Premier League Week 7: A Tale of Two Strikers

 

There wasn’t a great deal particularly impressive about Harry Kane’s first goal on Saturday. Two centre backs caught up the pitch, a harmless header into the Huddersfield half, a defensive error and a keeper beaten at his near post. So slapdash was the chance’s conception, and so straightforward its consumption, that it failed to threaten the forward’s top five finishes of the week. Given his recent rampancy, Kane himself may have already forgotten scoring a goal of such mundanity.

Yet for the viewer there was something decidedly different about this one. What was striking was not the strike itself but the palpable sense of certainty that proceeded it. In the sharp collective gasp that greeted Chris Löwe’s failure to contain an unthreatening ball forward you could just about make out the soft sound of the scoreboard operator punching an unwelcome ‘1’ into his keyboard with the dejected assurance that it would only take a similar degree of difficulty for the centre forward to punch the ball past Jonas Lössl.

If his first goal spoke to the manner in which Kane has redefined the opportunity to score as an inevitability, the second highlighted the banality of his brilliance. No gift was presented here, not that it mattered. In the absence of having a chance fall at his feet, an impatient Kane instead took it upon himself to conjure one from thin air as he picked up the ball with his back to goal, picked off a trio of pesky defenders encircling him and picked out the top corner with a left-footed finish of forensic precision. This was not a goal Kane would likely have scored a season ago, yet his reaction demonstrated why he’s become capable of doing so. There was no crazed celebration or holy-shit hysteria with which many players marvel at their own wonder strikes. Whereas such exclamation implies surprise, a jolt of adrenaline-induced amazement at one’s accomplishment, Kane conveyed only the muted response of a man meeting his own expectations as he calmly made his way back to the halfway line.

While these days there’s always a number 10 on his back, every time you watch Kane it seems like you’re watching a new, superior version which has just been released. August glitches aside, he is no longer a player of fallow periods or one content to let the fluctuating fickleness of form dictate his utility. Rather, with every passing game the forward refines his craft, upgrading his ability in the pursuit of optimum footballing performance. As witnessed in both goals against Huddersfield, from both feet no less, this is never more evident than in the finesse of his finishing. Kane doesn’t thump them in, nor does he pass the ball into the net. Rather, he grooves the ball with the honed sophistication of an old man carving an eagle from a block of wood.

In addition to this artful delicacy, Kane has added a raw physicality to his game, a manifest manliness through which he’s now able to wrestle with even the Premier League’s most ogreish defenders (no offence Ryan Shawcross). Chuck these qualities in with an unflinching mental discipline, faultless positioning and the keenest of noses for goal and Kane carries all the attributes endemic of the breed’s top predators. At 24, he is at that critical age where potential can either drift aimlessly away or be ceaselessly exploited to its maximisation. Kane, it seems, will not rest until he knows he’s achieved the latter and who knows what other milestones he’ll pass on the journey. All we can say with certainty, so it seems, is that each will pass by with only the most tacit of acknowledgements from a machine whose eyes will already be fixed firmly on whatever and wherever the next goal is.

If Kane’s career looks perfectly poised, so to did another 24-year old centre-forward plying his trade in the capital. Alvaro Morata was never going to fill the muscular, maniacal hole left by Diego Costa’s return to Madrid, but the Spaniard’s start meant he was well on his way to cultivating his own identity as a bespoke goal-getter. A hamstring injury has briefly put paid to that progress, yet it was Antonio Conte’s failure to replace his new number nine with his most obvious replacement that provided the most delicious of subplots at Stamford Bridge.

Try as he might, since joining the blues last year Michy Batshuayi has never really shaken off the perception of a supporting character closer to being killed off than thrust into a starring role. Yet all that seemed to change with his Champions League heroics at Atletico Madrid’s newly christened Wanda Metroplitano stadium last week. It was a winning goal, in such a critical moment on such a grand stage, that at the very least demonstrated a taste for the big occasion and demanded the chance to prove it was not a fluke.

With Morata’s injury, the sporting stars seemed to serendipitously align for the ‘Bats Man’ to restate his intention to step boldly into the role of leading man. Conte’s decision to look past him and call upon Willian instead may have been part of a tactical reshuffle, owing to Manchester City’s superiority at that stage in the game, yet any explanation will surely struggle to appease poor Michy who was left to wallow in his own rejection. The thought ‘if not then, when?’ will surely have spiralled around the Belgian’s mind as the show rolled on without him, while the sight of his countryman, Kevin de Bruyne, who himself had to escape the suffocating suppression of the Chelsea bench, deciding the tie with a goal of pure class may have offered more inspiration than the forgotten man would ever reveal.

Just like Kane and Morata, Batshuayi is also 24. Whether he’s good enough to consistently lead the line of one of the league’s superpowers remains doubtful, but if the duration of Morata’s absence doesn’t even offer the opportunity to prove his detractors wrong, surely the ‘Bats Man’ should seek out a club that will give him the chance he both needs and deserves.

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