record set by Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton in Blackburn Rovers’ 1994-95 title-winning campaign.
The record fell outright in March when Son crossed for Kane to put the seal on a 4-1 home win over Crystal Palace.
Since then? Just two more direct combinations for goals have been recorded by the pair. The once red-hot connection between Kane and Son has gone cold.
Mourinho was sacked in April and Tottenham plodded in seventh, the rot having set in with a grim toll of seven defeats in the 13 league games that followed the victory over Arsenal.
They spluttered through the opening stages of the 2021-22 campaign too, with Mourinho’s supposedly permanent successor Nuno Espirito Santo shown the door after only 17 games and four months at the helm. A 3-1 defeat to Arsenal hardly helped his cause.
It has taken the appointment of Antonio Conte, on a reported £20million-a-year deal, to right the good ship Spurs, with back-to-back wins over Leeds United and Brentford lifting the team to sixth going into the weekend, surprisingly within touching distance of West Ham in fourth.
So what now? Can Conte revive former glories?
Kane and Son are edging closer to that Lampard and Drogba record, but their progress towards the target has been more sloth-like than swashbuckling.
They have 35 direct goal combinations now (Son to Kane 18 times, Kane to Son 17 times), and there remain flickers of life in that partnership.
It was Kane’s probing forward pass that freed up a sprinting Sergio Reguilon to centre for Son to slot Spurs’ second goal in the 2-0 win over Brentford on Thursday. That was Son’s 75th Premier League goal.
Since the table-topping delirium after the Arsenal game last season, Son has managed 12 goals and eight assists in 38 Premier League games, while Kane has 16 goals and five assists in 36 appearances in the top flight.
These are modest totals by their standards, given that in Son’s previous 38 Premier League games, up to and including that December 2020 derby, he managed 19 goals and 13 assists, while Kane’s previous 36 league matches saw him grab 23 goals and 12 assists.
Son is outperforming his expected goals (xG) in the Premier League this season, scoring five goals from an xG score of 3.8, which is a good sign, but Kane’s solitary strike from an xG of 3.1 must worry those with affections towards Spurs.
Kane unable? That’s not what the numbers say
Kane has had an enigmatic 2021 by any standards, with doubts cast over his long-term commitment to Tottenham at one point as he looked eager to join Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. He has more recently stressed how “excited” he is about the chance to work under Conte, a proven winner as a manager.
With England, the goals have certainly flowed for Kane this year, a team-record 16 taking him to 48 in his international career, the same number as Gary Lineker achieved.
This season alone he has scored 10 in World Cup qualifiers for England, while with Spurs in 2021-22 he has hit six goals in the Conference League, including qualifying games for that third-tier UEFA competition, one in the EFL Cup and only one in the Premier League, against bottom-of-the-table Newcastle United.
Conte said in the wake of the win over Brentford: “I’m very pleased with the way that he’s playing. I know the striker wants to score but we want to give him many chances to score. I think we’re on the right path to do this type of situation.”
Across the whole of 2021, taking all competitions and commitments into account, Kane has scored 41 goals at one every 123 minutes, which shows that he still knows the way to goal, even if there is unusually no sign of him on this campaign’s Premier League top scorers’ list.
Spurs’ Italian boss may be capable of digging into the root cause of Kane’s slump at club level, but it may take forensic examination and soul-searching to reach the eureka moment.
Or perhaps it will take a home game against lowly Norwich City. That is next on the agenda for Tottenham, this Sunday, and Kane has scored five goals in three Premier League games against Norwich, netting a penalty in all three matches.
No player in Premier League history has scored a penalty in four consecutive appearances against a specific opponent before. A penalty might be considered a cheap way for Kane to get back to scoring ways with his club, but Conte is looking for upticks in whatever form they might come.
It has been a rough old year for the Kane-Son combination, a long time since the “easy game” remark.
Perhaps the pressure of the Lampard and Drogba record is weighing heavily. Or just maybe it is high time they took it upon themselves to smash through the glass ceiling and consign the narrative of these last 12 months to history.