When Harry Kane discovered the full extent of a hamstring tear in January 2020 – extremely serious, surgery needed, months out of action – the reaction of José Mourinho, his Tottenham manager at the time, was pithy and colourful. It would be shown in the Amazon documentary on the club’s season. “Woe is us. We will surely not recover from this setback.” Or words to that effect.
Mourinho felt that Kane carried Spurs and the same has been suggested by Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City manager. Everybody remembers “the Harry Kane team” discourse.
There is no doubt that Kane is fundamental to Gareth Southgate’s England. To lose him would be the manager’s biggest nightmare and it was easy to feel the fretting back home when the news emerged on Tuesday night that Kane was set for a scan on his right foot. He had been caught by a bad tackle in England’s opening World Cup match against Iran on Monday.
The good news is that the captain is fine. It was merely precautionary. The cameras were waiting for him on Thursday lunchtime at England’s training base in Al Wakrah and it was reassuring to see him play his part in the session.
During a one-touch passing drill early on – so intense inside a small space – he stretched to reach a seemingly impossible ball, diverting it with his right boot to a teammate in an almost unnatural motion.
If we are honest, and Southgate certainly was, nobody wants to test the theories about Kane’s worth, to see how England might fare without him. Not now at the very biggest tournament, with the second group game against the USA looming large on Friday night.
Equally Southgate was sure that if the worst did come to the worst at any point over the coming weeks, he would be able to cope. With the matches at these finals elongated by extraordinary amounts of stoppage-time – the USA’s draw against Wales on Monday night finished on Tuesday – there is a greater emphasis on strength in depth. It is here, when Southgate considers his attacking options, that he is emboldened.
“Harry is a special player,” Southgate said. “Everybody will focus on his goals but the quality of his buildup play against Iran, [with the assists] for Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, was exceptional.” Could England survive without Kane? “I guess at the highest level, that has yet to be proved. What we’ve tried to do from the very start was not put all the onus on the captain, whether that’s media duties or whatever else – spread the load, give people more responsibility. We have now got more depth.
“I see more of our attacking players in a better moment than they were in the Euros perhaps. I know people talked a lot about the depth we had then, but I didn’t see for some of the squad then that they were in a really good moment when you were looking to make changes. There were some but not all.”
On the face of it, Southgate’s attacking options have not changed much from Euro 2020. But he believes that they have. This time, he has James Maddison rather than Jadon Sancho, and Callum Wilson rather than Dominic Calvert-Lewin. The other attackers are the same.
Maddison and Wilson were selected on the back of fine club form, although the former has been hampered by a knee injury. He did not train again on Thursday. But Wilson was able to make a difference when he came on against Iran, setting up a goal for another substitute, Jack Grealish, with an unselfish assist.
Southgate takes heart from how Grealish, Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden are older and wiser from their experiences at the Euros. Then there is Rashford, who is plainly in far better form. How he seized his moment when he entered against Iran, scoring within seconds. His name had not even been announced over the PA system.
It all feeds into the collective belief before facing the USA, who England have never beaten at a World Cup. There was the 1-1 against them in 2010, scarred by Rob Green’s goalkeeping error, and before that the notorious 1-0 defeat in 1950 – considered to be among England’s greatest humiliations.
Southgate believes the US will provide a tougher test than Iran, mainly because they have better players who will press harder and from cuter angles. The intensity will be higher and England will find it more difficult to build the play and break them down. The US are also likely to be a bigger threat on the counterattack.
What Southgate was perfectly clear about was that there would be no over-confidence from his team. “Have we ever beaten the States at a major tournament?” he asked. “No. We are good at talking highly of ourselves as a nation on the basis of very little evidence. We’ve got to perform on the pitch.”
Southgate has called for a psychological reset, for his players to park the emotions from the Iran game, and yet the requirement is for more of the same – without the small number of defensive errors. Southgate said that Harry Maguire had been withdrawn against Iran because he was dehydrated – he is now OK – and it would be a surprise if the manager changed his starting XI.
“It’s always the dilemma,” Southgate said. “On the one hand, the team have earned the right to go again and there’s something important about a meritocracy where if I’ve played well, I’ve earned the right to go again. Then there is: ‘Are they all ready to go again and is that the right decision?’ There are other guys who are raring to go.”
Whichever way he slices it, Southgate believes he has the answers.