England’s victory in Bulgaria on Monday night was overshadowed by ugly scenes of racism, but the Three Lions will take at least some pleasure from responding to their abusers with a performance of the highest quality.
In particular, Gareth Southgate’s men were slick and clinical in attack. A front three of Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling did not give the Bulgarian defence a moment’s rest. The trio were responsible for four of the six goals, while Kane and Sterling laid on Ross Barkley’s brace.
Kane was especially instrumental, providing a total of three assists before grabbing a deserved goal of his own. The captain’s night was the perfect showcase of his hybrid role for England: a sort of mix between a No. 9 and a No. 10.
Renowned for being a traditional, goalscoring centre-forward, Kane – particularly on the international stage – has adapted his game over the last couple of years, becoming a more rounded player for it.
But what are the factors behind Kane’s switch to more of a hybrid striker? What key traits does he possess that have allowed him to make the change? And how can Tottenham start getting the best out of their talisman’s relatively newfound versatility?
We’ve attempted to answer those questions below.
Kane’s key traits as a 9 and a 10
Goals have been the hallmark of Kane’s game since he first broke into the Tottenham team. His meteoric rise was a result of his unerringly accurate finishing, something that unequivocally made him a No. 9 in the early days of his Spurs career.
What’s more, Kane’s youthful energy and desire gave him the explosiveness required to make runs in behind the last line of defence, not with pace but with clever movement and a keen sense of where the space is. His aerial ability completed a set of attributes that made – and in many ways still make – him a perfect No. 9.
Yet with age and maturity, the 26-year-old has developed a whole new skillset. Kane has gleaned the qualities of a No. 10 over the last two seasons, showcasing a sublime range of passing and some fine hold-up play, enriched by a propensity to drop deep to collect the ball when appropriate.
It would perhaps be simplistic, however, to suggest Kane’s quality is the sole reason behind his switch from a No. 9 to a 9-10 hybrid. Though his ability has clearly aided the transition, a number of mitigating factors have somewhat forced Kane to adapt his playing style.
Why has Kane adapted his playing style?
Recurring ankle problems have caused Kane to lose some of his explosiveness, or at least his capacity to use that explosiveness on a consistent basis. Those injuries have impelled Kane to be a little more reserved, especially when he returns from a spell on the sidelines.
Part of that reserved approach means going in for fewer challenges with defenders. By dropping into the holes between the opposition’s midfield and defence, Kane is able to avoid kicks to his ankle. It just so happens that those are the areas in which a No. 10 would usually operate, and Kane has the aforementioned traits to be just as impactful here as he is in the No. 9 role.
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England’s personnel has also contributed to Kane’s switch. The lack of an identifiable playmaker makes the Three Lions devoid of inventiveness unless the squad’s most creative forward, Kane, drops deep. This tactic is made possible by the finishing ability of Sterling and the pace of Rashford, who make runs in-behind and allow Kane to be the foil.
Of course, Kane is much more than a foil. He is a multi-faceted forward and is somehow England’s most clinical and most creative player. Why, then, has Mauricio Pochettino not cottoned on to how Southgate has been using Kane?
Could Spurs benefit from Kane in a hybrid role?
The fact that Pochettino still uses Kane as a No. 9 has not stopped the striker applying aspects of his England role to his Spurs role. He drops deep when necessary and looks to create chances for teammates, but Tottenham’s system and personnel mean he is still predominantly employed as a No. 9.
Controversially, Pochettino continues to use a diamond formation that has proved mostly derivative in 2019. As a result, Spurs rarely play with three forwards; this season, Pochettino has preferred a front two of Kane and Heung-min Son when possible, with a more traditional playmaker-type – Erik Lamela or Christian Eriksen – providing support.
The presence of a playmaker means Kane is not required to drop into the No. 10 role like he is for England. But Tottenham’s recent form indicates a change is needed and, so, a front three of Kane, Son and Lucas Moura might be an obvious solution if Pochettino considers replicating England’s shape.
However, Lucas and Kane do not seem to combine all that successfully. With that in mind, getting Dele Alli fit and firing as soon as possible might be the best course of action. He and Kane have complemented each other beautifully in the past, and adding Son into the equation makes for a potentially prolific front line.