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A Harry Kane injury used to be terminal for England – but not anymore

Bukayo Saka celebrates with Phil Foden and Harry Kane after scoring England's third goal during the World Cup 2022 round of 16 match against Senegal
If Harry Kane is absent, England have the luxury of other top-class options - Getty Images/Michael Regan

Since the start of England’s 2018 World Cup campaign, Harry Kane has started all but one of 19 tournament matches, missing a group-stage dead rubber against Belgium in Russia. He has played 1,620 minutes of England’s 1,830 across three tournaments. It is not a prospect Gareth Southgate will wish to contemplate, but it is a contingency for which he should plan: what would England do without their captain?

Kane is expected to be fit and firing for England’s tilt at Euro 2024 and came off the bench to score against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Monday. However, he finished the season with Bayern Munich nursing a back niggle. There have been recent glimpses of a Kane-less England, with Ollie Watkins and Ivan Toney starting March friendlies against Brazil and Belgium.

For all the talk of the wealth of offensive talent at Southgate’s disposal, England’s attack is built around Kane. How could it be otherwise for a player who amassed 36 Bundesliga goals and eight assists in just 32 starts last season?

Whatever their tactical role or status at club level, England’s other attackers must time their movements and take their position off Kane, with the striker forming fruitful partnerships with first Raheem Sterling and then Marcus Rashford. Two players not selected for this summer’s tournament, but who were adept at moving into the space Kane creates behind a defence when he drops short.

England’s chances this summer may well depend on how well Southgate strikes a balance between forwards who want to receive the ball to feet and those who want to run beyond. This is how England could fill a Kane-shaped void should the worst happen.

The Jude Bellingham option

When England named their provisional Euros squad, Jude Bellingham was listed as a forward, a detail Southgate brushed off.

Bellingham scored 19 La Liga goals in an outstanding debut season at Real Madrid, compensating for their lack of a recognised centre-forward by playing an unorthodox advanced role. It was not quite the false nine, which involves a nominal centre-forward dropping off the defensive line and into midfield areas.

Instead, Bellingham was a roving attacking midfielder, finding himself as one of Real’s most advanced players through late arrivals in the box. At times it looked as if Bellingham was at the tip of a diamond with Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo playing as split strikers. In other phases of play, Bellingham looked like a No 9 between the two wingers.

One thing England would lack without Kane is physical presence, something Bellingham can replicate, as well as being reliable in front of goal.

However, Bellingham is at his most devastating when facing the play, and centre-forward asks for a lot of back-to-goal work. Comparing Bellingham and Kane’s heatmaps in league football this season, Bellingham also does not occupy the centre of the pitch in the same way, preferring to drift to the left. From there he can play from out-to-in with the ball on his stronger right foot.

Jude Bellingham heat map
Jude Bellingham likes to operate off the left mostly - Opta
Harry Kane heat map
In the style of a more traditional striker, the majority of Kane's work comes through the middle

If England wanted to reprise Bellingham’s Real role they would also encounter other problems: a lack of central midfield options to play behind him other than Declan Rice, Conor Gallagher and a green Kobbie Mainoo, and a shortage of pacy wide forwards to threaten and pin the opposition back four. Anthony Gordon and Bukayo Saka could do so, but it would not suit the strengths of Cole Palmer, Jack Grealish or Phil Foden.

The like for like: Watkins or Toney?

If you wanted to replace Kane with as similar a profile as possible, then Ivan Toney is the best England have. Much like Kane, he is a very underrated passer, adept at releasing runners into space with first-time flicks and passes around the corner. He also brings a stature England would miss without Kane, and is a similarly unerring penalty taker.

Unfortunately for Toney, his form tapered off after an initial purple patch following his post-ban comeback. Without a Premier League goal since February, Toney’s attacking production pales in comparison to Watkins. The Aston Villa striker produced one of the best campaigns by an English forward (not called Kane) in recent memory, scoring 19 Premier League goals and providing 13 assists.

Watkins has always been a superb mover and stretcher of defences, but has improved the creative side of his game no end, which further encroaches on Toney’s territory. Despite Watkins’ best attribute being his peeling runs, he created more chances per 90 minutes than Toney in the Premier League last season. Watkins recorded 0.5 expected goals per 90 minutes to Toney’s 0.4, but finished his chances at a significantly higher rate.

Southgate only has small samples of England minutes to analyse, but the team looked better with Toney up front against Belgium in March than they did with Watkins against Brazil. Watkins was also fairly subdued against Bosnia, although one first-half dart behind the defence was picked out by Palmer.

Watkins could not have made a stronger case during the domestic season, but has not shut the door on Toney with his England performances.

Who might benefit from a different attacking balance?

For decades, England struggled to produce technical players who could receive the ball on the half-turn between opposition lines. Now they are spoilt for choice, with Southgate under pressure to include as many of Bellingham, Foden, Palmer, Grealish, Eberechi Eze or James Maddison as possible.

It is the right kind of managerial headache, but Southgate will be conscious that his England team have looked best with speed around Kane. England’s captain, now 30, will not make many deep runs beyond the opposition defence, but will instead come looking for the ball to spray passes forward. Kane’s distribution is excellent, so this is something Southgate will lean into rather than discourage.

However, it does bring the risk of choosing too many attackers who want the ball to feet, all converging on the No 10 zone and standing on each other’s toes. This is why Bukayo Saka will likely be a fixture on the right wing. Though his primary strength is carrying the ball, he is disciplined enough to retain his width and capable of spinning beyond Kane. The same is true of Bellingham, who will surely start as England’s attacking midfielder. He can go short and long, which complements Kane.

Foden may well have to drift inside from a starting perch on the left. In England’s home victory over Italy in qualifying, one of their most impressive games, Kane and Foden’s touch maps were strikingly similar. At City, Foden plays behind a striker in Erling Haaland who drives defences back and creates pockets of space to receive the ball. Kane (touch map against Italy below) wants to tempt defenders forward and receive the ball himself in those same spaces. This is one reason why Foden has not been quite as influential for England as his advocates would like. Such are the compromises of international football.

Kane touch map
Kane likes to drop deep in search of the ball despite leading England's line

In the 1-1 draw with North Macedonia, when Watkins started up front rather than Kane and Bellingham missed out, we see a tighter grouping of touches for Foden in the central areas in which he thrived for City last season.

Foden touch map
Foden is at his best when occupying pockets of space between the lines

If a Kane absence forces Southgate into playing with a striker who stays on the shoulder, then an extra technical presence between the lines such as Foden or Palmer becomes imperative.

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