When Harry Kane dropped into midfield, Simon Kjaer joined him. When Kane jumped for a ball, Kjaer jumped with him. When Kane went into goal, Kjaer ran with him. The AC Milan defender, 33, may be far beyond his main physical objective, but at Tuesday’s Champions League meeting with Tottenham Hotspur he had one objective and pursued it relentlessly: stop Kane.
Few defenders in recent seasons have done so well in one-on-one competition with the England captain, even if Kjaer has occasionally been lucky with some refereeing decisions. And from Milan’s point of view, the strategy worked perfectly. Kjaer kept Kane out of the game and, in doing so, effectively shut down Spurs’ entire attack.
It was a measure of the situation at Spurs, without Kane being able to influence the game, Antonio Conte’s side had no other ideas at the San Siro. No creativity, no chances, no real prospect of scoring a goal. They played well otherwise, but when the ball reached the final third there was a lack of invention and acuity.
On Tuesday night, Son Heung-min and Dejan Kulusevski were alongside Kane from the start. Eventually Richarlison and Arnaut Danjuma were in his company. Those are four top quality players – but none of them have come close to offering a real attacking threat.
Most worrying for Spurs is that this is not even unusual. Simply put, Kane’s supporting act hasn’t provided the goals and assists expected – and needed – by a team with Tottenham’s ambitions. The performance in Milan continued the theme, and underlined just how dependent Conte’s side are on Kane to carry the attack.
This season, Kane has been directly involved in 22 of his club’s goals in all competitions (19 goals, three assists). That is twice as much as Son, who has eight goals and three assists, and more than twice that of his other attacking partners.
Richarlison and Kulusevski, in particular, did not provide the number of decisive moments expected of Spurs supporters, and indeed Conte, at the start of the season. Those starting two have played 20 games this season, in all competitions, and both have scored just two goals.
There are mitigating factors in both cases: Richarlison and Kulusevski have had injury problems this season, and have not been as consistent as they had hoped. But their returns are still disappointing, and there is little to suggest that those figures will change anytime soon.
At that point it is worth remembering that Richarlison cost £60 million when he arrived from Everton this summer, and that Kulusevski will cost around £30 million when his loan deal from Juventus becomes a permanent move. That’s almost £100 million worth of attacking talent, delivering a total of four goals in a total of 40 appearances.
Son, it should be noted, is not much better. Against Milan he was ineffective again, as has often been the case this season, and Kane is increasingly isolated as the team’s main threat due to the fallout from the previous campaign. To put it bluntly, Milan had no reason to worry about Son on Tuesday night. With Kane shackled, Son and Kulusevski were barely in the game.
Does it matter who scores the goals? Maybe not, if Kane can regularly fire Spurs to victory. But a common theme among Europe’s best sides is that the attacking threat is diverse and multi-dimensional, and the loss in Milan only highlighted how Spurs are not leading the way.
In the Premier League this season, Arsenal’s wide forward has scored 28 goals and assists between them. At Manchester City, that figure stands at 24. For Spurs, it’s a paltry 16. It’s not hard to see where they fall short compared to the league’s leading sides.
These are not easy times for Spurs, who have lost seven of their last 14 games in all competitions and are now in the midst of a sudden injury crisis. The team needs goals and Kane needs help, obviously. Until the other attackers start to share the load, Spurs will struggle to find the consistency they need in the second half of the season.