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Manchester United should not even think about signing Harry Kane this summer

Hear me out.

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Tottenham Hotspur v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League Photo by Visionhaus

When it comes to transfer rumors, it’s crucial to abide by the old phrase “believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.” That was certainly my reaction earlier this month when Harry Kane started being linked to Manchester United. Matt Law wrote a piece in the telegraph about how Kane may be considering his future at Tottenham if they didn’t finish in the top four or win any trophies.

I was especially skeptical because literally 367 days earlier Law wrote the exact same article linking Kane with a move away from White Hart Lane.

However I’m also a believer in the axiom “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Most of the time with transfer rumors, the fire department just comes with those big heavy duty fans and blows the smoke away.

But this one just wasn’t going away. Last week the Glazer-owned Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL made headlines when they signed 43-year-old quarterback Tom Brady as a free agent. That prompted James Robson to write a piece in the Evening Standard about how this was good news for Manchester United.

A day later The Athletic, a very trustworthy source, published an article where they revealed that United had posted an inquiry regarding Kane.

This is my response to these rumors: No. Just no.

Now, how can you say that about a 26-year-old striker who has scored 133 Premier League goals in the last six seasons and 177 in all competitions — not to mention the 32 he’s scored in just 45 appearances for England — without sounding crazy?

Robson’s piece in the Evening Standard focused on the message that signing Brady signified from the Glazers. They are willing to pay to win. It culminated with this paragraph:

If Brady is the type of signing to spark hopes in Tampa of a first Superbowl since 2002, then United fans will be yearning for the type of business that will finally see them reclaim the Premier League title after six and a half barren years post-Sir Alex Ferguson.

This is just wrong. It’s foolish to compare United to the Buccaneers, especially in terms of how they’re building. Tom Brady is not going to help the Bucs win a Super Bowl — he’s too old and past his prime. What he will do, and is probably already doing, is making the Bucs relevant again. The Bucs haven’t made the playoffs in thirteen years. In the NFL, they had become completely irrelevant.

While United are struggling to get themselves back to the top, they have never even flirted with irrelevance (hated, adored, never ignored). Just two weeks ago the Manchester Derby set a record for viewers in the United States. They’re still the biggest fixture on many clubs’ calendar, and that’s despite being crap for the past six years.

United don’t need to sign a player just to be relevant. They need to sign players that will actually help them win.

The piece in The Athletic paints a bit of a different picture. While acknowledging that an inquiry was made about Kane, it also tells us that he was left off the list of potential targets that was drawn up by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as recently as February.

The reason for that was two fold. The first was that United are reluctant to deal with Daniel Levy. That’s a poor reason. If Tottenham Hotspur have a game changing talent that can change this club United need to do whatever it takes to land him. The second reason was money. Kane has been quoted to come with a £150 million price tag.

That is a non-starter.

I know it’s easy to sit here and say “but we’re Manchester United, money is no obstacle” but that’s simply not true. For one thing, there are FFP laws to comply with. For another, there are many reasons to believe United’s financial situation isn’t nearly as healthy as the club says it is. Not surprisingly, the club is coming off their worst financial year in the past six: profits are down, debt is up. This year will be even worse because of the lack of Champions League revenue, and less match-day revenue thanks to many away draws in the cups.

And that’s before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the world.

That’s another thing. Who knows how (or when) the transfer market will even look this summer. Clubs will have less money to spend; that could drive the price of Kane down, or it may not. We already knew the market was changing, but how it will look whenever it does open is anyone’s guess.

But this isn’t about Manchester United’s financials, this is about Harry Kane. So for the sake of this piece let’s pretend that COVID-19 didn’t happen, and the summer transfer market would proceed as usual.

Even by those standards, Harry Kane isn’t close to being worth £150 million.

Kane has easily been one of the two best strikers in the Premier League over the past six years. He’s won various Player of the Year awards, two Premier League Golden Boots, and the Golden Boot at the 2018 World Cup. As I mentioned before, he has 133 goals in 177 Premier League appearances, 0.75 goals per 90. Those are undeniably incredible numbers.

At 26 (turning 27 in July), that’s what Harry Kane has done. But you don’t want to pay £150 million for what a player has done, you want to pay for what they will do.

And what will Kane do? That depends on who you ask.

Harry Kane is simultaneously the most divisive player in football and the most agreed upon player in football. Excuse me?

Kane is the line that divides the analytics community and the old school football community. Everyone on the analytics side agrees that Kane is fading fast. The old school side will tell you that he still has his best days in front of him. He’s just been injured recently and once he’s fully recovered he’ll get back to belting in the goals.

