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Harry Kane Is Elite

Nine months into 2017, the 24-year-old Tottenham striker has scored more goals than anyone not named Lionel Messi. What makes him so good?

Harry Kane Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Harry Kane works hard, and Harry Kane wants to be great. Both of these things are true—and they’re both oft-cited reasons for why the 24-year-old Tottenham striker has become one of the better goal scorers in not just the Premier League, but the entire world. Kane says he will work hard, he does, and he scores goals. But desire and work ethic themselves do not separate one professional footballer from another. While occasional mavericks might slip into the upper echelons of the game, more than ever, modern football requires high levels of fitness and commitment. Whether playing for Barcelona or Brighton, the majority of players cannot afford to pick and choose their effort levels; working hard is now a base-level requirement to sustain a pro career at any level.

The last two Premier League Golden Boot awards and three consecutive PFA Team of the Year selections establish Kane’s place among the elite. So if it’s not just effort and desire, then what makes him great?

To start with, his prodigious goal output. The 81 Premier League goals he has scored since manager Mauricio Pochettino arrived at Tottenham in 2014 is at least 20 more than anyone but Sergio Aguero (76) in the same period. They are also coming at an increasingly rapid rate. During his initial two full seasons as a regular starter from late 2014 to the end of the 2015-16 campaign, he scored at a rate of about two goals in every three games—an already elite rate, matched by few. Since the start of last season, he has notched goals at a rate closer to one per game. Indeed, his record in the league and European competition in that period is 42 goals from 43 starts, and, if we just look at 2017, his rate is even higher. At the same age, Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku has a sturdy goal-scoring record but broached the 20-goal a season mark only in his final year at Everton, while Kane has already done that three times.

On the surface, it might appear that Kane’s goal-scoring is built on top of an inefficient method. His shots rain in from diverse locations on the pitch, and a sight of goal is usually enough for him to shoot. As a result, plenty of shots are launched from long range and perhaps appear speculative. Such attempts may have a low probability of becoming goals, but they are only part of Kane’s armory. When watching his goals, clear trends appear: The vast majority of them are hit with his first or second touch, and an even greater majority are hit low. His shooting efficiency exists in the details. No touch is wasted. Frequently it is his movement that creates the scoring chance, not just in finding the initial position to receive a pass, but in how he arrives at and shapes himself toward the ball once effectively in possession. From that, there is most often a quick strike or one touch to put the ball in a position for a shot, and his intent is clear: to hit either of the bottom corners of the goal. This adeptness also leaves little time for goalkeepers to react; the shot comes too quickly.

Kane also scores many different types of goals. He can poach inside the 6-yard box, meet crosses, find space from through balls, strong-arm defenders to run in on goal, fire from long distance, win headers, snaffle up rebounds, and nail penalties. It seems like all of his movements—both on and off the pitch—are done with one thing in mind: scoring goals. He is reliable and unflappable, perhaps robotic even, and his temperament never changes; he picks up a yellow card about once every 10 games. He has contributed about four shots a game throughout his entire career, which is at the higher end for a top tier of strikers not called Cristiano or Lionel, and, recently, Kane has been shooting even more. It’s early in the season, but across nine games, that number of shots per game has moved to more than six, and it has powered four braces and a hat trick. He slipped through August goal-free and then replied with 11 club goals in September. When he doesn’t score for any period of time, it becomes a topic of conversation, yet he repeatedly downplays the significance. He says he’ll keep trying to score, and then he does.

While nominally right-footed, Kane is also showing signs of becoming increasingly adept with his left foot. He has always been capable of scoring with either foot, but he has notched 11 left-footed goals for Tottenham in 2017—and, more impressively, three from long range—an uptick from the 13 he had scored in the two and a half seasons prior. This season, he has more left-footed club goals than right (five to four), and his goal against Huddersfield last weekend showed this added threat. In turning nominally to his “wrong” side, he may well have fooled the three defenders he left in his wake. The curled, left-footed finish was emphatic.

To be such a reliable goal scorer is enough in itself, but Kane contributes much more. His hold-up play has improved year over year, and his ability to know where to place himself in relation to the ball and any defender scarcely fails him. He can link play with simple passing and bring other attackers into the game by dropping deep. He has also studied the more subtle arts of forward play; no received foul goes unclaimed, no penalty shout goes unheard, no attacking space is left unfilled. He is a complete forward who also happens to have elite scoring volume.

With his 2017 scoring numbers matching and exceeding world-class talents, the next question now revolves around whether Kane can power a team to glory. Leading Tottenham to a trophy would cap his progress, but personal success in the Champions League or on the international stage would only increase his status. With five goals in two Champions League fixtures already this season, he’s making his mark on the continent. Two matches against Real Madrid after the international break set the stage for Kane to broaden his appeal and enhance his already stellar reputation.

Furthermore, five goals in four international matches this year mean he is now undeniably England’s first-choice striker, and expectations ahead of the World Cup will only continue to rise if he remains so prolific. A positive result in this week’s qualifying fixture against Slovenia at Wembley will seal England’s place in Russia next summer, and, if fit, Kane will lead the line.

It is now a long time since some thought he might have been a one-season wonder in 2015, and Kane has proved his ability through goals time and time again. He is still just 24 and only now moving into his peak years. With three months to go, 2017 has already been a fantastic year for Kane, but 2018 offers the promise of even more.