ANALYSIS By George Ankers Follow on Twitter
Harry Kane’s ascension to the senior England squad could have waited no longer and it looks certain that Roy Hodgson will throw the Tottenham striker straight into the action against Lithuania on Friday.
In the injury-enforced absence of Daniel Sturridge, Kane has a strong case to already be his country’s main man up front, especially while captain Wayne Rooney recovers from his unsuccessful spell in midfield.
But how best can England tap into the qualities that have seen Kane flourish so remarkably in recent months, with the more imposing Italy also in their path?
The first and simplest thing to establish is where to play him: as a centre forward. While Kane has scored goals in the hole behind a striker at White Hart Lane, the bulk of his success has come as the primary finisher in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which is the shape that England have been playing recently as well.
He has scored two of his 19 Premier League goals this season from outside of the penalty area (one of which was a free kick), and the 21-year-old is clearly at his best as a poacher in the box, with 47 per cent of his top-flight goals coming from the centre of the area and a further 27% from within the six-yard box.
Should Hodgson wish to push up a second striker alongside Kane against the more vulnerable Lithuania, then Kane should lean to the left of the pair. As 10 of his goals have come with his preferred right foot, approaching the goal from the left-hand side allows a wider range of angles for a shot on that foot.
A fast start, too, should be a priority. A disproportionate 27% of Kane's goals have come within the first 15 minutes of matches, when he is unleashed on unsuspecting defenders. Hodgson should tell his players to take the initiative.
But if England were to focus specifically on replicating Kane’s form in a Tottenham shirt, they should aim to replicate the system around him in which he has excelled. That means sticking to 4-2-3-1 and it means picking players who can best emulate the Spurs midfield who provide the striker’s supply lines.
Tottenham’s most frequent starting XI this season includes a central midfield pairing of Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason, with Erik Lamela and Nacer Chadli to the right and left, respectively, of Christian Eriksen in the No.10 role. So which players in the England squad can do the jobs of those men?
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One answer is easy. Mason is the only of those five to actually be in the Three Lions’ party, called up as a replacement for the injured Adam Lallana. While his late addition might imply that he is not in Hodgson’s plans to start, the young midfielder knows exactly how to play in a system that suits Kane. What’s more, the pair are evidently very close – Mason is always the first on the scene to celebrate his team-mate’s goals – and could support each other through their first steps into senior international football.
The success of both Kane and Mason has thrilled former Spurs boss Tim Sherwood, who believes that the striker will be more than just a flash in the pan as England consider building a team around him.
Sherwood told Goal in January: “[Kane] deserves all the praise he’s getting because he’s worked for it but I can tell you for a fact he will be the same person next year, whether he is on £1-a-week or £100,000-a-week.
“Kane is the best player to come out of the academy technically [since Ledley King]. He scored every week in the youth teams and worked so hard on his finishing.
“I’m delighted the fans have taken the academy lads on. They have always wanted flashy signings but it has such a positive impact when the fans take them to their hearts.”
Speaking of two of those academy lads, who best can take on the Bentaleb role alongside Mason? The Algerian youngster primarily defines himself by his busy role in screening the defence and playing sensible passes to start and maintain attacking moves.
Bentaleb makes interceptions over 50% more frequently than any of the four likely candidates for his position - Michael Carrick, Jordan Henderson, Fabian Delph and James Milner – but Carrick and Delph run him the closest. Bentaleb also makes more recoveries than England’s options but Delph is not far behind. Carrick’s 89.03% passing accuracy is better than even the Spurs man’s 85.78% but Delph rivals him on 84.77% and the Aston Villa midfielder’s youth and left-footedness should give him priority.
The attacking midfield trio is a more interesting proposition, where England might have to improvise a little more. In terms of replicating the Tottenham approach, however, the right flank might be the one position in which they can do all the same work but better.
Erik Lamela can be a frustrating figure for Spurs fans but he plays an interesting role in Mauricio Pochettino’s side. Not only is he the most direct, creative runner of the three, working to create havoc in the defence from which Kane can profit, but he is also a surprisingly busy defensive contributor. The Argentine makes more than twice as many interceptions as Eriksen or Chadli, as well as boasting a very solid tackle success rate of 86%.
While Milner could rival Lamela’s stats on this front, Sterling is the man to best fit this mould for England. While he only wins 77% of his tackles, the Liverpool youngster improves on Lamela’s attacking contributions, with superior cross completion (29% to 26%) and rate of fouls won (0.03 per minute to 0.021, far ahead of any of England’s other wide options), while maintaining near-identical records in pass and dribble completion. He also attempts those dribbles more frequently.
Against a Lithuania side who are likely to give the Three Lions the ball more easily but could look to hold a solid defensive shape, leaning towards a player who introduces chaos more regularly should be the better choice.
On the other flank, Chadli’s strengths for Spurs lie primarily in his shooting. The Belgian’s willingness to and accuracy in making attempts on goal, often from greater distances than Kane, allows his young team-mate to take advantage from rebounds and draw away defenders. This role calls for a wide forward rather than an orthodox winger and, on minutes per goal, shot accuracy and chance conversion, Arsenal’s Theo Walcott has the edge on his rivals this season as England’s most likely player to provide meaningful goalscoring support for Kane.
It is in the No.10 role where the most interesting decision would come. If England want to replicate the Eriksen role, they do not have an obvious candidate who can bring that same creative playmaking ability. While the likes of Sterling have played there in the past, the Liverpool star is a more direct dribbler, almost a supplementary forward, a very different style to that of the Dane, with whom Kane has worked so well.
At this point, one could point out that the captain, Rooney, still needs a place in the side and No.10 would be the obvious position for him if he must play while Kane is up front. But the stats, in fact, suggest that Milner could be the best fit as a pseudo-Eriksen.
When considering how best to replicate Eriksen’s style with the players at England’s disposal, the biggest statistical gap to cross is how he creates his chances. Kane has scored four top-flight goals with his head this season, making crossing an important factor in his supply, but Eriksen’s crossing frequency of 0.062 per minute vastly outstrips that of Rooney (0.033), Sterling (0.025) and other options such as Jordan Henderson (0.026) and Ross Barkley (0.020).
But Milner’s experience of playing on the flanks sees him clock up a crossing rate of 0.072 per minute. While that would decrease in a central role, he might be in a better position to adapt to the way in which Eriksen works to supply Kane, with a drop in sheer ability likely to be matched by the fact that he would not be taking as many corners or free kicks as the Dane does for Spurs.
Hodgson, quite rightly, might not go all out in aiming to emulate the Premier League’s seventh-best team to get the most out of one player but he must note how the players around Kane at Tottenham have contributed to his rise into the England reckoning. In bearing in mind how his other players can adapt to suit his newest striking star, the Three Lions boss has the chance to ensure that his country’s newest great hope does not fizzle out on his big moment.
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