What makes Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku so great as natural No. 9s
It's rather unlike the Premier League to suffer a crisis of confidence, but that's exactly what has happened in recent years in terms of superstar footballers. The Premier League has lost Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez, each voted the Premier League's best player, to La Liga's big two clubs and every time someone else threatens to reach that status -- Eden Hazard, for example -- the transfer rumours begin again.
English football has relatively few established world-class players, but Premier League observers have also been guilty of underestimating their rising stars -- in particular, two centre-forwards who were supposed to meet this weekend, Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku.
Injury looks to have robbed us of the direct spectacle of Kane vs. Lukaku, with the Spurs striker ruled out of the game by coach Mauricio Pochettino due to a minor hamstring injury. But the two strikers are going to have a crucial influence throughout the season.
The pair sit first and joint-second in the goal-scoring chart. It took multiple 20-goal seasons before everyone became convinced Kane was a genuinely fantastic striker, while it took a move to Manchester United before Lukaku became widely regarded as a top-class attacker, having previously been criticised for alleged weaknesses.
Yet the two strikers are somewhat different in style and their different approaches to centre-forward play can be summarised by looking more closely at one particular goal from either player.
Harry Kane vs. Liverpool, first goal in a 4-1 victory, Oct. 22
This is archetypal Kane: it's not a spectacular, goal-of-the-month-contender but nevertheless absolutely fantastic and created almost out of nothing. Post-match analysis of this goal concentrated on the positioning of Liverpool's defence but such talk rather overlooked Kane's brilliant work. When Kieran Trippier prods the ball in behind the opposition, Kane should be the fourth-favourite to reach it. Dejan Lovren is closer, Joel Matip is in a covering position and Simon Mignolet should be sweeping.
Kane actually turns the wrong way. Rather than turning to his right and sprinting directly toward goal, he turns the long way around. But because he's so quick over the first couple of yards, it doesn't matter. Lovren can't turn quickly enough, Matip thinks Kane is offside and stops, while Mignolet delays his sprint out. Kane reaches the ball first, pops the ball over Mignolet and might have gone down for a penalty, but instead he regains his balance and shovels the ball over the goal line.
This is Kane all over. You're not blown away by his outright speed and yet he's consistently speedy enough over the first couple of yards to steal a march upon opponents. He doesn't look particularly strong, either, but when opponents barge or trip him, he remains upright and continues motoring toward goal.
Technically, he's adept at finishing with either foot too. Other right-footed strikers may have knocked the ball to the other side of Mignolet, leaving a tighter angle for the finish on their stronger side, but Kane has consistently worked on his left foot and constantly gets goals because defenders don't know which way he will turn.
Kane isn't based around one single attribute. He doesn't have the speed of Anthony Martial, the dribbling of Alexis Sanchez or the aerial prowess of Christian Benteke. But whereas those players also have obvious shortcomings, it's difficult to deduce precisely what Kane is bad at. Goals like these, where he needs to use anticipation, pace, strength and his weaker foot in the space of four seconds, summarise why he gets so many goals. He can do pretty much everything very well.
Romelu Lukaku, second goal in a 2-2 draw at Stoke, Sept. 9
Many believe that Lukaku's ability to run in behind opposition defences is all about his raw speed, but the Belgium international's goal against Stoke demonstrated his excellent movement.
It was a beautiful attacking move from United that was essentially very simple: Matteo Darmian won possession on the halfway line, passed infield to Henrikh Mkhitaryan and the Armenia international slipped the ball through the defence for Lukaku to finish, albeit with the benefit of a rebound after his first effort was saved.
However, what makes the goal special is the wonderful shape of United's attack. Darmian and Marcus Rashford are stretching the play on either flank, Mkhitaryan finds himself in acres of space between the lines and crucially, Lukaku moves in exactly the right direction at exactly the right time. He's in a left-sided position when Darmian moves forward down that flank and other strikers may have made a straightforward run down the line, into a crossing position.
That's what Lukaku does, but only for a second, and when he suddenly changes the angle of his run and moves inside, he completely loses Bruno Martins-Indi, the nearest defender, and also drifts past Kurt Zouma into a more natural centre-forward position.
When Darmian plays the ball inside to Mkhitaryan, in an inside-left position, Lukaku is directly ahead of him and therefore, rather than running straight in behind, which would make the angle of the pass difficult, he continues his left-to-right run. He crosses past Kevin Wimmer; in four seconds, he's gone from the left of Stoke's three centre-backs to the right of them. It's at that moment that he bends his run, taking advantage of the Stoke defenders moving toward Mkhitaryan. The ensuing pass means Lukaku comes back slightly toward the left and can take the shot with his stronger side. He follows up with his right. Again, he has improved his finishing with his weaker side.
It was a scrappy finish, but a brilliant goal.
Kane and Lukaku aren't quite at the level of Ronaldo, Bale and Suarez, the aforementioned trio of superstars who fled to Spain. But in a period when European football is struggling to produce traditional, prolific No. 9s, the Premier League finds itself blessed with two. Their status in the Premier League's all-time scoring stakes is probably underrated too: both have scored more than Ronaldo, Bale or Suarez managed, and you can throw in Fernando Torres into that list too.
So far, Kane has 86 league goals, Lukaku 92. By the end of this season, they should become only the 27th and 28th members of the Premier League's "100 Club," of which only four are currently active (Wayne Rooney, Jermain Defoe, Sergio Aguero and Peter Crouch). The fact those players are 32, 35, 29 and 36 years old, respectively, is also worth considering.
Kane and Lukaku, both born in 1993, are just 24 and could record outrageous overall career totals if they remain in England.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.