Absence of talisman Kane leaves striking gap that no one can fill
Tottenham once again fail to show they can be a top-class team without their hamstrung striker
It is the one question Tottenham Hotspur would have loved to dodge, a challenge they were desperate to swerve, but the Harry Kane team have got a problem which they are no closer to solving after a defeat that helped expose their limitations without him.
This is the question their rivals wanted to be posed. Could they cope without Kane? Could they prosper without their best player, leading goalscorer and talisman? For those who support Spurs it has always been feared that they could not.
For others, it is the accusation to be thrown whenever the debate moves on to whether a talented Tottenham team will ever become a great one, particularly when Real Madrid hover in the background, talking about Kane and dropping hypothetical fees of £250million into the conversation.
To say Kane is important to Tottenham is like saying the moon has a bearing on the tides. He guides, defines and shapes this exciting team. He is not the sole reason Spurs are feared, but he is the main one.
Kane is the best striker in English football, a match-winner, a gamedecider, a figurehead. If in doubt, give it to Harry. If you are playing badly, do not worry, Harry will get a goal. Spurs have inevitably become reliant on him, the statistics show that, the sheer number of goals scored by the England international make him irreplaceable, but has it gone too far?
Not since Alan Shearer played for Newcastle United has a centreforward led the line and carried a team so enthusiastically, so willingly. He is one of their own, but maybe it is in danger of becoming more than that. Tottenham’s need for Kane might be bordering on unhealthy. When Pep Guardiola described Spurs as “the Harry Kane team” it was a deliberate, slip of the tongue designed to sting Spurs. And it did. It helped spread nagging doubts and was delivered precisely to accentuate the sense of loss Spurs feel when he is missing.
This was the chance to answer those barbed-wire questions, to silence the doubters. Level on points with Manchester United, Tottenham travelled north with the intention of making a statement, not just for this weekend, but for the rest of the season.
Beat United and they would emerge as City’s main title challengers. Beat them without Kane and so many other boxes
Inadequate replacement: Heung-min Son was made to look lightweight by Manchester United’s defenders
would be ticked. They failed. Kane cannot stay fit all of the time and one-man teams do not tend to win the major prizes. Last autumn, Spurs lost an injured Kane for 10 games and won just four of them, one of which was against Gillingham in the League Cup. It was a dip that arguably cost Mauricio Pochettino’s side a title challenge, helping to harden perceptions that Spurs are English football’s nearly team.
We do not know how long Kane’s “minor” hamstring injury will keep him out. The troublesome thing about hamstring injuries is they often come back. Spurs cannot rely on a speedy recovery and they cannot bank on it being a one-off.
They had made contingency plans. Pochettino signed Fernando Llorente from Swansea in the summer with these moments in mind. A striker who could compete with Kane, but more realistically, offer specialist cover. The Spaniard was superb in a struggling team last season and would be an upgrade on Vincent Janssen, who failed to slip into Kane’s shoes last term. Yet Llorente did not start at Old Trafford. The like-for-like replacement was left on the bench, with Huengmin Son preferred through the middle and Moussa Sissoko, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli offering support.
For most of the first half, Son ran around after the ball like a man chasing a £20 note in a gale. United’s defenders fancied their chances of stealing it from him too. A foot in there, an interception here, they made him look lightweight.
The Spurs fans were well aware of their man’s absence too. When they chirped up with a chant from the away section to berate Romelu Lukaku for falling over to win a free-kick, it was to suggest he was just a “s--- Harry Kane”. It betrayed their sense of loss, their uncertainty. Singing about an injured player is not a good sign.
Spurs occasionally looked threatening, but they did not have a presence in the area. They played like a team searching for an itch on an amputated limb.
Without Kane to look for, they did strange things. Sissoko tried to shoot from 35 yards when he has never scored a goal from that distance in his Spurs career. As for Alli, he looked lost without his partner in crime, passing the ball straight to Ashley Young on the edge of the United area one minute, rolling a weak shot into the arms of David de Gea from a tight angle the next, because he could not see anyone in a white shirt to pass to.
When balls came into the area, United dealt with them comfortably, and even when De Gea spilt a routine cross from Ben Davies at the feet of Alli, he could only tee up Sissoko, who got his feet in a tangle and scuffed an ugly effort wide.
Tottenham were good, they held their own, but they did not ever look like scoring, their best chance missed late in the second half when Eriksen’s pass found the run of Alli but he tickled a volley wide. Tottenham still look like a team who need Kane and therefore a team who will be the nearly men again.