Comparisons between Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku are tempting to draw. They’re both young, both prolific and, on Sunday, they were both on the same White Hart Lane pitch. Kane would score twice and Lukaku once, and each player left the field have furthered their reputation. But even within the narrow context of that single game, the stylistic disparity between the two was glaring. Players are always assessed as being better or worse than one another, forwards particularly. Strike-rates and shot volumes are charted and discussed, lines are drawn, and supporters gather on either side.
Tottenham won 3-2 on Sunday, but the game was never quite as close as the scoreline suggested. Mauricio Pochettino’s side experienced some fluttering hearts at 2-1, and then again after Enner Valencia immediately answered Dele Alli’s apparent clincher, but Spurs enjoyed relative control – and ultimately determined the patterns of the game: it was, after all, Jan Vertonghen’s slip which allowed Lukaku to race through on goal and the team’s collective absentmindedness gifted Valencia his late consolation. Those were self-inflicted wounds.
Conveniently, Kane and Lukaku’s respective performances conformed to that of their sides: the former a roaming presence, dropping deep to exert influence, and the latter hid in the reeds, waiting for his moment to pounce. Lukaku actually gave one of his better supporting performances of the season and his combination with Ross Barkley was generally reliable, but he was still relatively docile: he waited for the ball to come to him and for his shooting chances to open, whereas Kane barged his way into prominence.
And that showed the deviation at its widest. Rarely, if ever, does Kane’s involvement in games wane. He misses chances and can be prone to heavy-footed, clumsy moments, but they are a product of fluctuating form rather than changing habits. His effectiveness wavers, but the shape of his performances typically doesn’t. Regardless of whether he’s on a five-game scoring streak or in a month-long slump, he will still press, still drop off the front of the formation and still try to exert that broad influence.
Lukaku, by contrast, is a more passive player. Because of his size and physical characteristics, it’s easy to overlook that. Within highlights packages, his goals often give the impression that he’s a force within games and that defenders who face him spend 90 minutes holding back the tide. But that’s really not the case. His ability is felt in pulses and he oscillates sharply between anonymity and ubiquity.
Is that a criticism? Possibly, but it’s not intended as such – and the weight of his goal-return would suggest that it’s hardly a restricting trait. If Kane is a player intent on appearing in and influencing as many phases as possible, Lukaku is really his opposite: a forward who waits for chances to present themselves. He occasionally creates opportunities for teammates, but the quality of his performance is usually defined solely by his finishing. If he doesn’t score, he is rarely considered to have played well. In fact, if he doesn’t score he’s generally invisible – and yet, that isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s certainly not as serious as the issues Spurs would experience if Kane was to find himself stuck on the periphery of a game.
The differences in construction between Tottenham and Everton are, of course, intertwined with this. Kane is, for instance, woven deep into Pochettino’s attacking fabric and is relied upon almost as much for offensive continuity as he is for goals. He’s both a traditional Number 9 and a modern pivot upon which Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Pochettino’s raiding full-backs rely. By contrast, Lukaku is attacking punctuation and the exclamation point at the top of Ronald Koeman’s formation; the same facilitating imperatives don’t exist.
Yes, the may wander beyond those job descriptions periodically, but they remain generally loyal to them.
Pointless hypothetical though it may be, these differences are probably best illustrated by considering whether each player would be similarly prolific in the other’s team. If Kane was required to be a line-leader and operate only on the front-foot, by how much would his star dim? Conversely, if Lukaku were to play as Pochettino’s centre-forward and spend significant time away from the top of the pitch, would his influence ripple far enough through the rest of the team? More importantly, would he be able to maintain the same scoring return?
Kane has grown up at Tottenham and essentially been built for purpose by Pochettino. Similarly, while Lukaku is not an Everton graduate, he has now spent the bulk of his formative years at Goodison Park. In each case, the player has grown towards the sun, in effect developing with the encouragement of managerial preferences or tactical demands. They are, respectively, what they have been allowed to become and what their teams need them to be.
Superiority is entirely subjective, so the aim isn’t really to anoint one as the better player. Instead, it’s to underline the detail within their roles and to target the folly of the comparison itself.