If there was ever going to a point where Tottenham could have turned their season around, a moment to use as a springboard, it was yesterday. They were at home, facing one team that might be in a bigger crisis than they are, Manchester United. For at least a little while, their fans sensed the same, and we’re desperate for them to go at United, if not nearly as stylishly as Liverpool did a week ago, than at least with similar ferocity. As strange as it sounds, and as completely barf as Spurs have been since August, a win would have seen them finish the day in the top four. It could have at least been a temporary, safe harbor.
And there was hope to start. United’s switch, or throw-to-the-wall, to a 3-4-1-2 formation saw Spurs pin them into a back five, which should have given their midfield all the space they needed to wreak havoc. That is, if Spurs had a midfield.
To call Spurs “insipid” would be polite. They didn’t have a shot on target all game. In the second half, which they trailed for all of but were within reach for most of, they created 0.13 expected goals. Halfway through that second half, the fans were booing and mocking their own manager. He’s been in the job just three months. The point of the afternoon was not to out-doofus United, but Spurs accomplished that with aplomb.
The loss is their fifth in seven. They’ve scored nine goals in the league, which is only better than Norwich, who don’t even really want to be in the Premier League. They’ve conceded the fifth-most goals. And these numbers aren’t lying. Their expected-goals for is third-worst in the league. Their expected-goals against is solidly middle of the pack though, so there’s something they can “celebrate.” Except it means their keeper and captain, Hugo Lloris, and his hands have turned to oatmeal.
And standing in the middle of the storm, watching his future get soaked and shrivel and disintegrate, is Harry Kane. Is he injured? He might be, as he usually is. Is he tired? Little doubt after excursions with England in the summer, a tournament which he played while not totally fit either. These are factors that can’t be waved away.
But he’s also just been bad. He has one goal and one assist, a season after he piled up 23 and 14, respectively. And again, much like the team overall, the numbers aren’t lying. While he averaged almost four shots per 90 minutes last year, that’s down to 2.3 this year. And while he’s getting a similar number of shots on target per 90 minutes, he’s seen only five percent go in, as opposed to 14 percent last season and 16 percent for his career. His expected-goals per 90 has dropped in half (all stats per FBref.com). So have his shot-creating actions per 90.
Perhaps counting on Kane-the-playmaker again was a fault in strategy. Kane’s 14 assists last year kind of came out of nowhere. He’d never had more than five in a season before, and while Spurs did adopt different tactics that saw him be a fulcrum more than the sharp end, that kind of spike was always going to be hard to repeat. Especially as Son Heung-min was never going to get an inordinate amount of shots on target as he did last season again (though he’s still been pretty good at that).
Maybe part of the problem is that manager Nuno Espírito Santo hasn’t been able to settle on a midfield behind Kane to link things. Only Pierre Højbjerg has been a constant, and he’s needed more as a destroyer than a creator, as he is with Denmark. Oliver Skipp has been closest after that to a midfield regular, and it’s not clear what he does other than pass the ball sideways and get worked defensively. There’s a distinct lack of creativity.
Then again, it’s hard to identify what Spurs do well. They don’t pressure high up the field, but they don’t also defend all that well either. They certainly don’t attack well. They’re just kind of there.
Which leads one to not be able to help asking why exactly Spurs and Kane wanted this? For the team, what were the goals here? Even with Kane and Son firing at the very top of their capabilities last season (in what looks to be unrepeatable fashion), they finished seventh. This is not a terribly young team, where fans can look forward to development. Any promising young player Spurs supporters could squint and try to see a bright future with plays fullback. That’s not really a foundation.
What would having $140 million or more in their pocket look like now? Even if they didn’t spend it in a panic in August, they would have it for careful purchases in the future. If Nuno Espírito Santo really isn’t the manager they wanted, having that kind of cash in the account would attract a fair few candidates. It is important to remember that for a team like Spurs, that isn’t owned by a country or oligarch, that Liverpool’s revival the past few seasons is heavily based on investing the money they got for Philippe Coutinho in Virgil van Dijk and Alisson, each coming it at $95+ million. If Nuno was the guy they wanted, they could have bought him far more protection from the fans and media by selling Kane and going through a season-long reset. They’ll almost certainly never see that money at their fingertips again. Chairman Daniel Levy dug his heels in on not selling Kane, to prove to himself or the fans or both that Spurs were no smaller than Manchester City. He proved it beyond doubt anyway.
As for Kane himself, it is unfair that he is being so heavily punished for not going full tantrum in trying to force a move. The way he went about it wasn’t exactly smooth, and there is something charming (barely) about him not being able to bring himself to go to war with his boyhood club. But now what? Unless he goes nuclear and soon, there won’t be a bid from City coming next summer. Will any Champions League club come calling? Maybe whichever of the Manchester clubs missed out on Erling Haaland will out of rejection and desperation. But they could also just as easily look for younger and better functioning options. Will Kane simply be stuck?
They both tried to make it work after coming so close to a separation. And now both the Spurs and Kane are worse off, and most damning, so is everyone around them.
Sometimes happiness does lie apart.