It’s all about leverage — in business, in sports, in life. Or, at the risk of dating myself, it’s all about “hand,” in the Seinfeldian sense.
When it comes to Harry Kane and a move away from Tottenham Hotspur, he simply has very little. Which is not to say he won’t move this summer — transfer markets can be weirdly unpredictable and subject to knock-on effects — but rather that unless there’s a sudden bout of irrationality, it’s unlikely.
There’s a school of thought that his time at Tottenham has come to an end, fuelled by briefings from his entourage, Kane himself saying that while individual awards are great, he wants to win silverware (“and that’s not happening right now”) and the widespread reports that Spurs are ready to deal. Depending who you choose to believe, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy would be seeking a transfer fee of between £120 million and £150m if he were to sanction Kane’s departure.
Kane might be the best centre-forward in the Premier League (which he led in both goals and assists this season), he might be a likeable and marketable star, and he might have done things the “right” way in terms of sticking around at Spurs when he could have pursued more money and trophies elsewhere. But there are several factors working against him and his wishes.
The post-COVID-19 transfer market
Simply put, everybody out there has taken a massive hit. UEFA puts pandemic-related losses at €7.2 billion ($8.8bn) for Europe’s top-flight leagues spanning the past two seasons. The bulk of those losses have come in the Premier League, largely because they made the most money. But it’s not just the headline numbers; it’s a question of cash, too. When the stadiums shut, so too did the cash flow. Sponsorships and commercial income were also affected, and broadcasters asked for rebates.
UEFA’s benchmarking projections suggest 2021 revenues will look a lot like 2017 revenues. After two decades of continuous growth, we’ve traveled back in time. This chart from the excellent financial blogger Swiss Ramble is pretty indicative:
Although #LFC £46m loss is obviously not great, it is actually not too bad compared to others, as all clubs have been adversely impacted by COVID with no fewer than 11 in the Premier League posting losses above £50m to date in 2019/20, including #EFC £140m and #MCFC £125m. pic.twitter.com/HqSdzq2kxa
— Swiss Ramble (@SwissRamble) April 28, 2021
It’s a similar sea of red ink around Europe, with Paris Saint-Germain ($150m), Barcelona ($97m), Juventus ($110m), Borussia Dortmund ($54m) and AC Milan ($237m) all recording whopping losses. (For those keeping score at home, Bayern Munich did make a small profit — around $11m — and Real Madrid broke even.) Bear in mind, however, that 2020-21 will be considerably worse for most clubs.
In other words, there isn’t much money sloshing around. Kane would make many clubs better, but there are very few who can afford the nine-figure sum he would likely command.
Having established that there’s only a handful of clubs capable of pushing the boat out — hypothetically, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea — you run into another problem. If you assume any deal for Kane will cost £120m (€140m), then you start entering Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe territory. The former has a release clause — thought to be around €70m ($85m) — that kicks in next summer, which means if Borussia Dortmund wanted to cash in, they’d be far better off arranging his exit now and making twice that (if not more). The latter has one year remaining on his contract with PSG. The Parisian club are hoping to extend the deal, but if that doesn’t happen, rather than losing him for zero next summer, they too are better off moving him now.
Kane is seven years older than Haaland and six older than Mbappe. Leaving aside who you think is better, if the price is comparable, you’re going to go for the younger guys who have at least a decade left at the top, rather than Kane’s five or six remaining seasons. The very few clubs who can afford him know this all too well.
In 2018, Kane signed a six-year deal paying him around £10m ($14m) a year. If, when he signed it, the plan was to give himself an escape route, well … his advisors screwed things up. Clubs will be far more likely to accommodate a player’s request for a move if he’s in the final two years of his contract: That’s when they have to talk extension or risk losing the player on a free transfer. But with three years to go, there’s no leverage to force a deal.
What’s more, Kane is relatively underpaid among Europe’s top centre-forwards. He earns less than Haaland, Mbappe, Robert Lewandowski, Karim Benzema and Romelu Lukaku, and less than (less prolific) Premier League colleagues such as Sergio Aguero, Edinson Cavani and Timo Werner.
In short, Kane offers Spurs exceptional value for money and replacing him will mean getting somebody less productive or as expensive — or, if they’re really unlucky, both.
It’s not just the story of the little boy who grew up down the road from White Hart Lane and went on to captain the club he supported as a child. It’s the fact that Kane has generally been an entirely likeable and noncontroversial figure. The closest he ever got to causing trouble was when he started claiming goals scored by others, leading to a raft of memes and social media chatter.
But if he’s going to try to force a move this summer, he might have to go well beyond the line trotted out by his camp whereby “there is an agreement in place with Levy” to “look favourably upon his desire to move on this summer, having agreed to stay an extra season after seeking a new club last year,” as reported by ESPN’s James Olley and others. Even if Levy didn’t have a reputation as the most the hard-nosed negotiator, you can imagine how this might play out if there’s no binding contractual agreement.
“Harry? Yeah, it’s Daniel. … Just to let you know, I looked at your desire to move, and I looked at it favourably, and I decided you’re not moving. But, rest assured, I honoured our agreement by looking at it favourably first.”
In those circumstances — or if Levy prices him out of the market entirely — what can Kane do? He can throw a tantrum, state publicly that he never wants to play for the club ever again and go on strike. And maybe, with a different guy with a different personality, you can see it happening. But Kane? That’s tough to swallow. It’s just not him. And maybe I’m naive, but I assume he wants to leave with the sort of deal that benefits Spurs.
Spurs aren’t financially desperate
This isn’t to say they haven’t taken a major COVID-19 hit like everybody else, because they have — to the tune of £68m ($96.2m) — but rather they were coming off seven straight years of profits pre-pandemic, racking up an average of profit of £59m a season, according to Swiss Ramble. They did make a £40m operating loss in 2019-20, but then it’s kind of hard to make money when your stadium is closed and nobody is walking through the door, and that was after posting the highest operating profit in Europe the previous year, as detailed by Swiss Ramble.
True, they have a lot of debt, but most of that is for the stadium, which has been financed at relatively low rates and also benefits from a government loan. And they have by far the highest cash reserves in the Premier League, which means they’re not going to be under undue pressure any time soon.
So how does this end?
It’s possible that a club desperate for a centre-forward pulls the trigger on acquiring Kane and meets Levy’s valuation, possibly because Haaland doesn’t move and/or Mbappe extends his contract. Of course, it’s possible. But it’s hard to see how Tottenham could have their hand forced.
It’s also possible that Spurs will get a new manager who excites Kane and make some big signings that he likes, then he ends up recommitting. One solution that might suit all parties might be extending Kane for a season with a raise (his desire to leave might have nothing to do with money, but he is, in fact, underpaid) and some sort of release clause that Spurs can live with — ideally something written down and not based on the “look favourably” concept.
A year from now, when market conditions change, it might be much more realistic to leave Spurs on good terms and ensure they get the sort of fee that truly helps the club.