At first Harry Kane seemed to be as dazzled by the statistics as everyone else.
England had concluded the group stage at Euro 2016 having mustered 65 attempts on goal, which included 34 shots from inside the penalty area and 29 peppering Slovakia alone. Taken at face value, that tally would appear to reflect the utter dominance and commitment to attack from Roy Hodgson’s team across the three fixtures. Then, inevitably, came the caveat.
If he took time to reflect on the two and a half hours of football he has played to datein France, had a single clear-cut opportunity actually fallen Kane’s way? “Probably not,” he said after a moment’s reflection. “There hasn’t been a clear chance where I’ve come away thinking: ‘I’m disappointed I missed that one. I should have scored that.’”
Uefa’s official analysis lists the Tottenham Hotspur striker as having contributed eight efforts so far, of which three were blocked and four sailed wide, including one free-kick which disappeared down the tunnel in Lens. He could not actually recall the one shot he has mustered on target.
It is not hard to pinpoint where England have let themselves down to date. Confronted by massed defences in Group B, they rather ran aground. Whether it has been Kane, Daniel Sturridge or Wayne Rooney – each has contributed eight shots – or Jamie Vardy and Adam Lallana, too often either the radar has been awry, the glimpses of goal have been too fleeting before a defender has dived in to block, and the finishing too anxious, nervy or snatched. It is all very well having a quintet of natural-born goalscorers in the squad, but it is Eric Dier, the anchorman in midfield, who boasts the most efforts to date with nine. Thursday’s shooting drill, when nine goals were scored from 47 attempts, much to Hodgson’s dismay, was hardly indicative of a forward line awash with confidence, but the onus is as much on the supply line.
Somehow, over the next few days, this team must find a way of liberating their forwards into properly threatening positions. Iceland, like the three previous opponents, will seek to stifle, clogging up their defensive third with bodies and blocks. England, with Kane expected to return to the starting lineup alongside Lallana and Sturridge, must find a way to infiltrate either via the pace of their pass or the incision of their movement. “When teams are dropping off it is difficult, especially as a striker,” said Kane. “You always have two centre-halves behind you and maybe a sitting midfielder as well. It’s a bit more difficult creating chances. But we can do better as a team in the final third as a whole: crosses can be better; final passes can be better; slipping players through …
“We can get a bit better on all of that and, if we do, it’ll be all right. Maybe defenders have become stronger, or teams’ tactics [more defined]. They are looking at us and maybe seeing strengths and weaknesses, and working on them. That’s part of football. I see it in the Premier League: last season for me was a lot different to the first year in the Premier League. Defenders maybe get a bit tighter when I get the ball. But if you want to be one of the best in the world, you have to learn to cope with that. And you certainly have to learn from tournament football.” This young England squad are doing just that, so maybe the growing pains are inevitable.
Kane, after 119 games in two seasons for club, senior and junior national sides, is not alone in having failed to illuminate these finals so far. Poland’s Robert Lewandowski and Germany’s Thomas Müller have each failed to score as yet. Mario Götze completes a trio of Bayern Munich forwards who have drawn a blank to date, with that trio having played 59, 57 and 29 games (Götze was injured from October to March) respectively this term. Kane, even relieved of corner duties and able to loiter with intent in the six-yard box, appeared leggy against Wales, toiling on his own among the centre-halves. Fatigue is an obvious concern.
“I don’t think burnout is a worry,” said the Spurs player, who had featured in the European Under-21 Championship in the Czech Republic last summer, a tournament which took place a few days after his club’s post-season trip to Australia. “I don’t feel tired. I’ve had it before: a lot of people said the same thing last year when it was the under-21s at the Euros. I do a lot of recovery work, whether it’s ice baths or in the swimming pool, massages and soft tissue work. Eating is a big part of it: eat right and keep your body in shape, refuel in the right way after games. That’s what I try and do. Of course, if you want to be at the top of your game for years to come, you have to look after your body.
“But I feel 100% fresh, I feel sharp, I feel ready. To progress in major tournaments and be at your best you need a big squad and you need to rotate it. The gaffer made his choice in that game against Slovakia [with six changes] and we all stick by it. You can’t read too much into it, other than it was to help the team. I want to play every game, but sometimes you just have to listen to the manager. When you have Vardy up front and Daniel on the other side, there’s obviously competition for places. And that’s what you need. All I can do is my best for the team, whether that’s from the bench or if I start.”
There have been words of advice from Rooney, England’s record goalscorer and this team’s captain. “I can only learn from someone like Wayne, who has all the major tournament experience,” added Kane. “We have conversations about what goes on, about keeping confident and doing what I do. He wants me to keep doing what I’ve been doing, do what I’ve done. I’m someone who always works hard to improve. That’s what I’ll always do. There will always be ups and downs in football. You can’t always be on one big high, and there’ll be a little bump or two along the way.”
The hope is the forward experienced one of those against Wales. From now on in, he and England’s forward line must find some bite.
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