It was the second game of Gareth Southgate’s tenure as England Under-21s head coach – away to Finland in 2013 – the team were trailing 1-0 and they needed a creative spark. On the bench was Harry Kane. “Which showed what we know about talent observation,” Southgate says with a smile.
Southgate brought him on in the 58th minute, he played him as a No 10 and, nine minutes later, he watched him accept a pass in midfield, squeeze in between two challengers and drift away from a third before releasing Wilfried Zaha with a perfect ball around the full-back. Zaha crossed low and Saido Berahino, the centre-forward, tapped home the equaliser.
All of which is to say that Southgate has long known about Kane’s capacity to set up goals as well as to score them. “There seems to be more emphasis or more spotlight on that part of his game now but he’s definitely always had it,” the England manager says. “He’s as good a provider and as good a passer as he is a finisher and he is, of course, an outstanding finisher.”
There is a reason why Kane’s team-game has come in for greater attention – the numbers. Previously at club level, the Tottenham striker had never provided more than seven assists in all competitions in any one season. So far this time out – and bear in mind we are only in November – he has 10. The sight of him dropping back into the pocket like a quarterback in NFL, a sport he loves to follow, and picking out passes, many of them for Son Heung-min, has been a feature of Spurs’ games. And as he prepares to win his 50th cap in Sunday’s Nations League tie against Belgium in Leuven, it offers the possibility of a developing dimension in Southgate’s 3-4-3 formation.
For Son, read Raheem Sterling or Jadon Sancho. Or Marcus Rashford when he is fit and back in the England squad – quick and incisive wide forwards who love to run on to balls in behind defences. Southgate has not tended to play with a No 10. Perhaps, his version is hidden in plain sight.
“Clearly, the combinations at his club with Son, in particular …” Southgate says, before tailing off. “When you’ve got runners going beyond him, Harry will find the passes. He is a different type of centre-forward to [Romelu] Lukaku, for example. He’s different to [Olivier] Giroud or [Kylian] Mbappé, depending on who plays for France. We are just delighted we’ve got him and we know his impact. It’s great to see him hitting that sort of form ahead of the weekend.”
Kane’s assist tally has risen sharply this season but it has not done so at the expense of his goals. He has 13 in all competitions for Spurs, although none for England in four appearances. He was an unused substitute in Thursday night’s 3-0 friendly win over Republic of Ireland at Wembley and, when Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored the third from the penalty spot and the camera panned to Kane in the stands, he was surely thinking one thing: had he been on the field, it would have been another goal for his international haul, which stands at 32.
Calvert-Lewin’s penalty was unsavable, banged into the top corner after a short run-up – a sign of the Everton striker’s increased confidence this season. “I was told I was on penalties before the game so as soon as Bukayo [Saka] went down, I grabbed the ball and put it on the spot,” Calvert-Lewin says. “I have got no problem taking penalties. I want to take them for my club as well. This was a chance to showcase my ability and stick it in the back of the net.”
Calvert-Lewin is a purer No 9 than Kane and he sees no reason why they cannot play together as a pair. They did so in the closing stages of last month’s 1-0 Wembley loss to Denmark as Southgate chased the result. The manager wants options. Could this be one?
For now, as Kane approaches a landmark, it is the range within his game that excites Southgate. “I am hoping he does get that 50th cap on Sunday because it would mean we’d have got through another couple of days without losing another player,” Southgate says, with a nod towards his recent selection difficulties. “Harry’s scoring record for us is just phenomenal. You always know, going into a game with the likes of him and Raheem, as well, that we’ve got tremendous goal threat now, which a lot countries would be delighted to have.”