Arsenal: The important consequence of Harry Kane ‘dive’ debate

Did Harry Kane dive? The debate has rumbled on and on all week. But while the answer is inconclusive, there is an important consequence for Arsenal to recognise: the importance of winning fouls.

And so, the Harry Kane debate rumbles on and on. The Spurs and England striker did not help his growing reputation as a ‘diver’ on Sunday when, in the dying stages of the North London Derby, he put his right leg across the front of the recovering Sokratis, ensured that there was at least some contact between them, and then crumbled to the floor.

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I am still undecided as to whether this was a dive. I happen to think it was more clever striking play than downright cheating, but there has been plenty said about the conniving ways of Kane’s style this week, with some questioning his diving motives.

Nevertheless, rather than discuss Kane and his apparent diving, there is an important conclusion that I want to draw out from all this furore. You see, while Kane did certainly look for contact between himself and Sokratis, and while his primary motivation was to ‘win’ a penalty, which would have likely secured the victory for Spurs, what he did, shielding the ball by getting his body between it and the defender is just smart striking play.

It is what Kane is an expert at. While his goals obviously grab the headlines, which is understandable given the number and relentlessness of them, what makes Kane a truly world-class centre-forward is his hold-up play, and specifically, his ability to draw defenders into challenges, ‘get body between man and ball’, as the old football coaches used to say, and win a foul.

Last season, Kane was fouled 1.9 times per 90 minutes. The year prior, it was 1.2. And the year prior to that it was 1.6. In the 2018 World Cup for England, where his primary role was to relieve pressure for a defence that sat deep and soaked up pressure from far superior teams, Kane was fouled 3.7 times per 90 minutes. Similarly, in the last three Champions League campaigns, he was fouled 2.1, 1.5 and 2.5 times per 90 minutes. Kane is the master at being fouled, and it is a crucial part of playing a centre-forward role.

Arsenal’s strikers do not have that same ability. Alexandre Lacazette is certainly the better of the two, drawing 1.9 fouls per 90 minutes last season, the same rate as Kane, but Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has never been over one foul drawn per 90 minutes. In the one-and-a-half seasons at Arsenal, he has been fouled 0.6 times per 90 minutes on both occasions.

These numbers should not be surprising. Much has been said of Lacazette’s superior hold-up play in comparison to his partner. And Kane is another level yet. Against Liverpool and Newcastle United this season, Arsenal struggled to progress the ball quickly into attacking areas. Lacazette did not start either. That is not a coincidence.

Ultimately, whether Kane dived or not does not really matter. The penalty was not awarded and it did not impact the result. But his style of play does highlight one of Arsenal’s primary weaknesses: the inability to hold up the ball and win fouls. It is something that they — Aubameyang especially — must improve.