Romelu Lukaku is flying at Chelsea while Harry Kane is stuck in stasis | Barney Ronay
Predator versus predator. There will be a strong temptation when Spurs and Chelsea walk out at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday afternoon to view the latest instalment of this edgy, at times rather sour London rivalry through the prism of Rom and Harry.
It is a natural comparison, a meeting of 28-year-old alpha-dog centre-forwards whose careers have converged without ever quite intersecting, a decade-long dance at one remove. As long ago as 2010 Tottenham were trying to sign the 17-year-old Romelu Lukaku of Anderlecht, already a darling of European football and a player who seemed on a different trajectory from the more homespun Harry Kane, who was at that moment getting ready to shuffle off on loan to Leyton Orient.
Those paths continued to run on semi-parallel tracks. Around the time Kane was making a grudging top-flight debut Lukaku was already racking up a 17-goal Premier League season.
Spurs tried to sign Belgium’s new first-choice No 9 again that year but couldn’t match the asking price. Again Kane, still the slightly doughy, vague figure who had struggled to make a mark in the Championship at Leicester, was barely part of the conversation.
It is a measure of Kane’s ignition from 2014-15 he managed to surge ahead, outstripping Lukaku in both status and scoring streaks. Fast forward to this summer and in an agreeable note of circularity there was even some talk the roles had been reversed thanks to Daniel Levy’s extreme player-valuation abacus, that Lukaku’s return to west London came about in part because Chelsea just couldn’t afford Kane.
In reality that move was never seriously on the cards. Chelsea were instead free to spend a record fee on a forward who is at least Kane’s equal, whose star is still on the rise and who arrived emotionally pre-hardwired to the club.
And now we have this: the big-money move versus the big-money stay-at-home. Not to mention that sense once again of shifting status. Kane’s annual pursuit of the golden boot already looks seriously challenged, this time by a fellow all-round centre-forward, the razor edge in a team of profound attacking riches.
Plus Lukaku has arrived at the European champions with a sense of some decisive part being winched into place. This is a player who has been described as “the final piece in the jigsaw” so many times you wonder exactly what kind of jigsaw it is that requires, oh – shall we say? – a £90m striker on top of its existing £50m striker, £70m false nine, and £200m of attacking midfielders to complete the picture.
The contrast is hard to avoid. At Spurs Kane looks like the only piece of the jigsaw. A very good piece, a double-corner with some sky, all ready to knot together some vibrant new scene. But lost for now down the back of the chaise longue with your house keys, a desiccated tangerine and Eric Dier.
As is the way of these things, Lukaku’s early-season success is being used as a stick with which to beat Kane. Lukaku looks right now like a paean to the benefits of travel and broadened horizons, returning from Italy a trimmer more tactically refined figure, a devotee of both the Bresaola-based diet and two-footed finishing. With 68 club goals in his past 99 games and 56 in 58 for Belgium in the past five years this is a footballer still reaching out in search of his ceiling.
In contrast Kane has contracted in that time, become a less thrilling, less high-throttle presence than he seemed at his physical peak. Another summer without a move, backed by the peculiar folly of that five-year contract, has left England’s captain looking like a kind of heritage piece, absent from the Champions League, still trophy-less, the last remaining Easter Island head on that mysterious post-Poch Spurs shore.
Like so many footballing judgments this one may be best left to stew a bit longer. What is undeniable is that Kane’s progress is vividly marked out around these dates, and his own oddly fraught relationship with playing against Chelsea.
Rewind over six years to the first time, a fun, wild 5-3 defeat for the champions-in-waiting at White Hart Lane, and the most striking part of the early highlights reel is the fact Kane doesn’t seem to have aged a day – albeit this is perhaps more a reflection of the fact he already looked like a genial Victorian master chimney sweep.
At the time, New Year’s Day 2015, Kane was a still just an idea, a gathering presence in the post-Soldado void; a 21-year-old with eight career Premier League goals but ready to run like a maniac in Mauricio Pochettino’s new system.
That Chelsea game has come to stand as a kind of coming-out ball. What has changed, dramatically, is the way Kane moves. Chelsea were the best team in the country, John Terry and Gary Cahill England’s central defence.
Kane traumatised them, surging down the channels and springing in behind, an all-action force who looked ready to elevate Spurs into clear blue air, to win trophies, to take a lump out of Chelsea every time they had to face him.
Except, perhaps not. Kane has played Chelsea 17 times since, won four and lost nine. In that time Chelsea have directly stopped Spurs from winning the League Cup, and perhaps the league title too via the Battle of the Bridge. Chelsea have won six major trophies. Spurs, well, they’ve got a nice ground.
As for Kane, his game has changed, has become less about physical pressure, about hunting down the game, more about seizing decisive moments. But again it is worth taking a step back. There is no doubt Kane’s physical range has been altered by seven major injuries in five years, combined with a habit of returning surprisingly soon (Lukaku has missed only 19 games in the same period).
The fact is Kane deserves, not criticism, but huge credit for his ability to keep performing so relentlessly through all his. Bear in mind also who he has been playing for. Kane won the golden boot in a notably roundhead José Mourinho team. He has 10 tournament goals under Gareth Southgate, master of caution, chief engineer of the great white wall.
Similarly Kane been criticised for dropping deep, for becoming again the classic No 10 he was in his youth. Pundits have asked why he does not play on the last defender. The answer to this is pretty clear. He does not have the acceleration to do that. Dropping deep is his best way of finding space, as opposed to tying the game in knots having a backwards wrestle with a centre-half. Kane should be lauded for this, for his tactical intelligence, for finding a way to remain massively productive despite his own loss of zip.
It is here the zero-sum game comparison with Lukaku collapses. Both have changed their games, to the extent they could probably form a pretty smooth striking partnership were they, finally, to intersect. If there is a sadness in Kane’s stasis at Spurs, it lies in the way others have fallen around him, a team withered away to keep a world-class stadium on track. Sunday’s visit from the European champions, the spectacle of Lukaku in excelsis, already looks like another poignant Chelsea date.