Harry Kane and the benefits of occasionally standing still | Barney Ronay

Watching Spurs and Harry Kane against Monaco this week it was hard not to think about the chalk spot employed by Pep Guardiola for Raheem Sterling

Football managers often like to make an entrance, to impose their own eviscerating personality from the start. Brian Clough kicked things off at Leeds United by telling the players to throw their medals in the bin because they were cheats. Bill Norman, moustache-twirling managerial hard-man of the 1920s, announced himself to his Hartlepool squad by stripping naked and rolling around in the snow in front of them after sensing a reluctance to follow him outside on a bitterly cold day.

More recently José Mourinho seems to have decided the best approach at Manchester United is to spend his first few weeks standing on the touchline looking crumpled and sad and heroically betrayed, like a man on the hard shoulder of the M6 staring balefully across the nearside lines above his raised bonnet, rain gluing his shirt to his back, phone dead, credit card maxed out, kids living in Bicester, golf clubs repossessed, 800 units of polyester carpet samples scattered across the back seat.

Things have gone a little better for Pep Guardiola, whose early days at Manchester City have been marked by a sense of adventure, players refreshed by new movements, new spaces, new patterns. Much has been made of Guardiola’s positive effect on Raheem Sterling, although here one detail in particular stands out. The journalist Guillem Balague revealed this week that Guardiola has taken to painting a chalk spot on the training pitch to mark where he wants Sterling to stand during matches, so pronounced is Sterling’s urge to skitter inside, forgetting Guardiola’s orders to stay wide, to create space by not moving, stretching out the furthest point of the parallelogram.

Stop. Wait. Do nothing. Watching Harry Kane at Wembley this week as Tottenham Hotspur lost against a coiled and canny Monaco, it was hard not to think about Sterling’s chalk spot; and above all the benefits of occasionally standing still.

Mauricio Pochettino was disappointed by his team’s lack of passion, the yards not covered, football played with insufficient anger and drive. This has been Pochettino’s own defining quality from the start at Spurs, the insistence his team run more and hustle more, a conjoined momentum that has driven some genuinely thrilling, bruising performances.

This restlessness has also been key to the making of Kane, who, under Pochettino, has become Spurs’ own irresistible bustling goal-terminator, able to fight and cover and harry as well as he finishes and passes and links. And who now looks if not exactly tired, then like a player who really could do with simply taking a breath, spreading himself a little more thickly, concentrating not just on the big booming notes but the silences in between.

What’s eating Harry Kane? Gary Lineker expressed some concern Kane might be working himself to a state of exhaustion. He did look skittish and tetchy at Wembley, a man always trying to escape from traffic. The familiar autumn scoring-famine has returned, the goal against Stoke City last Saturday his first since May. Last season Kane scored once in 13 games from August into October but still won the golden boot. From 2011 through to 2013 he managed a grand total of one goal before Christmas, a player who tends to summer poorly and get into his stride only as the winter slog kicks into gear.

Judging Kane on his scoring stats will only ever offer part of the picture given his all-round role as Pochettino’s forward-conductor, advanced destroyer and general master of hustle and link. The is the lot of the modern centre-forward, who never sleeps or drifts out of the game or pops up here and there with a goal, but who must instead knit his way into the play like an advanced midfielder. Even when Kane doesn’t score he doesn’t score in exhausting fashion. His current run of one goal in nine games has come via 26 shots (13 with his right foot, seven with his left, six with his head), plus a running total of 39 aerial challenges, 165 passes and close to 12km of hard, full-throttle running per game.

For an essentially unflashy footballer he remains an oddly compelling sight throughout all this, not obviously quick but mobile and relentless, not tricky but precise on the ball, and with a pummelling shot from a low backlift. He is also very dear and likeable, a man slightly out of his time, resembling as he stands to attention in the pre-match lineup the ghost of a kindly Victorian chimney sweep. Albeit with something steely and slightly frightening.

It is a restless, very modern take on being a centre-forward, a digital age footballer for whom nothing ever stops, energy is always being expended, where in some space somewhere Harry Kane is always closing down a full-back, arcing his run, showing for the ball, pointing to the space, unstoppably the same.

‘The journalist Guillem Balague revealed this week that Guardiola has taken to painting a chalk spot on the training pitch to mark where he wants Sterling to stand during matches, so pronounced is Sterling’s urge to skitter inside.’
‘The journalist Guillem Balague revealed this week that Guardiola has taken to painting a chalk spot on the training pitch to mark where he wants Sterling to stand during matches, so pronounced is Sterling’s urge to skitter inside.’ Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

In a way Kane under Pochettino is a kind of grand folly, a dream of completeness, a man asked to play the perfect match every time with no elements left out, no aspect of ultimate player functionality neglected. At times he has perhaps been too good for his own good, providing a glimpse of tantalising completeness, of peak Harry, big-daddy Kane: the New Year’s Day 2015 thrashing of Chelsea when he basically walked Gary Cahill around the pitch in a headlock, ruffling his hair and tweaking his nose, or the perfectly hustled and executed goal in the draw against Arsenal at White Hart Lane in March.

Don’t stop, Harry. Don’t stay on your chalky spot. You can have it all. Except he can’t, not always, not forever. This is not to criticise Pochettino’s methods. At Spurs and Southampton he has been a wonderfully inspiring coach, who has really brought his players on and been conscious of introducing a little variety into Kane’s game this season, playing him as a No10 for a while and introducing the sparky Vincent Janssen to share the load.

But the fact is Pochettino does like to play with a fixed set of gears, throttle always jammed into the red. He came through at Newell’s Old Boys under the wonderful Marcelo Bielsa, a coach who once declared “running is everything”, and who has always exhausted his players, producing sublime, short-lived passages of Total Motion Football, players component parts in some grand, restless tableau of refined gymnastic movement.

Relentless energy has been Pochettino’s own motif at Spurs right from the start. It has been the making of Kane too, a style and tempo that brings the most from his physical and technical talents. Perhaps with a little depth, a dropping of the throttle now and then, some cold clear water in the mix, it won’t be the breaking of him too.


Barney Ronay

The GuardianTramp

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