It is that time of year again. We are in January, and Harry Kane has picked up another injury. This time, it doesn’t appear to be so bad – the England international is only expected to miss a few weeks of action as opposed to a number of months.
But, with the football coming thick and fast, Spurs’ star striker could miss over eight matches, including key Premier League clashes against Chelsea and Manchester City where Tottenham’s fading title aspirations might face a final test.
With the league’s top-provider out, José Mourinho’s counter-attacking brand of football is under serious threat, as this might affect Son Heung-min’s performances too considering the fact that the South Korean international has combined with Kane for 13 of his side’s 34 goals, benefitting on nine occasions.
So, it is imperative that Mourinho finds a system without Kane which will preserve Tottenham’s counterattacking style (since this is where Son thrives with his pace), and he needs to be quick about it. Here are a few ideas:
Son as a striker
Looking from the outside, the most obvious opinion would be that Mourinho would persist with what he tried in the second half against Liverpool.
The Portuguese tactician replaced Kane with a winger in Erik Lamela, overlooking some more traditional strikers that were on his bench. With that, he switched to a 4-2-3-1 (Tottenham’s preferred formation this season) with Son as a striker.
Of course, Lamela could be interchanged for any other winger like Lucas Moura or even Gareth Bale (it’s about time he steps up), but the issue in this system is mainly tactical. As we explored in our Liverpool vs Tottenham analysis, Spurs were absolutely blunt with just 0.04 xG in the second half, which came from a solitary shot.
The problem is that without Kane, there is no one to stretch the backline to create space in behind the defence for Son to run into. The 28-year-old forward alone doesn’t pose so much of a goal threat, so he probably wouldn’t work as a sole striker.
A like-for-like replacement
The fact that Mourinho overlooked Carlos Vinícius when he was on the bench in the second half against Liverpool must have been a major hit to the Brazilian striker’s confidence, and it also shows that the ex-Porto manager clearly does not trust the man he himself signed as Kane’s back-up.
Perhaps thumping a two-yard tap-in against plumbers and binmen and celebrating like Mbappé wasn’t the best thing Vinícius has done at Tottenham, but he does have six goals and three assists from six starts in the Europa League and FA Cup, so he can score.
Although he hasn’t started a league match yet, you would think that this is the best chance the Benfica loanee is ever going to get.
The issue with using Vinícius up front is that he perhaps isn’t the right fit for Tottenham’s attacking system. Bringing down long balls are an integral part of it, but the Brazilian striker won 1.2 aerial duels per 90 on average this season – less than half of Kane’s 2.7. The 25-year-old forward also doesn’t possess half of Kane’s creative abilities – his per 90 xA of 0.10 in the league is way lower than Kane’s 0.25.
Bonus mention to using Gareth Bale as a striker:
Mourinho specifically stated that this would not be done, and that is exactly why it deserves a mention.
The best of both worlds
Perhaps the best solution is to use a regular striker alongside Son up front. With the South Korean international playing as a second striker, Tottenham can ensure that he gets in goalscoring positions often.
The 4-4-2 is, of course, one of the best formations from a defensive point of view, and the counterattack is usually one of its main weapons. Teams often retreat into this formation in defence when fielding a 4-2-3-1, so it’s not such a far cry from Tottenham’s favoured shape.
The one issue in this system for Mourinho might be the two-man central midfield, which naturally has a tough time against teams fielding a 4-3-3, one of the most common systems in the modern game. But, that too can be solved.
The tradeoff in the 5-3-2/3-5-2 is width, as the wing-backs have to take control over a flank each all alone, but as far as counter-attacking is concerned, this should not be so much of a problem.
But, there is a solution to this too, which Mourinho himself used in the first half against Liverpool.
The main issue with the 5-4-1/3-4-3 for Spurs is the fact that Son would be dragged too far back while defending to be able to spring a real threat in transition, which is why changing shape out of possession could be the solution.
By switching to a 5-3-2 without the ball, Tottenham can ensure that Son is perfectly positioned to make the most of a turnover anywhere on the pitch, while the three-man midfield would hold out a lot better against systems like a 4-3-3.
Regardless of what solution Mourinho comes up with, he does not have more than a couple of shots to get things working as well as they possibly could be, so he needs to get it right.
The last system that we have suggested seems most likely given the fact that the first one failed spectacularly (on xG terrorism levels) and Vinícius does not seem to have enough of Mourinho’s trust to be used a sole striker.
It’s no Kane, lots of pain for Tottenham, so the question is – what sort of ointment can they procure?