Two games after the World Cup in 2018, Harry Kane had scored five goals and won the Man of the Match award in both games. It turned out he could have packed his bags and caught the next flight out of Russia while also winning the Golden Boot as the top scorer.
Three years later, England are celebrating their first ever victory in the opening game of a European Championship, after doing what they failed to do in Moscow by beating Croatia. But the cheer goes to everyone except the English captain.
There’s no denying that Kane was calm on Saturday. This is the point of view here and on the continent – The Gazzetta dello Sport claiming he was not at his usual level. An attempt and 26 touches – the least of all English starters – support this argument.
There was even a strange passage of play in the second half when Kane looked ready to shoot from the edge of the box for an ambitious pass instead. At this point, the sometimes referred to as selfish striker seemed to be playing a very different role.
As Jamie Carragher says, Kane wants to be Teddy Sheringham and not Alan Shearer. He has only scored twice in 10 England games.
Maybe it’s not fashionable to consider Gareth Southgate to know best, especially in the frenetic atmosphere surrounding a major tournament, when the exam is at its height. But it might be true to say that Kane understands his role on this team.
He’s a great goalscorer, of course. But he’ll also be keenly aware that it hasn’t earned him any trophies. There are enough people to remind him of that. Kane topped the Premier League goals and assists table for a Tottenham side that just finished seventh.
Even claiming this Golden Boot in Russia, he would have watched Olivier Giroud lift the World Cup in the air. The Frenchman hasn’t scored once in seven games. Didier Deschamps nevertheless described the striker’s role in the team’s triumph as crucial.
Gary Lineker recently suggested that forwards have a different mentality as they have their own goal ranking. It reveals the psyche of the best in the world in this position.
And yet there is still a hint of absurdity in all of this. When football is described as a team game, it is not a distorted management language, but a literal truth. A player’s individual score record is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The goal is to win.
Kane helped England get it done at Wembley and he didn’t even need one of his 26 touches to get there. Review the goal, the decisive moment of the match. It was the skipper’s awareness, his distance from the goal, that facilitated the rest.
Phil Foden had already gone in depth to create the space to be exploited by Kalvin Phillips. The midfielder did it brilliantly, running towards the Croatian defense. Even so, if Kane had remained in a center forward position for the pass, the opportunity would not have presented itself.
Instead, it drifted widely. Not only did this encourage Phillips to run indoors, it drew Domagoj Vida. This allowed Sterling to find himself in the area the Croatian center-back would have occupied. It was the goal England had been trying to score all afternoon.
It was a goal that would not have come if Southgate and Kane had followed the player’s advice to stay around the penalty area and wait for opportunities. Robert Lewandowski did that against Slovakia and found himself closely marked. Poland lost.
This England team has other ways of scoring goals, it’s already obvious. Kane had one shot against Croatia but the team had eight. The first came within five minutes when Sterling cut inside to give the ball to Foden. Again, Kane created the space.
His decision to leave this position is usually presented as a desire to jump into a game designer role, but that’s not what happened in either of those cases. For England’s best two chances of the game, he was moving wide, creating space for the others.
Sterling can benefit, Marcus Rashford too. There’s Jadon Sancho, scorer of 13 goals in his last 21 games for Borussia Dortmund. Large attackers are a strength for England. Southgate knows that focusing on one man would be wrong.
There will be chances for Kane. He had a one-on-one against Austria in their previous match. There will also be examples of his creativity in his possession. It was his penetrating pass that sparked the movement for Bukayo Saka’s game-winning goal at Middlesbrough.
But there will also be times when his job will be to distract defenders and drag them to where they don’t want to be. If that’s the difference between England failing and finding a way to win a tournament, it’s a sacrifice Harry Kane should be happy to make.