England's Harry Kane reliance shows vs. Germany, may hurt them in Russia
DORTMUND, Germany -- If there can be such a thing in professional sport, England suffered a "positive defeat" against Germany in Dortmund on Wednesday.
Gareth Southgate's team showed signs of being able to adapt to an unfamiliar defensive formation with three at the back, their use of the ball was an improvement on recent encounters with elite opponents, and the likes of Adam Lallana, Dele Alli and Eric Dier all underlined their growing importance within England's World Cup plans.
But with Southgate's side losing 1-0 to Lukas Podolski's spectacular second half goal at the Westfalenstadion, the outcome of the friendly also reminded the manager that one of his team's greatest strengths is also its biggest weakness.
The failure to convert one of the numerous clear chances created against the world champions denied England a draw, or even a win, and highlighted the priceless value of a proven goal-scorer.
Harry Kane offers that to England. He may have endured a goalless Euro 2016 campaign, when he appeared exhausted after a season with Tottenham which stretched back to an appearance in the European Under-21 Championship in June 2015, but the 23-year-old is undoubtedly the best striker available to Southgate and is the first name on the teamsheet.
But when he is not available -- such as the ankle injury suffered while playing for Spurs earlier this month which ruled him out of the trip to Germany and Sunday's World Cup qualifier against Lithuania at Wembley -- the alternatives simply do not measure up.
Jamie Vardy, whose pace and work rate caused problems for Germany, is a player whose best moments for England have come as a substitute. He can be an impact player, a striker with a predatory eye for goal in the penalty area, but he does not offer enough when he starts matches and lacks the all-round game of the Tottenham man.
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford possesses the potential to become one of the most exciting strikers in the game but at 19, he still has to develop both physically and tactically. His direct running at defenders is one of his greatest qualities, but the goals have dried up at United this season and he is discovering that opponents, now wise to his talents, are making plans to stop him after being caught out by the then-unknown teenager last season.
Beyond Rashford and Vardy, Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge can be a lethal finisher, but is rarely ever fit enough to play and when he is, lacks the workrate required at the highest level.
West Ham's Andy Carroll offers a unique threat with his aerial prowess, but like Sturridge, cannot stay fit, while Arsenal duo Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck -- both overlooked by Southgate for the Germany and Lithuania games -- flatter to deceive too often and are both compromised by their poor goals ratio at the top level.
At 34, newly reinstated Jermain Defoe is hardly the future and the same applies to the 31-year-old Wayne Rooney, England's all-time record goalscorer, who now faces a battle to return to the squad following his dismal season at Old Trafford. At one point, Danny Ings threatened to become a contender before being sidelined by two cruciate knee ligament injuries at Liverpool, but he cannot be considered until he regains fitness and form.
So if England are to have a chance of success at Russia 2018, their hopes rest heavily on Kane's shoulders.
Having scored 68 goals in 105 Premier League games for Spurs, Kane is no longer dismissed as a one-season wonder by the sceptics. He is now delivering for Mauricio Pochettino's team for a third successive season and has become a player who would break the world transfer record if any club was able to prise him away from White Hart Lane.
Kane's critics would point to his England goals record and suggest that five in 17 appearances does not equate to that of a world-class striker, but while he can certainly improve on his numbers for his country, his presence in the team is about much more than sticking the ball in the back of the net. He offers a reliable focal point up front, mature leadership and an understanding with club teammate Dele Alli which could give England the edge in Russia.
Southgate has plenty of issues which he must address before England can consider themselves one of the major contenders at the World Cup, but finding a backup option to Kane is key -- whether that's a new formation, change of tactics or something else.
With the striker fit and scoring, England have the ability to take on any of the world's leading nations. Without him, Southgate would just be scratching around for the best solution, knowing that none of those available offer the qualities that Kane brings to the table.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_