Ken Early: Harry Kane's focus has to be collective and not individual
Liverpool and Spurs are both teams that don't rely on superstars and Kane must realise that
Harry Kane reacts to a missed chance during Tottenham's Premier League loss to Liverpool at Wembley. Photo: Getty Images
Seldom can a manager whose side are leading 2-0 have looked as furious as Jurgen Klopp did in the last few minutes against Spurs at Wembley on Saturday afternoon.
Klopp was enraged by the sight of his players wasting chances with greedy shots while ignoring better-placed team mates.
“Pass the ball!” he screamed after Mohamed Salah had ignored the unmarked Daniel Sturridge on one late opportunity. His players weren’t listening. Moments later Sadio Mane produced an even sillier shot, blasting over with his weaker left foot from 25 yards rather than passing to Gini Wijnaldum, who was clear through on goal.
Klopp has managed Liverpool long enough to know that a 2-0 lead with a few minutes to go is not as secure a lead as his players seemed to think it was. His fears were well-founded. First Erik Lamela scored, then in the last minute Mane fouled Son in the box as the Korean prepared to shoot; luckily for him the referee missed it.
Liverpool had dominated the match, with an astonishing 10 shots on target, and one shudders to imagine the post-match scenes in their dressing room if they had contrived to throw it away at the end.
In his interviews afterwards Klopp only had praise for his players. He knows there’s no need to publicly berate them when social media does such a thorough job of letting them know about their shortcomings.
Mane put a standard celebratory post on Instagram, but quickly deleted it when his account was deluged with abuse from Salah fans demanding to know why he refused to pass to their man.
In private Klopp will have made his point. One suspects that if Mane or Salah find themselves in these sorts of situations against PSG on Tuesday night, you will see them passing the ball rather than shooting from unpromising angles.
Few managers guard more carefully against the signs of egotism. Last season, as Salah scored at a record-breaking rate, it was notable that whenever Klopp was invited to heap further accolades on him he tended instead to praise Mane, who was then struggling for form, or Roberto Firmino, who is reliably unselfish.
Save their energy
There are some big teams where the star players get to rest when their team doesn’t have the ball. They’re allowed to save their energy for the match-winning moments – think Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, or Neymar at PSG.
Liverpool aren’t one of those teams. Klopp’s systems in attack and defence rely on everyone doing their share of work. If one player doesn’t participate in the press, the whole thing falls apart. For this sort of team, egotism is sand in the gearbox. So when Klopp takes every opportunity to talk up the importance of the collective spirit, it’s not just because he has an aesthetic objection to selfishness.
Klopp has this much in common with his counterpart at Spurs, Mauricio Pochettino, who also demands total commitment to the collective. Pochettino’s current problem is not that his forwards are showing worrying signs of individualism, but that Harry Kane’s form is flatlining ahead of one of the busiest periods of the season.
It may seem a ridiculous thing to say about a player who just won the Golden Boot at the World Cup, but Kane has not really played well since March 11th, when he suffered ankle ligament damage in a league match against Bournemouth. He was expected to be out for six weeks, but he played three weeks later as a substitute against Chelsea.
Before the injury Kane was taking five shots per game; since then his average has fallen to less than three. It seems he rushed back before he was ready. Now he is caught in a situation where he needs rest and recovery, but he has no time to take it. Spurs have six matches coming up in the next 18 days.
Why was Kane so eager to return to action last April? Of course, he wanted to help Spurs qualify for the Champions League, and to prove his fitness ahead of the World Cup. But he was also determined to beat Salah in the race for the Premier League’s Golden Boot. If that individual award had meant nothing to him, he might not have gone to such lengths to claim the goal against Stoke in his second game back after the injury.
Even for a goalscorer, Kane is unusually conscious of his numbers. Before Spurs played Apoel Nicosia last year, he told journalists: “With social media these days, it’s difficult to stay away from the stats. Everyone is tweeting this thing or that thing, and you see it. I want to be one of the best players in the world, so when people put stuff up and I see I am close to those players [Messi and Ronaldo], it is a great incentive to get even closer and go to the next step. I use it, yes. Staying consistent at the top level is what it’s all about.”
You have to be impressed by Kane’s ambition, but chasing the statistics posted by Ronaldo and Messi is the road to hell. Leading the line for an all-action Pochettino team in the Premier League is rather more taxing than Ronaldo’s privileged role at Real Madrid, where the first half of the season was treated as a sort of extended training camp before the serious competition started in the spring with the Champions League knockouts.
Even Messi doesn’t compare himself to Ronaldo. He says he draws more motivation from the unpleasant sight of Real Madrid winning titles than from the prospect of outscoring his great supposed rival.
“I don’t compare myself with him, I don’t compete against anybody. I don’t think about being the best in history, because it doesn’t change anything.”
So the best individual player in the world has a collectivist attitude. Now that Kane has his World Cup Golden Boot maybe he will see, as Messi did long ago, that individual awards don’t change anything.
There’s no need to burn himself out chasing Ronaldo numbers. It would be better for him and for Spurs if he learns to go easy on himself once in a while.