Is Harry Kane in danger of becoming England's Cristiano Ronaldo?

Follow today's live coverage of Spain vs. France in the semi-final of Euro 2024

We need to talk about Harry Kane.

England are in the semi-finals of another major tournament. But their captain, leader, talisman, striker and greatest ever goalscorer looks about as mobile as an arthritic scarecrow.

OK. That’s harsh. He’s scored two goals in their five games at the Euros so far, the service to him has generally ranged from mediocre to non-existent and he looks set to struggle with fitness. But there are clearly questions to be asked here.

Questions like: how fit is he actually? What does he bring to the team at the moment? And is he now the Cristiano Ronaldo of England?

In previous years, that last question would have been a thundering compliment, but in 2024 it borders on criticism – a suggestion that Kane is kept in the team on reputation alone and that his manager lacks the courage to make a difficult decision. But could that really be true?

The question about his fitness seems the most relevant, as Kane, fit and in form, is undoubtedly one of the best strikers in the world.

He was fit enough to start all of England's matches at the European Championship, playing 464 minutes, playing two full matches and being substituted three times (in the 70th minute against Denmark in the middle group match, the 105th against Slovakia in the round of 16 and the 109th against Switzerland in the quarter-final on Saturday).

He entered the tournament with a back injury sustained towards the end of the club season at Bayern Munich, which then-head coach Thomas Tuchel called a “complete blockage” – an accurate description of England's current attack. “It has become worse and is hindering his daily movements,” Tuchel said in May.

Kane has been receiving treatment from his personal medical team to get fit for the tournament and although he has started all five games, the eye test suggests he is far from his best performance, which is when he can seamlessly and gracefully be a team’s creator and finisher in a split second. He seems incapable of that now.


Harry Kane has not shown his best form at Euro 2024 (Stefan Matzke – sampics/Getty Images)

In an England shirt this summer, his movements are awkward, wooden and restricted (his body almost looked contorted when he attempted a volley in the final group match against Slovenia). His play is weakened as a result, and he lacks the power and speed to outpace defenders and deliver balls and crosses into the penalty area.

England manager Gareth Southgate apparently tried to injure Kane so he could drop him when the two collided in the closing stages of the match against Switzerland (just kidding, don't call me offensive in the comments). Kane suffered cramps as a result, but despite being substituted shortly afterwards, he says he will be fit for Wednesday's semi-final against the Netherlands.

“I feel fine. I was just tired,” said Kane, who turns 31 later this month. “I had a bit of a cramp there. I tripped over the water bottles and got cramps in both calves. The boss obviously made a quick decision, with Ivan (Toney, who replaced him) being a proven penalty taker. He came in and did his job.”

For Portugal, the 39-year-old Ronaldo proved irreplaceable and almost irreplaceable in this tournament (he used to be was substituted after 66 minutes against Georgia, but given that his team had already progressed to the knockout stages before that final group match and there had been eight other changes, one might wonder why he played at all) as they were knocked out by France in the same round of 16, also on penalties.

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Kane, while lacking Ronaldo’s ego, has a similar status for England – one that was burnished by his 44 goals in 45 appearances for new club Bayern last season (when Ronaldo was playing in the Saudi Pro League, of course). But Southgate has, in time, proven himself more than capable of making bold decisions, such as dropping Marcus Rashford, Mason Mount, Jack Grealish and two of his former favourites in Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson.

If Kane were to be out of the starting XI on Wednesday it would be a huge blow, one that trumps all of the above points.

It almost certainly won't happen. But should it?

harry kane 2024 all shots

What was striking against Switzerland was how little Kane interfered with England's build-up.

Yes, he would stretch the Swiss defence and yes, he would come deep to receive the ball, but as this graphic link-up of England's passing movements shows, Kane (you can find him near the centre circle) was very much the odd one out:

england switzerland network 2024 07 06 1

It's not uncommon for a team's centre forward to be under-represented when it comes to these graphics, but it's telling how little involvement Kane had against Switzerland.

In that sense he was similar to Ronaldo, who also remained anonymous for Portugal in the quarter-finals on Friday:

portugal france network 2024 07 05

Kane's ability to go deep is nothing new – he's been doing it for years, and with great success – but his low number of touches in the opposition's third third against Switzerland is another indicator of his lack of sharpness:

harry kane england 1

Sometimes he goes clear at deep, even in the defensive line, and can sometimes get in the way, while England would be better off with a settled centre up front, especially if Kane's current fitness levels are nowhere near as high as normal.

harry kane all open play touches in euro 2024 halfspace touchmap

There is certainly a case to be made that it is more useful to stay on the last line of the opposition defence, allowing them to pin down their centre-backs and create space between the lines for team-mates like Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka to exploit. As in this example against Denmark, where Foden and Bellingham are able to slip behind their midfield.

kane last line

But if that is to be Kane's primary task, there are other, fitter and fresher players in the squad who can do it, and who at the same time offer England more opportunities to press or run in defence.

“He's not going to drop Harry Kane,” former England international and now leading UK analyst Gary Neville said of Southgate on Sky Sports after the Switzerland game. “He's one of his leaders, one of the best English footballersrs we've ever had. There's no doubt he hasn't been at his best in this tournament, but neither has the team. The service to him hasn't been great.

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“(Kane should) stay high, between those two centre-backs, and then drop forward a little bit to try and draw those centre-backs towards him so the runs can happen back in.

“He doesn't look himself. He doesn't look as sharp when the ball is played to him, in and around the penalty area. He doesn't seem to be able to use his touch and his shot as he normally would, but he won't be dropped unless he's injured.”

Given that Toney had a positive impact from the bench in both knockout games and Ollie Watkins had different qualities to Kane and Toney in terms of pace, pressing and running after the ball, there is room for debate.

It's probably a redundant comment, given Kane's status, his relationship with Southgate (the England manager is thought to listen to him, and vice versa), his experience, temperament and his obvious goalscoring ability, whether fit or not.

It has happened before that teams with ineffective strikers have won tournaments.

Portugal played with Ronaldo and Nani as strikers in their defensive victory at Euro 2016, France had a non-scoring Olivier Giroud as striker when they won the 2018 World Cup (he didn't even have a shot on target despite playing in all seven games and starting six), and had done exactly the same with lone, goalless striker Stephane Guivarc'h when they won the same competition 20 years earlier.

The difference was that all those players were fit and they were making significant contributions to teams that, at least in the case of France, were still scoring goals.

But England are unconvincing in Germany and don't look likely to score for a long time. They don't generate momentum, their expected goals are low and they rely on moments such as Bellingham's bicycle kick and Saka's perfect strike — equalisers, against Slovakia and Switzerland respectively, which came in the 95th and 80th minutes respectively and were England's first attempts on target in the game.

If these phrases don't sound like a recipe for winning a tournament, they probably aren't.

England have reached the last four, but to lift the trophy in Berlin next Sunday they absolutely need Kane at anything close to his best form. If he can’t do that, it may be sacrilege to say so, but they would probably be better off with someone else up front, especially when the striker’s main job is to keep defenders occupied.

go deeper

GO DEEPER

England is unconvincing, but who cares? It's time to just enjoy the ride

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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