It’s impossible to know, occasionally even for athletes themselves, what we’re projecting onto them and what’s actually true, but perception is an abstract concept you can feel in your chest. There’s definitely something about players, as they rise to prominence, that inspires either celebration or skepticism. For instance, we’ve already given ourselves over to Kylian Mbappé, a teenager with one dazzling if slightly inconsistent World Cup behind him. He’s clearly a star: fast as hell, obscenely skilled, everything he does looks cool, etc. But we are definitely getting ahead of ourselves when we talk about the Ballons d’Or he’s going to rack up in the future. He’s extremely young, scored thirteen goals last season, and was comfortably third fiddle in PSG’s attacking trident alongside Neymar and Edinson Cavani. Mbappé is more magnetic than accomplished at this early stage of his career, and though we don’t like to think of time and possibility this way, there’s still plenty of space into which he can fall short of our expectations.
Harry Kane, by now firmly established as world-class, took a while to build his reputation. His nationality probably had something to do with it. Italian strikers aren’t to be trusted because Serie A is a uniquely slow and tactical league. English strikers aren’t to be trusted because they’re English, which is maybe the country’s provincialism being beamed back in its face by the rest of Europe, but compared to Martin Tyler comparing every decent midfielder of African descent to Patrick Vieira for the past two decades, it’s only a little bit unfair to cite Michael Owen’s just-okay Real Madrid spell as a referendum on the legitimacy of meat pie-lovin’ forwards.
Kane has also come along at a time when soccer’s attacking game is evolving. Of the best, say, six goalscorers on the planet right now, he’s the only striker. Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Salah, and Griezmann all play something that isn’t quite the nine, drifting in from the wing, inhabiting a free role, and/or running into spaces a selfless teammate in front of them creates. This isn’t to say the pure striker is dead, but it’s a less prominent role at big clubs than it was even ten years ago. If there’s a comparison to be made between Kane and another great forward, we might reach back to circa 2008 Fernando Torres, whose only job for Liverpool, which he did brilliantly, was to get into good positions and whack the ball into the net. Kane lacks Torres’s burst and raw speed, but he has similarly excellent positional awareness and can score from angles most players wouldn’t even think to shoot from. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his game is how many goals he scores where the keeper doesn’t even get close to the ball. He takes a touch, plays himself into space, and rockets the sucker into a corner like that’s such a simple thing to do.
It’s a narrow skill set, and though it includes the most important traits a forward can possess, it makes sense that we might be more readily enthralled by an athlete with Mbappé’s gifts rather than Kane’s, despite it being obvious—in 2018, at least—who the better player is. If we conceive of an attacking move like a thought, Mbappé can compose nearly the entire thing by himself, stringing multiple sentences together—receiving a pass from the fullback, sprinting down the wing, cutting inside, and firing a shot—and arriving, short of breath, at his own conclusion, whereas Kane tends to spectacularly conclude other people’s ideas. Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen are working out the body while he searches for the kicker. That’s a whit reductive, given that soccer is a team game and players rarely create goals alone, but special ones have the capacity to do so, and even if that ability manifests itself only once in a while, it lives vividly in the imagination and informs every touch the special player makes. You lean toward the TV even when they’re in possession even near the halfway line.
Kane doesn’t quite offer that, and in contrast to players who do, there’s a spiritual Dirk Kuyt-ness about him, a sense that what he does isn’t all that exceptional. A glance at his numbers or a seven-minute YouTube visit is enough to dispel that notion, but the faint illusion of Kane’s ordinariness visits every so often, particularly in the middle of a Tottenham match where Spurs are pinned back and he isn’t getting service. It happens; it’s the striker’s plight. Neymar or Griezmann put in poor performances here and there, but they almost never disappear. If they’re not seeing much of the ball, they go get it.
Dictated by the fact that he’s not well-rounded enough to make an effective part-time winger or attacking midfielder, Kane’s relative isolation—his bone-deep nine-ness, if you will—allows him to affect matches in a peculiar way his more dynamic peers don’t. He can arrive out of nowhere. Sixty, eighty, ninety-three minutes pass, then suddenly: Harry Kane, in perfect position or with a perfect strike, or both. That’s what he delivers with regularity, and what makes him a great player. He doesn’t often dominate games, but he decides quite a few. All he has is all that his team needs.