Tottenham Hotspur

How Conte turned Kane into the best player in the world right now

08:00 WAT 15/04/2022
Harry Kane Tottenham GFX
The forward struggled terribly under Nuno Espirito Santo but is flying again thanks to the brilliant work being done by the Portuguese's successor

It has become fashionable over the last year to discuss who might be the best footballer in the world ‘right now’.

The last time the idea got traction was when Mohamed Salah was widely anointed for scoring scarcely-believable solo goals for Liverpool.

However, after Karim Benzema’s winning header against Chelsea in midweek, there will be conversations now about his claim to the throne, even if his fellow Frenchman Kylian Mbappe is presently No.1 in the eyes of many neutrals.

Of course, the reason for the debate's growing popularity is quite simple.

Up until about a year ago, the answer to the question for more than a decade was inarguably Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, and the debate around their respective talents became so tediously entrenched in tribalism as to become a worthless conversation. 

Pondering who might be the best player in the world is a novelty. 

Salah isn’t quite as fashionable now as he was a few months ago and Benzema is unlikely to get too many votes among Premier League watchers. 

So, in a World Cup year, why not make a claim for England’s captain?

As few as four months ago, Harry Kane was at his lowest ebb, suffering from low confidence after being denied a move to Manchester City and from the fallout of a disastrous couple of Tottenham Hotspur appointments. Not many excelled under Jose Mourinho or Nuno Espirito Santo.

Some even questioned whether Kane was finished, whether all those injuries and rushed returns to the starting line-up had finally taken their toll. That always happens with Kane.

His unusual playing style, his clunky gait, don’t fit our expectations of an elite athlete, leaving the impression that he doesn’t belong; that he will soon fade.

But if Kane possesses one standout attribute, it is his capacity to bounce back, defy the odds, return to the top. 

Every dry August brings pressure and Kane always rises to it. Every new Spurs implosion narrows Kane’s path to the top but he always climbs to it.

Kane has scored 233 goals in 368 games for Tottenham in all competitions. He is fifth on the list of all-time Premier League goalscorers and 30 shy of Wayne Rooney in second, whom Kane will surely surpass in the next 18 months at Spurs.

He is the only player in the top five without a major trophy to his name. Rooney, Andy Cole, and Sergio Aguero all played in elite teams who won multiple honours, while even Alan Shearer took part in three title challenges, winning one.

This is often used as a way of criticising Kane, when the opposite is true: it shows just how incredible his numbers are. 

It is entirely logical to claim that Kane would already be out in front if he had spent the last eight years at a super-club (his goal-per-minute rate of 129 is better than Shearer’s 147).

So, when tallying who is the best player in the world right now, Kane should not lose points for playing outside the elite. He should gain them. 

To do what he is doing at a club fighting for a Champions League spot most seasons is extraordinary.

And he is at the peak of his powers right now, thanks largely to the brilliant work Antonio Conte is doing.

Kane amassed one goal and one assist in his first 13 Premier League games of the season.

In the 17 since, starting with a 2-2 draw against Liverpool that was Conte’s fifth game in charge, he has scored 11 and assisted seven.

One possible explanation is self-belief, or rather belief in Tottenham. 

Appointing a winner like Conte gives Kane’s Spurs career clarity again, as well as remoulding the club as one ready to enter the elite; despite his public desire to leave, Kane would much rather win trophies at Tottenham.

But the transformation is as much tactical as anything else.

Conte’s methodology of quick, vertical football played largely in the transition – and from a lower starting block than most – suits the speed of player that surrounds Kane, allowing him to build on a recently-discovered playmaker trait.

Mourinho deserves some credit for releasing Kane into a deeper role last season, with Kane assisting 14 in the Premier League in 2020-21 by using his exceptional passing range to hit runners Heung-Min Son and Lucas Moura.

This has been taken up a notch under Conte thanks to the Italian’s greater level of detail in his attacking structures, which include diagonal switches to advancing wing-backs – and Kane loves playing this pass.

Spurs continue to struggle at times, largely because such a low starting position can make it difficult to build and sustain meaningful attacks.

Indeed, in each of the last two matches, it has taken half-time reminders from Conte (to play long forward passes for the runners) to unlock a stodgy performance.

The addition of Dejan Kulusevski has also helped Kane’s output, because there are now two players making diagonal runs, from out to in, for Kane to find as he drops into the No.10 position. 

Furthemore, Rodrigo Bentancur has provided Spurs pass with urgency through the lines, ensuring the ball reaches Kane and his fellow forwards at pace – and with space to move into.

That is what was missing from laboured performances under Nuno, when Kane would invariably be either isolated up front or forced far too deep in search of the ball, only to find an entire opposition midfield and defence in front of him.

Under Conte, paradoxically, he has less freedom yet, therefore, plays more freely. 

The ultra-detailed positioning and movement work drilled on the training ground means the Spurs players are manipulating the opponent into vulnerable situations – and Kane doesn’t even need to look anymore before playing the pass.

Tottenham are a team moving in sync, and each part of the machine is tailored around Kane’s abilities as both a nine and a ten. 

Bu, intriguingly, Conte has recently stated his desire to sign a new No.10 (Christian Eriksen would be ideal) in order to add variety, while allowing Kane to stay closer to goal.

It is about time some of the burden is removed from Kane’s shoulders. 

If that were to happen, his goalscoring numbers would get better still. He might even be able to start thinking about closing the gap to Shearer.

Surely, then, he could lay claim to being the best footballer in the world?