Are Tottenham a better team without Harry Kane?

  • Tottenham's all-time leading goalscorer Kane left for Bayern Munich
  • Spurs are thriving under new manager Ange Postecoglou after horrendous 2022/23 season
  • James Maddison and fellow new signings key to uplift in 2023/24

Tottenham have moved on well from Kane's exit
Tottenham have moved on well from Kane's exit / ANP / Contributor / Marc Atkins / Contributor

Tottenham fans were promised a fresh start at the beginning of the 2023/24 season, but few could have expected results and atmosphere to be so good under new head coach Ange Postecoglou.

Coming off the back of their worst Premier League finish in 14 years with coach Antonio Conte throwing players under the bus and his subsequent replacement Cristian Stellini looking completely out of his depth, talisman Harry Kane saw little cause for optimism at Spurs before jetting over to Bayern Munich for a fresh start.

Tottenham have started the season well, even if they've lost the chance to claim a trophy in the shape of the Carabao Cup - honestly, what's the point in playing when that prize is off the table? - and new boss Postecoglou has managed to instil the best style of play since the peak days of Mauricio Pochettino.

But how has the Greek-Australian turned things around in north London, so much so that Spurs arguably look better without hometown hero Kane?

How Tottenham relied on Harry Kane under Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte

Harry Kane
Kane was fighting a losing cause at the end of 2022/23 / Visionhaus/GettyImages

When Tottenham ushered Pochettino out of the door in late 2019, little did they know they were sacrificing attacking intent for Mourinho and Conte-ball, both of which looked well past their sell-by dates during their stints as manager.

For both bosses' love of defence-first football, the degeneration at the back was startling. After conceding 39 league goals in 2018/19, Spurs have recorded season hauls of 47, 45, 40 and 63 in each campaign since. Last season in particular, where Tottenham fell apart in defence, proved to be the final straw for Kane.

The 63 goals conceded came in sometimes horrendous fashion. In fact, their expected goals against (xGA) only stood around 52, significantly fewer than the actual goals they ended up conceding.

The England captain's 30 goals, which included 12 in his last 12 games, led Tottenham to an eighth-place finish. The season before he had played second fiddle to Son Heung-min with 17 goals and nine assists, but that was still enough for Kane to stick around for a full campaign with Antonio Conte that didn't quite last for a full campaign.

Tottenham over-performed in expected goals (xG) last season by more than 12 strikes, having only netted one more than expected in 2021/22. Only Son (10) hit double figures after Kane, with Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg netting five and four goals respectively.

Spurs managed to huff and puff their way through games early during the 2022/23 season despite the team's lack of adaptation to Conte's methods, even though they had stormed into the top four in 2021/22. Kane tasked himself with adding new facets to his game and that helped his goal tallies with Tottenham remain high, but there was little sign of innovation elsewhere.

How Tottenham have improved under Ange Postecoglou since Harry Kane's exit

James Maddison, Son Heung-min
Maddison and Son are the new duo at Tottenham / Visionhaus/GettyImages

Seemingly every part of the pitch has received a shot in the arm from Postecoglou's arrival.

In Guglielmo Vicario they have a goalkeeper who has so far avoided throwing the ball into his own net - Hugo Lloris made four mistakes which led to goals in 2022/23, leading the division in that negative metric.

The most striking difference is out wide. Whereas Conte's wing-backs remained pinned to the areas of their manager's choosing, Destiny Udogie and Pedro Porro are seen regularly in midfield and central attacking areas, offering more space for key creative outlets in deeper positions.

The pair's ease in possession helps the likes of Yves Bissouma and James Maddison play passes to move Tottenham higher up the pitch, while the forward runs of Pape Matar Sarr have caused havoc in opposition defences.

The end result is a team with a clear identity that knows how to score goals. In previous years, Spurs have been so creatively limited that giving the ball to Kane and hoping for the best became their only port of call.

While his magic alongside Son's ruthless finishing fired the Lilywhites to fourth in 2021/22, the subsequent campaign delivered attacking football that ranged from chaotic to aimless, with no promising patterns emerging.

Maddison has since taken up that creative role to great effect and with a system in place that suits his ambitious play style, Tottenham are now a more dangerous team in all areas in the pitch, a large contrast to 2022/23 when Kane shouldered the goalscoring burden on his own.

The view from Tottenham Hotspur Stadium

Sean Walsh - of Oh What a Night and general Lovely Fella™️ fame - has been a regular at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to witness the beginnings of Ange-ball in north London. Here's his view on how Spurs have re-emerged after Kane's departure.

Kane is now at Bayern Munich / YASIN AKGUL/GettyImages

The stats suggest that Tottenham are now better off without Kane, and it's hard to disagree with the eye test either.

Spurs are playing their most entertaining stuff since the peak years of the Mauricio Pochettino era, and certainly the finest brand of football since moving into their new £1bn stadium.

What's more impressive is the circumstances in which Postecoglou arrived, coming in as the successor to three negative and pragmatic managers in Jose Mourinho, Nuno Espirito Santo and Antonio Conte.

The sample size of Kane in Postecoglou's system is incredibly small - just three pre-season matches in total - and he only looked at home in his final game for Tottenham.

Kane found it difficult to co-exist with marquee summer signing James Maddison - the England captain's penchant to drop deep into midfield saw him clog up the same space as the ex-Leicester talisman.

In a 5-1 victory at home to Shakhtar Donetsk, the two finally figured out how to not get in each other's way, with Kane largely staying in the penalty area and Maddison starting deeper and floating balls into the box.

But Kane's departure led to another change in approach, with Postecoglou first trialling Richarlison up front before settling on Son Heung-min as his number nine.

Son and Maddison work almost like a front two at times, with the latter pushing high up and pressing aggressively when the wingers stay wide. At this stage of his career, Kane was no longer able to lead the press from the front and this would have been a problem under Postecoglou.

"If you look back at the teams he's managed, they've always been front-foot pressing teams," Maddison recently said of Postecoglou. "The first day, he came in and said pressing high was almost a non-negotiable at any stage of the game."

Maddison then referenced the Shakhtar friendly in which Spurs conceded just before half-time and how much that infuriated Postecoglou.

"We had a game in pre-season, we stopped pressing and sat in a little bit and he went ballistic at half-time against Shakhtar Donetsk here," he added. "He said that's almost how Tottenham have been in the past, trying to protect a lead, and it's non-negotiable to press and keep going."

Son has also grown into the number nine role in recent weeks, combining his quick feet and thinking with his eye for goal, developing his back-to-goal game with every passing match.

But let's not kid ourselves - a dynamic and prolific striker like Kane would have found a way to make it work, to make Tottenham even better than they already are. Postecoglou even said as much at his latest press conference.

"What I've been trying to explain is that individuals change the way you play. I'm not into this commentary that we're a better team without Harry because the last game Harry played for us he did alright in our system when he scored four goals. It's fair to say we would have been able to squeeze him in somewhere!" he said.

"Him not being there just allows to bring different individuals into the team and they change the dynamic. Again, while the way I want my teams to play has a really clear structure, what I try to do is create a balanced squad where individuals can change the dynamics of it.

"Having Sonny as our number nine is different from having Harry or even Richy as a our number nine. Having Deki as a winger or having Brennan Johnson as a winger changes it even if the structure is the same.

"Not having Harry there does change us as a team because we're using different individuals but if Harry was still here the structure would be the same and we'd have the same fundamentals of trying to dominate opposition, press the opposition, all those kind of things would still be there. Ultimately I don't want to suppress the qualities they have, I want to bring out the best of them within the structure we have."