Is Harry Kane in danger of becoming England’s Cristiano Ronaldo?

We need to talk about Harry Kane.

England are in the semi-finals of another major tournament. But their captain, leader, talisman, front man and greatest ever goalscorer looks about as mobile as an arthritic scarecrow.

OK. That’s harsh. He’s scored two goals in their five games at the European Championship so far, the service into him has generally ranged from mediocre to non-existent and it looks like he is struggling for fitness. But there are clearly questions to be asked here.

Questions like: just how fit is he? What is he currently bringing to the team? And is he now England’s Cristiano Ronaldo?

In previous years, that last question would have been a gushing compliment, but in 2024 it verges on criticism — a suggestion that Kane is being kept in the team based on reputation alone and that his manager lacks the courage to make a difficult decision. But could that really be true?

The fitness question feels like the most pertinent, given that a fit and in-form Kane is undoubtedly one of the best strikers in the world.

Well, he has been fit enough to start all of England’s matches at the Euros, playing 464 minutes, completing two matches and being subbed off in three (in the 70th minute against Denmark in the middle group game, the 105th versus Slovakia in the round of 16 and the 109th against Switzerland in Saturday’s quarter-final).

He came into the tournament carrying a back injury sustained towards the end of the club season with Bayern Munich, which then head coach Thomas Tuchel called a “complete blockade”, foreshadowing an accurate description of England’s current attack. “It’s got worse and bothers him in everyday movements,” Tuchel said in May.

Kane received treatment from his personal medical team in a bid to get fit for the tournament and, while he has started all five matches, the eye test suggests he is performing at far from his free-flowing best, which is when he can seamlessly and gracefully be a team’s creator and finisher, within split seconds. He looks incapable of that right now.

Harry Kane, England

Harry Kane has not produced his best form at Euro 2024 (Stefan Matzke – sampics/Getty Images)

In an England shirt this summer, his movement is uncomfortable, clunky and stunted (for an attempted volley in the final group match against Slovenia, his body shape looked almost contorted), his link-play is weaker as a result and he is lacking the vigour and zip to beat defenders to forward balls and crosses into the box.

England head coach Gareth Southgate appeared to attempt to engineer an injury to Kane so he would have an excuse to drop him when the pair collided late on in the Switzerland game (this is a joke, don’t call me rude names in the comments) which caused Kane to suffer with cramp, but although he was substituted soon after, he says he’ll be fit for Wednesday’s semi-final against the Netherlands.

“I’m fine. I was just tired,” said Kane, who turns 31 later this month. “I had a bit of cramp there. I tripped over the water bottles and got cramp in both calves. The boss made a quick decision obviously, with Ivan (Toney, who came on for him) a proven penalty-taker. He came on and did the job.”

For Portugal, 39-year-old Ronaldo proved undroppable and near-unsubbable in this tournament (he was replaced after 66 minutes against Georgia, though as his team were already through to the knockout phase before that final group match and did make eight other changes, it could be questioned why he played at all) as they went out at the same last-eight stage to France, also on penalties.



England’s change of shape against Switzerland worked – to a point – thanks to Bukayo Saka

Kane, while not possessing Ronaldo’s ego, has a similar status for England — one burnished by his 44 goals in 45 appearances for new club Bayern last season (while Ronaldo was playing in the Saudi Pro League, of course). But Southgate has, given time, proved more than capable of making bold decisions, such as dropping Marcus Rashford, Mason Mount, Jack Grealish and two of his former staunch favourites in Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson.

Leaving Kane out of the starting team on Wednesday would be a bombshell to trump all of the above combined.

It almost certainly won’t happen. But should it?

What was striking against Switzerland was just how little Kane got involved in England’s build-up play.

Yes, he would stretch the Swiss back line and yes, he would come deep to receive the ball, but as this connection graphic reflecting England’s passing moves shows, Kane (you can find him near the centre circle) was very much the odd man out:

It is not too uncommon for a team’s central striker not to have strong connections when it comes to these graphics, but it is telling how little involvement Kane had against Switzerland.

In that way, he was similar to Ronaldo, who was equally anonymous for Portugal in their quarter-final on Friday:

It is nothing new for Kane to drop deep — he’s been doing it for years, and to great effect — but his low number of touches in the opposition third against Switzerland are another indicator of his lack of sharpness:

Sometimes, he clearly goes too deep, even into full-back areas, and can get in the way at times when England would surely be better served with more of a fixed focal point up front, especially if Kane’s current fitness levels aren’t anywhere near as high as usual.

There’s certainly an argument to say that staying up on the last line of the opposition defence is more helpful to pin their centre-backs and make space between the lines for team-mates such as Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka to exploit — like in this example against Denmark, where Foden and Bellingham can slip in-behind their midfield.

But if that is to be Kane’s primary function, there are other, fitter, fresher players in the squad who can do it, and do so while offering England more in terms of being able to press or run in behind.

“He’s not going to drop Harry Kane,” former England international turned leading UK pundit Gary Neville said of Southgate on Sky Sports following the Swiss game. “He’s one of his leaders, one of the greatest England football players we’ve ever had. There’s no doubt he’s not been at his absolute best at this tournament but neither has the team. The service in to him isn’t great.



Buddy system, Pickford bottle, crucial pauses: England penalties vs Switzerland analysed

“(Kane should) Stay high, in between those two centre-backs and then drop in a little bit to try and draw those centre-backs in, to allow the runs to go back in behind.

“He doesn’t look himself. He doesn’t look as sharp when the ball’s played in to him, in and around the box. He doesn’t seem to be able to get his touch and his shot off like he ordinarily would do, but he isn’t going to be dropped unless he’s injured.”

With Toney making a positive impact from the bench in both knockout games and Ollie Watkins able to offer different traits to both Kane and Toney in terms of pace, pressing and runs in behind, there is an argument to be made, a debate to be had.

It’s probably a redundant one, given Kane’s status, his relationship with Southgate (he is believed to have the England manager’s ear, and vice versa), his experience, temperament and obvious goalscoring ability, 100 per fitness or not.

Tournaments have been won by teams with ineffective strikers before.

Portugal played with Ronaldo and Nani as split strikers in their defence-minded Euro 2016 triumph, France had a non-scoring Olivier Giroud as their striker when they won the 2018 World Cup (he didn’t even register a shot on target despite playing in all seven games and starting six of them), and had done exactly the same with lone, goalless striker Stephane Guivarc’h when winning the same competition 20 years earlier.

The difference was all those players were fit, and their contribution was sizeable to teams that were, in France’s case at least, still scoring goals.

But England are edging through their games in Germany unconvincingly, and for long periods in them just don’t look like scoring. They’re not generating momentum, their expected goal numbers tallies are low and they are relying on moments, like Bellingham’s overhead kick and Saka’s perfect shot — equalisers, against Slovakia and Switzerland respectively, which came in the 95th and 80th minutes respectively and were England’s first efforts on target in the match.

If these sentences don’t read like a recipe to win a tournament, well, they probably aren’t.

England have made the last four but to lift the trophy next Sunday in Berlin they surely need Kane at somewhere approaching his best; if he isn’t capable of that, it may be sacrilege to say it, but they would probably be better off with someone else up front, especially if the striker’s primary role is to occupy defenders.



England are not convincing, but who cares? It’s time to just enjoy the ride

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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