It was about 55 minutes in when the discussions between Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland became more intense. They knew the England team wasn’t working right against Scotland, and that was most evident with its biggest star. Harry Kane again failed to take off – or even get going – so was duly taken off.
Southgate evaded direct questions on his star after the game, but pointed to broader tactical issues.
“We needed more runs in behind. I felt Marcus Rashford would give us that energy. At that point, we had to try and get the goal. We have to make these decisions based on what we see.”
What everyone else can see is that Kane just doesn’t look fully fit, let alone sharp. He was so immobile. A telling moment came in the second half, when Kane seemed to get clear of the Scottish defence. With three players descending on him, though, he checked his run and looked for the foul. That’s what he was reduced to, before being removed. It does raise the question over whether Southgate will now make the biggest decision of all. Would he actually consider dropping Kane against the Czech Republic, for a match that is must-win if England want to stay at Wembley?
It’s highly unlikely but England’s best player has now become an issue. The current reality is that he doesn’t seem to be improving their chances.
It is a discussion with all the more depth given this was supposed to be the summer when Kane showcased his talent, as he looks to secure his club future with a move away from Tottenham Hotspur. It isn’t outlandish to think his immediate future lies on the bench.
How it got to this is all the more frustrating given that – unlike other members of England’s leadership group such as Harry Maguire or Jordan Hendeerson – there was no real discussion about Kane’s fitness. It was presumed he was fine and ready to go.
A deeper look indicates that might not have been the case. Kane had only scored two goals in his final six games of the season, since the injury that threatened his League Cup final appearance. His performances were also more pedestrian, which pretty much came to a head against Scotland.
The particular problem with Kane for England, though, is not just his lack of goals – or movement. It is that his role is so central to how the team play. It isn’t an exaggeration to say everything revolves around him. The team is built around him. Even Southgate inadvertently indicated this by deflecting from Kane to talk about the team as a whole. The 27-year-old is a number-nine, of course, but also one that drops back into the number-10 position so the rest of England’s attackers can run off him. This is when England have been at their best over the last few years. It made it all the more conspicuous that Southgate took Kane off to put another runner on.
It also pointed to the reality that, if Kane is off, it is almost inevitable that the whole team is off. So much stems from that, since so many of the picks – from where both Mason Mount and Phil Foden play to the amount of attackers England can get in – are dictated by Kane’s role.
That is another angle to this. Taking Kane out would require a complete rethink for Southgate. England do not really have another way of playing. They can vary the players around Kane, but he has been fixed.
At the same time, it feels like a rethink is precisely what England need right now, or any kind of thought at all. There was no intelligence or calculation to their play against Scotland.
They were too easily drawn into a slugfest. There was no period when they were probing Scotland in the way really top-class sides do. There was no one picking the passes that Billy Gilmour was, although Jude Bellingham is capable of that kind of incision. More than anything, this match illustrated the limitations of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice in midfield.
They can offer qualities going forward – as we see in that first game with Phillips – but they are primarily in the team for protection.
England ultimately lacked that link by the end. Jack Grealish has been demanded as the player to offer it but he was too far forward and, in truth, too rushed and wasteful. He struggled to have impact. The question is also why Jadon Sancho was not used.
This shouldn’t be to take away from Scotland, who shortened the gap between the teams superbly. It’s also just one game, in the way that can happen. As Southgate acknowledged, though, England are expected to win these games – especially amid the intensity of a tournament.
He is not expected to drop Kane, but a second game where the star was taken off does not exactly signal all is right.
Further complicating it is that it is not solely a question of form, as was the case with so many big tournament decisions in the past. It looks like it’s one of fitness, and Kane does look so lumbering when he’s not at 100%. It is as if, a little like Wayne Rooney, there is a bigger gap than with most players between Kane at full fitness and Kane anything below that. It is something Southgate has to be thinking about.
There is of course the possibility that Kane makes a mockery of all this. It has happened with England players in tournaments in the past, above all Paul Gascoigne in 1996 and Gary Lineker in 1986.
He has it in him. He is that good. His record of course warrants faith, from the fans even more than Southgate, since the manager so trusts him.
It’s just that it’s going to take quite a swift turn for that to happen – something Kane didn’t seem capable of on Friday.
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