Cards on the table: I think the Premier League would be more fun next season if Harry Kane stayed at Tottenham Hotspur. I understand why he wants to leave, of course. A time comes for every superstar player on a second-tier team to run his index finger along an empty shelf, hold up his fingertip to examine the dust, and say, “You know what would improve the ambience here in my Trophy Cave? Not being utterly devoid of trophies.” Kane is 28; that’s an age when a player naturally starts to think about what he hopes to accomplish in his remaining playing time. And like the rest of us, Kane has noticed that winning major competitions is Manchester City’s second-favorite thing to do as a club (just behind buying 5,000 players for $69 million each) and Tottenham’s 437th-favorite thing (just behind putting the siren emoji on a tweet announcing a revised kickoff time against Watford).
So for Kane, moving to Man City makes perfect sense. As I write this, Kane, who reportedly believes he has a “gentleman’s agreement” with Tottenham that would allow him to leave this summer, has skipped training for several days in an attempt to pressure gentleman’s-agreement-denying Spurs chairman Daniel Levy to let him go. This, predictably, has sent the discourse into a bit of a tizzy. The club says it wants Kane to stay. Some English soccer fans think Kane is a spoiled brat with first-world problems, and have therefore turned to social media to explain how a commercialized children’s game has disappointed them. Even Son Heung-min, Kane’s Spurs teammate and coauthor of about 99.2 percent of Tottenham’s goals last year, seems to have maybe liked an Instagram post that was maybe vaguely critical of Kane. Well, it’s the transfer season; we’ll take our drama where we can get it. From Kane’s perspective, though, the work holdout is a rational business decision. You can approve or disapprove of the tactic, but it’s one that generations of Spurs players—Gareth Bale and Luka Modric missed training; Dimitar Berbatov sat out at least one game—have used to win a move to a bigger club, and it’s easy to see where Kane’s coming from.
Personally, though, as someone who likes his England captains upright and striving, I find the whole thing kind of a downer. Kane at Tottenham is a beautiful underdog story: the best English player of his era struggling to carry a ragtag team to glory. Kane at Man City will be a marginally less compelling story: the best English player of his era spending 40 percent of the season on the bench while coasting to some trophies the club would probably have won anyway. I don’t automatically hate superteams, but there’s a saturation point of talent beyond which a club becomes kind of a dead zone for individual players’ narratives. With the possible exception of John Stones, I can’t think of a single Man City player I wouldn’t be more excited to watch somewhere else. Remember how fun Riyad Mahrez used to be, back when he played for a team that actually needed him? Don’t you feel a little stone in your heart at the thought of what’s about to happen to Jack Grealish?
It’s a rare luxury for a club to be able to turn stars into system players, and it’s one that City, in the full flush of its plutocrat years, has mastered. Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, and even Kevin De Bruyne have been reclassified as nice to have rather than essential. De Bruyne, who is by many lights one of the five or six best players in the world, missed more than two months last season with injuries, and the worst consequence City faced was that Ilkay Gundogan accidentally became an unstoppable talent. Kane is too good and too marketable to be fully anonymized at Man City, but he won’t be the singular, larger-than-life figure he currently is in North London. He’ll be nice to have. This might be a quality-of-life improvement from his perspective—I wouldn’t want a club’s fortunes, millions of people’s emotions, and José Mourinho’s job prospects riding on my shoulders, either—but it will inevitably be a little duller to watch.
In a funny way, the Kane transfer soap opera shows the worst side of both clubs. If City comes across as an arrogant hoarder of talent (“$140 million not enough? Here, take $180 million—no price is too high for our future first substitute in a Champions League quarterfinal”), Tottenham comes across, as usual, as a semi-dysfunctional blend of big club and small club. Spurs are big enough to have developed the best English striker of his generation, too big to sell him as soon as he made a name for himself, too small to make sense as a permanent home for him, too big to know they’re too small, and too tragically medium-sized to get through the crisis without letting their star player alienate half their fan base. (And they’re probably chalking it up as a win, because it makes the club look “good” if Kane is being ripped on social media.)
Maybe Levy is dragging this out as a masterful negotiating tactic (though … is he a masterful negotiator?), but he’s also in a nightmarish position. Losing Kane will sink his reputation with Spurs fans, but $180 million from Man City might do more for the club than an alienated Kane. Kane’s value will probably never be higher, and if the transfer doesn’t go through this year, Pep Guardiola will have Erling Haaland as a fallback option next summer. (Reports out of Manchester keep saying Pep isn’t interested in Haaland, which can mean only one thing: Pep is interested in Haaland.) This is the curse of being chairman at a medium-sized club: What works for your club’s sense of identity doesn’t necessarily work for its hope of sustained success, and vice versa. Levy does not seem to see a clear path through this maze. And in the meantime, Harry Kane is left hanging, and Man City is left trying to figure out how much money will make Tottenham fans go “Well, he had no choice.” The whole thing is a mess. On the bright side, I have never felt more optimistic about Son liking something I posted on Instagram.