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With eight minutes of Sunday’s London derby left to play, Tottenham Hotspur was in a fantastic position. A first-half blitz had seen them storm into a 3-0 lead in the first quarter of an hour against West Ham United, and no further goals had been scored since then. Spurs, it seemed, were on their way to a second victory in a row in the Premier League.
Then, as Jose Mourinho put it afterward, “football happened”. West Ham came into this game in fine form themselves and showed tremendous belief in the closing stages as they mounted the unlikeliest of comebacks. Fabian Balbuena’s well-timed header made it 3-1 in the 82nd minute before a Davinson Sanchez’s own goal sent anxiety flooding through the heads of the Tottenham players. The hosts looked to have ridden out the storm, only for Manuel Lanzini to execute a stunning strike in the final few seconds to rescue a point for West Ham.
None of this is what we expected from Mourinho at Tottenham. In their final outing before the international break, Spurs smashed Manchester United 6-1 at Old Trafford. In the game prior to that, they struck five times against Southampton. Mourinho is often criticized for his caution, but Tottenham has scored more goals (15) than any other team in the Premier League so far this season. And, unusually for a Mourinho-coached team, they have also looked shaky defensively, conceding eight goals in their five matches to date and failing to keep a clean sheet in any of them.
Mourinho told reporters in his post-match press conference:
It was exactly when we were in control that we conceded the first goal and their belief went up. My guys were not strong enough to cope with it psychologically and in the last few seconds we lost two points.
The Spurs boss added that he would have to analyze the second-half display internally, but there was plenty for him to be pleased with in the opening 45 minutes – not least another terrific performance from Harry Kane in his new role as a creator as well as a converter of chances.
Kane has always been more than a fox in the box. In his six full seasons as a regular first-teamer at Tottenham, the England captain has scored 183 goals in all competitions – an average of more than 30 per campaign.
Yet he has never been the type of striker to just wait around in the penalty area for the ball to be played to him. Kane is an all-around center-forward. He often played as a second striker during his time in the Spurs academy, and it is notable that he favors the No.10 shirt to the No.9. Kane, of course, is a goal-getter first and foremost, but throughout his career, to date, he has excelled at holding the ball up and bringing team-mates into play too.
Something has clearly changed at the start of this season, though. Kane already has seven assists to his name in 2020/21, the latest being a wonderful long pass to lay on Son Heung-min’s opener against West Ham. This campaign is only five games old, yet Kane has already matched his highest assists tally for a Premier League season from 2016/17. Last term he provided just two assists in 29 top-flight appearances.
Kane is also playing more passes. It is still early days, of course, and we must bear in mind that the five-game sample size is not the biggest. Nevertheless, Kane is averaging 23.2 passes per game so far this season, compared to 19.07 last time out. Whereas in 2019/20 he created four big chances, Kane has fashioned seven such opportunities already in 2020/21.
The 27-year-old has embraced his new role. In the build-up to Tottenham’s first two goals on Sunday – the second of which was scored by Kane himself – the striker was not the most advanced player in the Spurs side. Instead, he had dropped deep, taking up dangerous positions between West Ham’s midfield and defense. He continually did similar against Southampton, pulling short and then delivering magnificent passes to runners in behind, with Son his most common target. With Gareth Bale likely to come into the starting XI sooner rather than later, Kane will have another speedy, direct forward to supply.
Kane would not be content with his altered role if it denied him goalscoring opportunities, but he is still getting plenty of those. A brace on Sunday took his tally to the season to five, while he is averaging five shots per game – a marked increase on last term’s 2.79. Again, that figure may well come down as more games are played and the sample size grows larger, but Kane has hitherto been able to create chances without that impacting upon his goalscoring output.
Mid-game talk of Tottenham potentially challenging for the Premier League title prompted much mirth from fans of rival clubs after West Ham’s extraordinary comeback. But there is reason to believe a relative outsider could triumph in England this term, particularly following the news that Liverpool center-back Virgil van Dijk will miss the majority of the season after suffering a knee ligament injury at the weekend. Spurs are now up to third-favorites according to DraftKings Sportsbook, who offer +1100 on Mourinho’s side finishing on top of the pile, putting them ahead of Chelsea and Everton on +1800, and Arsenal and Manchester United on +2500.
Mourinho, a winner of three Premier League titles with Chelsea, will know better than anyone that his team will need to tighten up defensively if they are to mount a sustained challenge. But those who predicted dull, stale soccer from Spurs under Mourinho have been confronted with some compelling evidence to the contrary in the opening weeks of the season. With Kane dropping deep and Son and Bale running in behind, Tottenham’s attack has the potential to do plenty of damage to opponents this term.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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