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Mauricio Pochettino is sending out a very different message regarding Harry Kane's fitness to the one of two years ago.
“Maybe I am crazy… but you can't have doubts about Harry Kane,” he said in April 2017, when the Englishman surprised everyone by returning three weeks early from an ankle injury.
“There is no doubt Harry is our best player. It’s like with Barcelona – Messi is injured for one month but Barcelona are still winning. Then, Messi is available again. Do you say, ‘Hmm, I don’t know?’”
The message was clear: if Kane is available to play again then Kane plays. Now, though, the Argentine coach appears to think differently.
“I don’t care if he feels ready or wants to play,” Pochettino said this week. “I’ll decide with my coaching staff, with the doctor and the medical staff and sports science staff.
“Of course, if you ask him then ten days ago he was ready to play. But in the end, the last word is always mine.”
Pochettino's approach is certainly wise. The last time Kane was rushed back from an ankle injury, he struggled to recapture his top form. And then off the back of that, he had a summer filled with World Cup instead of rest.
His statistical drop-off after coming back early from that injury last April was stark. His attempts on goal almost halved, going down from 5.93 per 90 minutes to 3.08. His expected goals more than halved, from 0.84 per 90 to 0.34.
Perhaps worryingly for Pochettino, Kane's figures this season haven’t moved much from those ‘post-injury’ levels. Shots attempted have only increased to 3.67 per 90, while open-play expected goals are up 0.44 per 90.
Kane’s fitness was a source of speculation earlier in the campaign. Although he broke his infamous August duck, he didn’t score for nearly five full matches (for club and country) up until late September.
The quality and frequency of his chances has also varied. They picked up somewhat at the end of October but then dipped. He then got back into his stride mid-December.
That stride hasn’t done him too much good. An average of 0.48 expected goals per 90 between the end of October and his current injury only put him 11th in the Premier League. Ashley Barnes matches his rate; Aleksandar Mitrovic beats it.
Suffering an ankle injury is becoming almost a yearly occurrence for Kane, and the more often that it’s a problem, the more worrying it becomes.
“It is always a worry when you get a recurring injury and there is clearly a little weakness in [Kane’s ankle],” former England striker Gary Lineker has said.
“No player wants to have an injury that keeps cropping up, but ankles are not as bad as having a recurring calf problem or a hamstring issue, as they can be hard to overcome. You can roll your ankle and get away with it to an extent, but the more you do it, the more you worry the weakness will become a problem.”
Kane started 35 of Tottenham’s Premier League games last season, was England’s main striker at the World Cup, and then started 20 of Spurs’ 22 league games before his injury in January.
He’s earned a reputation as a player who recovers quickly — or, maybe more accurately, one who returns quickly. But his troubles towards the back-end of last season raise the question of whether he really waits until he’s fully fit enough to return, and he may still have been suffering the ill-effects of that nearly a year later.
For the good of Spurs, but mostly for the good of himself, Kane should stay on the sidelines until he’s absolutely ready to come back.