Two thoughts occurred to me as Gareth Southgate prepared to bring on Jude Bellingham in the 82nd minute of England’s encouraging opening win.
The first was that he had to take off Harry Kane. The second was that it should have happened 10 minutes earlier.
Kane barely featured in the victory and looked exhausted. Brave as it seems for an England manager to substitute his captain, it was the right and obvious call.
This may become the new reality for Kane. England can get the most from him with a premeditated plan, demanding he give everything for 65-70 minutes before being replaced by fresh legs. The days of keeping him on the pitch so he can make the most of every minute in pursuit of the Golden Boot are over.
Whatever approach Gareth Southgate takes – and whatever happens for the rest of the tournament – we must adjust to the fact that this is not the same Kane who went to the 2018 World Cup in Russia and fulfilled his ambition to be the leading goalscorer. More importantly, the England captain must accept that, too.
For him, this competition cannot be about going into a shoot-out with the likes of Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku or Italy’s Ciro Immobile. They play as dynamic No 9s. Kane no longer does. He spent most of his time against Croatia dropping deep and trying to link the play in midfield, which is why he spent so little time in the penalty area. If you want the Euro ’96 memories to keep coming, Kane is playing like he wants to be Teddy Sheringham more than Alan Shearer.
How Kane struggled in every area
That fundamental change in his game over the past two years is due to necessity, not design. Kane does not lead the press, chase down the full-backs and try to play off the shoulder of the last defender any more. He has become a different player because he no longer has the energy and pace he possessed when he was 24 under Mauricio Pochettino.
That evolution happens to all strikers. Shearer played that way later in his career because he was canny enough to know what his body could and could not do. So did Michael Owen when he stopped being able to spin defenders and outrun them.
Son's pace at Spurs brings the best out of Kane
We have seen how Kane can make this work for Tottenham with Son Heung-min dashing alongside him. He still ended last season as the Premier League’s top goalscorer, showing that when he gets the chances there is still no better finisher.
Only a fool would bet against him scoring against Scotland next Friday, at which point any criticism of Sunday’s display will be thrown back at those perceived to be making any negative observation. But there is no getting away from the fact Kane has to offer more in England’s formation than he did in the warm-up games and against Croatia.
Suggesting his under-par display was because he “didn’t get many opportunities” misses the point. He deliberately dropped deep to get more involved in the game and the worry is he was still a peripheral figure.
At the same time, that deeper role does not lend itself to that single-minded pursuit of the Golden Boot which served Kane and England so well three years ago. Southgate and his coaching staff have to know Kane understands that, so his game time can be tailored to ensure England keep their energy levels high for 90 minutes, utilising the full squad.
Kane won the golden boot at the 2018 World Cup and may still fancy his chances of the same award at this year's Euros
For the star player who is rarely subbed – and someone who lives for goals and trying to become the competition’s top scorer – that requires a psychological shift.
I know how mentally strong Kane is. A few years ago, Pochettino invited me to Spurs’ training ground and Kane spotted me. “I have someone I need to catch, don’t I?” he said, referring to Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, who was leading the goal charts at the time. It was an insight into Kane’s ultra-competitive edge, which is why those who said he would have been desperate to respond to Lukaku’s double for Belgium were spot on. It just feels from an England perspective that the striker should no longer be thinking that way.
England supporters need to grasp that, too. Before kick-off, there was a clamour for Southgate to pack his team with attackers, and some consternation Jack Grealish was not selected. The question if Grealish started was always going to be, who would be left out?
With Kane playing the position he is, it is imperative the midfield runners operate as Raheem Sterling did for the winning goal. That is why Sterling’s starting place is guaranteed. His performance underlined why Southgate stuck with him. There was no way the coach could go into any game without pace, or with four attackers who all wanted to come inside to get the ball rather than running behind centre-backs. The Croatians would have loved that. So, the choice will always be Foden or Grealish, the duo possibly alternating.
Unlike Kane, Sterling has not yet lost his pace — and used it to good effect in bundling in England's winning goal
Assistant manager Steve Holland had hinted at the conundrum in his interviews last week.
“This is not fantasy football. You can’t just throw four or five attacking players together,” he said, emphasising the need for balance. If England had the Kane of four or five years ago, there may have been more of a case for Foden, Mason Mount and Grealish to play behind him. Not now.
For the moment, Southgate has shaped his team to accommodate Kane’s change of style, so one of the exciting young guns will have to start on the bench and bide his time. But more than any recent international tournament, it feels like the manager will maximise his assets and use the full squad rather than stick to a favoured XI.
That means no player can and should be exempt from the hook in the second half, particularly with so many forward options. Even Harry Kane.
England defeat Croatia