So why is the analytics community so down on Kane?

The answer lies in the shots. While the older school football folks focus on the goals Kane keeps pumping in, the analytics people have noticed a worrying trend. Kane isn’t shooting the ball like he used to, which is worrying because that means he probably won’t be able to keep finishing at the rate he currently is.

Kane used to be a shot machine. In his second season under Mauricio Pochettino, Kane was blasting off an impressive 4.23 shots per 90. The following year, which was hampered by injuries (a theme in Kane’s career) it dropped to a still impressive 3.87 before peaking at an elite 5.35 in 2017/18.

However, since the 2018 World Cup that number has been sharply declining. He put up a respectable 3.77 shots per 90 last season, despite being hobbled by injuries, but this year it’s dropped even further to 2.69.

Take a look at how Kane’s past few seasons compare with the top strikers in England and across Europe this year.

You can see Kane used to be among the elite at getting shots, but this season he’s well below average. He’s also not getting good shots.

When you look at his conversion rate it paints an even bleaker picture. This season the only players near Kane’s number are Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Ordinarily that’d be great company to be near, until you remember that Messi and Ronaldo are in their mid-30s. They’re putting up these numbers because they’re super freaks and these numbers are actually bad for them.

Kane was at his best when he dropped into the hole, almost functioning as a number 10 for Tottenham. He’d get himself much more into the game, spray passes out to Tottenham’s playmakers, get himself into the box, and be able to get dangerous shots. Just look at his shot map from his best season.

His goals all come from right in front of the goal. He did this by being enough of a shooting threat from everywhere. That forced defenses to close him down, opening up his teammates.

This year, that’s simply no longer happening. Kane is struggling to get himself involved in games. Take a look at his touchmap from games against Southampton and Chelsea this season.

Now look at where his average position on the field has been.

For Kane this is unfortunately becoming the new normal. He’s really struggling to have an impact on games.

Now, there have been a lot of issues at Tottenham this season that might have contributed to that. The squad was lifeless under Mauricio Pochettino this year, and Kane looked revamped when José Mourinho came in. Or did he?

Under Pochettino this season Kane was getting 2.56 open play shots per 90. Under Mourinho it was 2.60. A minuscule increase.

There is of course also the Christian Eriksen factor. Whether it was Mourinho or Pochettino in charge, neither manager really trusted Tottenham’s best playmaker this season. The Dane played limited minutes before leaving for Inter Milan in January, and therefore it’d be only natural to think Kane’s attacking numbers would be impacted by Eriksen’s absence.

They certainly were! But not in the way you’re thinking. It turns out that 38 of Kane’s 53 shots this season (71.7%) have come without Eriksen on the pitch. Now think about how many times Eriksen came on this year and changed the game for Tottenham? A lot — but that came at the expense of Kane. In other words, Kane’s impact in those situations was minimal.

And this was in a season where Kane had a full summer off, and was supposedly ready to start the year at 100 percent.

There is the line of thinking that Kane has been injury plagued his entire career but that he also rushes back from injuries too soon, making things worse; and that if he’s given a chance to fully heal, he’ll get back to where he used to be. That’s certainly possible, but is it probable?

Not likely. Kane will be 27 this summer and while everyone is different, and the general consensus is that players are at their best in their late 20s, the data says otherwise. Attacking players actually peak when they’re 26. You may still get a season or two of great production from Kane, but you’re not going to get the man who scored 41 goals in all competitions either.

In 2012, United spent £24 million on 29-year-old striker Robin van Persie. In three years van Persie scored 50 goals for United, but 30 of them came in that first season. He only had one year left in him before he couldn’t do it anymore. Was it worth paying that much money for only one good season from him?

Of course it was! Van Persie’s one good year was one of the most fun campaigns United have ever had. He practically single-handedly dragged United to their 20th league title.

There’s a huge difference between £24 million for van Persie in 2012 and £150 million for Kane in 2020. Even if Kane guaranteed a league title next year (before tailing off) he wouldn’t be worth it. Not when you have other needs in the squad. Not when you can use that money to go after someone like Jadon Sancho who is still getting better. Not when you still have to deal with Alexis Sanchez’s contract.

Kane is exactly the kind of striker United need, but not at that cost. If Kane were two or three years older — and priced like it — and was ready to embrace the role of being the second choice striker, he’d be a great fit on this team. But not now.

Manchester United recently hired a new data analytics team. If they’re worth their salt at all they’ll make sure United don’t even think about spending £150 million on Harry Kane.