It was Boxing Day 2019 and, just a matter of weeks after appointing Jose Mourinho as the new manager, Spurs had just beaten Brighton 2-1 at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Brighton had taken the lead with a first-half goal before Harry Kane equalised and Dele Alli completed the comeback.
Fast forward to 28th December 2021 and there was a strange sense of deja vu at the St Mary’s stadium.
Just a matter of weeks into Antonio Conte’s tenure, another south coast team take an early lead against Spurs only to be pegged back by a Kane equaliser. On this occasion, Spurs were unable to find the winning goal.
This was in part due to a controversial VAR offside decision (in a spooky twist the Brighton game also featured a VAR intervention after Kane scored from a clipped ball over the top by…you guessed it, Harry Winks).
However, the bigger issue was Spurs lack of creativity in the final third, as alluded to by Conte afterwards – “To find space it wasn’t easy, but at the same time I think that we can do much better and to move the ball more quickly.”
Back to Boxing Day 2019 and Mourinho was able to turn to his bench in the 68th minute and bring on Christian Eriksen.
Four minutes later Eriksen picks up the ball in a deep central position before spraying a precise driven pass to the feet of Lucas Moura on the left-wing.
A couple of passes later and Eriksen again has the ball, now in a more advanced central position. He quickly assesses his options before floating a beautiful diagonal pass over the top of the Brighton defence into the path of Serge Aurier, who crosses for Dele to lob sublimely over the keeper.
As one Guardian journalist remarked it was “an impressive cameo from Christian Eriksen, reminding everyone that Spurs will not find it easy to replace his creativity if he leaves during the January transfer window.”
Just over two years later and it still feels that Spurs have not replaced that creativity – someone who is able to see things quickly and, equally as important, be able to execute it.
Tanguy Ndombele and Giovanni Lo Celso both have the potential to fill that void but consistency and injuries respectively have disrupted their spell at Spurs. It is particularly frustrating with Ndombele as he certainly has the ability but clearly is not trusted by Conte to fulfil that role.
In the last two games, against Southampton and Watford, Spurs have desperately needed someone to unlock stubborn, organised defences that were sitting narrow and deep. On both occasions, Ndombele was overlooked by Conte.
But what if there is an alternative option already at Spurs?
Mourinho’s tenure at Spurs certainly split opinion, but without doubt, he played a significant part in the evolution of Harry Kane as a player.
Under the Portuguese manager, Kane’s role shifted from a traditional No.9 to more of a No.10, dropping into deeper positions and becoming more of a playmaker.
His vision and ability to pick a pass from deep areas led to him racking up 14 assists in the Premier League during the 2020/21 season, more than any other player.
No mean feat, especially when you consider the next two players on that list were Kevin De Bruyne and Bruno Fernandes, with 12 each.
The other positive aspect is that it didn’t adversely affect his goal output – 23 goals in the Premier League – again more than any other player.
In the current Spurs squad, Kane’s overall reading of the game, spatial awareness, vision and technical ability mark him out as the best option in that position when creativity is needed.
The counterargument is that, by removing Kane from the traditional no.9 position, Spurs miss him as a focal point up front and his obvious goal scoring threat.
Conte himself, working as a pundit during Euro 2020, remarked that “it’s in the box where he’s clinical and as a coach, I would always keep him in there because he’s devastating.”
Which is absolutely spot on – unless, like the Southampton and Watford games, you don’t have the players behind him capable of providing him with the adequate service.
The answer to the No.9 vs No.10 conundrum is not black and white. When Spurs are playing more expansive teams – even mildly adventurous teams – and there is more space and opportunities for Spurs to counter attack then there is no doubt that Kane is most effective occupying the No.9 position, whilst still occasionally dropping deeper to link play, allowing the likes of Son Heung-min, Lucas Moura and the wing backs to run beyond.
When teams set up with the low block, Spurs need someone with the creativity that Kane can provide. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Oliver Skipp and Harry Winks all have their own set of skills but being that creative spark is not one of them.
During these games Conte could consider allowing Kane to drop deeper, to try and make things happen in the way Eriksen once did. Clearly, this leaves a large Kane shaped hole in the penalty area to provide the finishing touch.
Therefore there are two possible solutions to this conundrum. Firstly, Spurs sign a new striker, ideally in the Kane mould, allowing Kane to drop into those deeper pockets when chasing a goal. Given Spurs recent record of signing strikers, this is perhaps easier said than done.
The second option is to move on one or both of Ndombele or Lo Celso in the transfer market and find a suitable replacement that can be that creative missing link in the midfield area, allowing Kane to operate predominantly as a No.9.
If we were being greedy, both would be nice.
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