We’ve learned a couple of things during Tottenham’s genuinely astonishing late-season resurgence.
One is that Toby Alderweireld is a better centre-back than Eric Dier and the other is that a fully fit and – crucially – match-sharp Harry Kane is a better striker than…well, most other strikers.
‘Learned’ might be too strong a word for what are actually quite obvious facts. But still. In the last couple of games there have been definite signs that Kane is approaching something like The Harry Kane Of Old and there was absolutely no guarantee that would be the case.
This could be very significant. There are some very big ifs coming up, but stay with it. If Kane stays fit and if he continues to operate at his previous peak, then Mourinhoball could actually work with this Spurs squad.
Now those are hefty caveats, but from a team and manager looking entirely bereft of any plans, ideas or hope less than three weeks ago, it’s definitely something.
At the most basic level, Mourinho’s teams are built around creating a tight defence while letting elite attacking players do their thing. A gross oversimplification, but that’s the gist.
Mourinho has, belatedly, begun to have an impact on Spurs’ defence. The Bramall Lane Debacle looked at the time just like more of the same, the nature of the goals conceded being all too familiar from previous ponderous, leaden-footed defensive efforts earlier this season. But in the context purely of games played since the break – after Mourinho had had some time to work with the players – it starts to look more like a blip. Those three Sheffield United goals represent half the total conceded by Spurs in eight Project Restart games.
Alderweireld and Hugo Lloris have been notably excellent in that time, but it would be churlish to pretend there is no credit to the manager here.
Which is grand. But it still doesn’t mean an awful lot if there is nothing happening at the other end. You may not want to relive the mind-numbing horror of it all, but see the Everton and Bournemouth games for evidence of that.
Now that Kane has finally rumbled back up to top speed, like Bowser after a red shell Mario Kart hit, everything is different. With Kane now able to both drop deep and help make things happen, as this often creatively barren Eriksen-less Spurs still desperately need him to do (yet also get himself into the penalty box to apply the finishing touch), this is a team transformed.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that Kane is a genuinely ridiculous footballer. Maybe it’s in part because he still doesn’t quite fit the idea of what one of the best players in the world looks like in 2020, and maybe it’s in part because he still plays for Spurs, but he remains if not quite underrated then certainly slightly underappreciated.
The delayed Euros and an admittedly daft array of young attacking talent has seen some tentative talk that Kane might even be surplus to requirements a year from now, that like your Owens and Shearers and Rooneys before him he is beginning his long England farewell. He’s scored 27 goals in his last 28 England games.
Even in this injury-ruined campaign playing for a broken and struggling team, he has scored 23 goals in 33 Premier League and Champions League games. Only four men have scored more Premier League goals than a supposedly waning Kane this season, despite him missing a quarter of the season.
It is nevertheless over two years since we have really seen Kane at his very best. But this might, at last, be changing.
The four goals he has scored in Spurs’ last two games offer plenty of encouragement, because they are all very different, but all very reminiscent of that peak Kane. The movement off the defender followed by towering header for his first at Newcastle, the last-minute endeavour and poacher’s instinct for the second. The perfectly timed run and precise finish to put Spurs 2-0 up against Leicester, then picking the ball up in a seemingly innocuous position before engineering a shooting chance and taking it with absolute precision. We’ve all seen Kane score these exact goals time and time again.
But against Leicester in particular he was every inch the creative number 10 as well. It was his pass from midfield that set Son Heung Min away for the opening goal, while his sadly unrewarded millimetre-perfect backspinning through ball to the Korean early in the second half was positively De Bruynesque in both vision and execution.
The defence being tolerably adequate and Kane being world class isn’t really much of a masterplan. It’s not remotely ideal as a long-term option given both Kane’s injury record and demonstrable need for several games upon his return to get back to where he wants and Spurs currently need him to be. It is also just fundamentally unreasonable to ask one player to be both Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen at the same time like some sort of mad footballing Ben Stokes (which, actually thinking about it, is in fact nothing more outlandish than just your plain old common or garden Lionel Messi).
But this is where Spurs are. They have a lopsided, flawed squad and aren’t in a position to do much about it. They also have a fiercely loyal world-class player on a long contract who, for assorted reasons, finds himself currently priced out of a move even to one of the tiny number of clubs who could theoretically afford him.
Might as well make the best of it.