The Three Lions striker doesn’t look like a star, but has soared to the top by mastering the invisible parts of the game.

It’s not hard to figure out how Cristiano Ronaldo became one of the world’s top athletes. He’s tall, lightning fast and has a sculpted physique that he loves to show off at every opportunity. It’s like he was biologically engineered to be a soccer player.

But when it comes to the England striker Harry Kane, things aren’t quite so obvious. Kane is listed at 6-feet-1, but has a hunched frame that makes him appear shorter. He’s not particularly quick or strong, he doesn’t move with any grace or display some uncommon agility, and he wears the vacant expression of someone struggling to remember something mildly important.

In short, nothing about Kane suggests he should be a soccer superstar.

And yet, at the age of 24, that is exactly what Kane is. He looks like Clark Kent, but plays like Superman. As he leads England at the World Cup, Kane is one of the game’s most feared scorers, captain of the national team, and even more improbably, a world-class English player playing in a major tournament in his prime. With five goals through two games, including a hat-trick in England’s 6-1 rout of Panama on Sunday, Kane is the World Cup’s leading scorer so far.

How Kane has emerged as an elite performer is mostly down to his remarkable knack for putting the ball in the net. He has scored 116 goals across the last three seasons for his club, Tottenham Hotspur, and his country. But what makes him a perfect forward for the modern game is how effectively he carries out the unseen and overlooked parts of a striker’s role.

If English soccer’s new star has a superpower, it’s his mastery of all the game’s invisible elements.

Harry Kane [9] tries to find space in the defence of Panama
Harry Kane [9] tries to find space in the defence of Panama
Hold Steady

Modern strikers have two main responsibilities. The first and most important one is sticking the ball in the net and celebrating like a maniac. The second is helping their team transition from defense to attack with their hold-up play. Because most teams today operate with a single striker, players like Kane are often the sole attacker left upfield when their teams are defending and the primary target for outlet passes when they win back possession. Kane’s ability to corral those passes, hold his ground, and then lay the ball off to a teammate breaking upfield is well above average for such a prolific scorer. No one who touched the ball in the opposing penalty area as often as Kane was as good at not losing possession, showing that a target man doesn’t have to be a lumbering oaf whose primary skill is measuring in at over 6-foot-3.

Pass Master

It sounds absurd to say about a season in which he bagged 30 goals in the Premier League, seven more in the Champions League, and hit the net five times for England, but the most impressive play of Kane’s 2017-18 season was actually a pass. In a March 3 game against Huddersfield Town, Kane picked up the ball wide on the right touchline, advanced a few yards, and then whipped a pass around two defenders and directly into the path of Son Heung-Min, who headed in from 8 yards out. It was the sort of inch-perfect delivery that made a star of one of Kane’s predecessors as England captain, a largely forgotten midfielder named David Beckham. But it was by no means an aberration. Kane’s knack for picking out a pass and springing a counter-attack means he can hurt opposing teams even when he is forced a long way from goal.

On the Move

The numbers show that Kane doesn’t run particularly far or particularly fast for a top striker. The key to his game is that he never stops running. During the course of a match, Kane is constantly on the move, drifting between the opposition center backs and searching for the soft spots in the defense. His nonstop movement makes it tough for defenders to work out who is supposed to be covering him and he excels at getting blindside of his marker, creating the space he needs to receive a pass or collect a cross and launch a strike on goal. Kane’s perpetual motion helped him manufacture 184 shots last season, 28% more than any other Premier League player.

“He’s not lightning quick, but he’s very clever in his movement,” said former Liverpool striker Craig Bellamy. “He can create half a yard from anything.

Source: Jonathan Clegg & Mike Sudal|| wsj