They were few, but when Harry Kane walked into arguably England’s most disjointed performance of the Gareth Southgate era 14 minutes before the end, a few cheers from the northeast corner of Wembley could be faintly heard.
Kane had tormented his way through a game where England’s line-up looked exciting on paper but not cohesive on the pitch. After that, it was easy to point out a lack of balance in midfield, where the experiment, for the first time two offensive no.
And yet the biggest worry has to be the captain, who remains in August form in mid-October. Kane has yet to score for Spurs in the league – he has three in the Conference League and found the net in World Cup qualifiers in September – and his indolence now seems to be spreading to the international arena.
The 28-year-old looked good again against Hungary, his game was too often careless as he made himself difficult with these divisive forays into midfield. Kane had 21 touches, the least of all outfield players, and the only attempt to reach the target was a tame attempt from a distance.
Southgate then, unsurprisingly, downplayed all concerns, saying it would be wrong to single out a single player for criticism when the collective is doing so badly and the decision to replace Kane with Tammy Abraham was to put a little more energy into a cumbersome game to get stuck.
“I just think we didn’t play as well as we should and can tonight,” said England coach. “In the end we have to brush up on that and bring fresh legs into play. With each of the strikers there is always a story when we take them off.
“They are great players. We need a team for that. We thought it was right then. I don’t think it’s fair to highlight a player because we are all responsible for it. “
Only Kane will know to what extent the missing Spurs move bothered him in the summer, although he has undeniably appeared above him since the start of the European Championship. With time to pause for thought, his tournament was a disappointment considering it was a month he stole the world best # 9 title from Robert Lewandowski.
The outlier was Ukraine’s demolition in Rome, but it stumbled through the group stage, was largely anonymous against Germany and barely impressive against Denmark, despite converting that rebounded penalty before skipping the final.
Burnout seems to be another factor, and the fact that even Mason Mount, whose greatest asset in the early years of his career was the consistency of his accomplishments, appears jaded suggests the toll that summer has taken. These players did not have sufficient time to recover before signing up for their clubs, even though Kane controversially signed up too late for Spurs service as the non-transfer saga unfolded.
It is evident that he currently lacks both the speed of thinking and the legs.
It doesn’t help that the leader of the national team also remained noticeably calm. He has deviated from press conferences he had often attended prior to England’s last four games and was criticized last week for keeping silent as younger players like Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham faced tough questions about the squad’s vaccine status.
History dictates that the role of the English captain, much like the coach, has responsibilities beyond football. And those expectations are far from ideal when he’s so upset on the pitch.
Anyone who has watched Kane’s career closely expects him to be good and it may only take a good Premier League performance for confidence to return, but this malaise feels a little different than his previous slow start to the season and the questions and criticism only get louder.