Hello, friends. Earlier today I had some fun on Twitter. Jason Davis aka “The Soccer Eagle” (El Soccer Aguila for our friends who speak Spanish) announced that he was adopting Spurs as his EPL club for the season. I chimed in that Harry Kane scored most of his goals off crosses and was not a particularly amazing dribbler.
And then came the waves of Spurs tweets.
A few of these Tweeters were voices I had followed myself for a time, but unfollowed and have muted because they are not my own cup of Joe. One of these Twitterers claimed I must not watch the EPL. The intimation, of course, is that I’m a “new fan” or “fake fan” while this knight in shining Spurs armor has probably been a fan since, like, forever (aka 2006).
Lots of Spurs fans just tweeted amusing GIFS of “Kanes not Harry” and these were funny. Others pointed out that Harry Kane, like, won a Golden Boot. True.
The most interesting argument came from the soccer stats world. A fine individual pointed out that Kane had a lot of “dribbles” per game. I am always open-minded and curious – in fact, I’d only seen probably ten full Spurs games in the past year and parts of about twenty. Perhaps Kane truly was a swashbuckling whirling dervish who could skin a centerback with a headfake?
But then I made the mistake of seeing how these soccermetricians define a “dribble.” Apparently, receiving a pass, moving, and not giving away the ball = a dribble. For me, that’s a “touch.” When I said “dribble”, I meant “take on.” As in, you get the ball, you then dribble by or around or through a defender.
Still, part of me doubted – I could be wrong. I searched for “take on” stats, but found no good or reliable site.
So I scoured videos on Youtube of Kane. I looked at both usual rock music soundtrack heavy goals/assists fare, but also videos labeled “skills.” I was willing to wager that like Diego Costa or other topnotch strikers, Kane would have a handful of moments where he straight up “skinned” a defender or two. I was able to track down one such moment from this season and then a follower tweeted me another such moment from about 2-3 years ago.
Out of his 30 plus goals for Spurs last season, he scored around 20 as headers/sidefooters off crosses and first time strikes off cutbacks. Not to mention six penalty kicks and a deflected free kick. He had two really nice “cut ins” where he cut inside and then drilled a shot to the far post – that’s not skinning a defender, but you are bamboozling so it counts in my book.
Still, the type of goals and lack of dribbling highlights on Youtube only reinforced my belief. Kane is a striker that does not make his own meal – he is involved in buildup play with smart and quick touches, but largely scores by getting the last touch to a teammate’s play. When his teammates are on fire, he bangs in goals left and right. However, asking him for a flash of brilliance on his own is not his strong suit. Playing the ball to teammates and not blindly dribbling into a double team is a smart play that some strikers need to emulate. But is it wrong to demand and expect more of a young talent?
What most intrigued me about this Kane firestorm, though, was that at the same time in DMs I was having a similar debate about Gareth Bale with a fellow Real Madrid fan. This fan claimed Gareth Bale did “not heavily favor the left-foot” and that I was just regurgitating “narrative.” Again, I tracked down video and showed that, for example, Bale normally scores with his left foot and head – in 2015, for example, he only scored two tap-ins with the right.
These debates intrigue me because of the emotional attachment to strangers. Spurs fans feel attached to Kane, so any criticism must be fended off. I am not a Spurs fan, so I’m the enemy twice over. Likewise, some people feel attached to Bale, so nobody wants to hear he has points in his game to improve. This reminds me of the Jozy Altidore paradox: ask a Sunderland fan if Jozy has a good first-touch, then ask a USMNT fan. You will get vastly different answers.
Yet, honestly, I think you have to look at players’ faults to evaluate them and the coach honestly. Players need to be put in positions to succeed. Bale thrives when on the flank, even though he dreams of being a #10. Kane thrives at Spurs as a #9 where his well-timed runs and excellent finishing skills cap off excellent attacking team play. If Kane was asked to play as a #9 in a 4-3-3 with two wide strikers, I think he’d struggle. He feasts off service from out wide. That’s not his fault, but Pochettino deserves credit for having a system that feeds Harry.
In terms of the big picture, the optimist in me hoped years ago that stats in soccer would allow us to look beyond these types of personal attachment. But, honestly, too many soccer stats are more descriptive and unenlightening than prescriptive. We have a generation of youth coaches in the US teaching kids “tiki taka” and possession, when that system only dominates when you have, say, Xavi and Iniesta pulling the strings and a dashind Carles Puyol to run around on defense and compensate for a suicidally high defensive line.
But stats show that the great Barca and Spain sides dominated possession, ergo, possession = winning = good. Just like a high shot volume means we can look at expected goals and decide if a team is “playing well” but not winning/scoring as much as they should be. Are all shots created equal Does a “shot” really result from a clear scoring chance?
The tension for stats is that they are so general that they just confirm what we can see with the plain eye, or they get so nuanced and specific that they then can’t be applied to more than a handful of situations. There is a small range of situations – a stats “gravy zone” if you will – where they can rebut assumptions, but these moments are few and far between.
So, in conclusion, I am a United fan (and poser unlike this super fan guy aka “The Real Deal”) but think Spurs are the favorites to win the EPL and if Harry Kane doesn’t score the most goals in the EPL, I’ll be shocked. I will be even more shocked, though, if he skins a centerback more than, say, three times this season.