Tottenham’s encouraging win over Manchester United suggested it may not take as long as previously anticipated to move on from Harry Kane — even if it is easy to wistfully wonder just how many goals the England captain might have scored in Ange Postecoglou’s attacking team.
The theory was created by Dave Cirilli in the mid-90s and popularised by his friend, the renowned US sportswriter Bill Simmons.
Cirilli had noticed that the teams of basketball player Patrick Ewing, namely his college side Georgetown and the New York Knicks, inexplicably played better when he was missing, despite the Jamaican-American being both’s star player.
Cirilli and Simmons identified a number of other examples, all from US sport, of losing teams going on to win after their leading man had left, and so the theory was born.
Writing for ESPN in 2001, Simmons set out two conditions for the Ewing theory to apply in any situation:
“1 A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him...
“2 That same athlete leaves his team... and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.”
Clearly, both conditions apply to Spurs and Kane, the club’s poster-boy and the darling of the media and supporters alike for nearly a decade. Perhaps it is a stretch to say Spurs have been written off this season in the wake of Kane’s sale, but cast around the pre-season predictions from journalists and pundits, and few gave them a chance of making the top-four, which has long been the benchmark of a successful campaign.
So, could the Ewing theory apply to Spurs? Certainly, there is reason to think it could.
While it would be disingenuous to claim that Spurs have played better without Kane since he broke into the first team, their most notable achievement in that time, reaching the 2019 Champions League Final, came when he was injured.
Kane missed both legs of the semi-final and the decider against Manchester City in the last-eight. He returned for the final against Liverpool, but Spurs never got going in a 2-0 defeat. There are other examples, albeit less significant, of Spurs raising their game during Kane’s injury absences over the last nine seasons, such as their first win at Chelsea in 28 years in April 2018.
Part of Cirilli’s thinking was that unsuccessful teams were simply too reliant on their stars, and there is a case for this with Spurs and Kane.
Kane scored more than 43 per cent of the club’s League goals last season — 30 of 70 — and was at the heart of practically every moment of note for Antonio Conte’s side.
For the rest of the squad, whose confidence gradually deteriorated in the face of the manager’s harsh rhetoric and insipid tactics, it must have been easy to hide behind the club’s record-scorer. Indeed, Kane is just such an exceptional player — a No9 who is the master of dropping off into the No10 space — he almost forced Spurs into a certain style, demanding the team played through him at all times.
This was likely part of the reason he was so good last season while almost every one of his team-mates was underwhelming.
Now he is gone, Spurs already look like a more functioning team and Richarlison, though he struggled against Brentford and United, may actually be a better fit long-term for Postecoglou’s approach, given the Brazilian’s preference for few touches and willingness to press and occupy opposition centre-backs.
For what it is worth, Postecoglou has already dismissed the suggestion that Kane was somehow holding Spurs back.
“There wouldn’t be a manager in the Premier League or the world that wouldn’t want Harry Kane in their team,” he said before their opening game.
“That’s the reality of it, so you can’t say that because he’s here that’s sort of stymied the club into having success. I just don’t buy into that.”
The head coach has, however, acknowledged that the absence of Kane offers other players an opportunity to step out from his shadow, and Spurs might go from ‘the Harry Kane team’, as Pep Guardiola once described them, to something more united and ultimately successful.
The bottom line is, for all Kane’s individual brilliance and personal accolades, Spurs never won anything, “substantial” or otherwise, with him. In this respect, they cannot get any worse without him.
True, they may slip into obscurity, but that seems unlikely with someone as talented as Postecoglou in charge, suggesting Kane and Spurs could prove to be a prime example of the Ewing theory.