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LONDON -- It was on a night like this Saturday night, as Tottenham struggled in vain, unable to force David De Gea into so much as a save in a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United, that you could not help but wonder how different things would be if they only had Harry Kane on the pitch.

The talismanic forward who had vanished without a trace over the summer, never to be seen again in a Spurs shirt. Last season, he had been their one-man attack. Now, Nuno Espirito Santo was fielding a strike force that failed to produce a shots on target for the first time in the Premier League since July 2020, another game in which the expected goals tally began was nought point something.

(UPDATE: Espirito Santo was fired Monday after the match)   

Oh wait. What's that? We're hearing that Kane was in fact on the pitch. Apparently, he played the full 90 minutes.

Aaah yes, of course. Remember that moment he was bearing down on the penalty area in the 75th minute, he trundled forward with no one in support before aimlessly punting the ball into the box.

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That, the moment he thumped a shot into Harry Maguire's shins and a few delicately placed through balls were the sum output of a player who is utterly unrecognizable from the heroic figure who had born the weight of Tottenham expectations on his shoulders for so long. Atlas has decided that actually he'd quite like to rest for a few weeks. In the meantime, Spurs' world is falling apart.

There were times last season when the chief criticism you might lay at Spurs' vice captain was that he was trying to do too much, that if Kane could, he would quite happily be dropping space to play the 25-yard pass for Kane to score. The ball kept coming his way as his touches per 90 minutes rose from 34.4 to 45.5. No one who was quite such a prerequisite to his team putting the ball in the net found himself so involved in the build-up too.

What is remarkable is that Kane is averaging more touches this season than in 2019-20 because he seems utterly peripheral to contests like Saturday's. Had it not been for that late effort slammed against Maguire, this would have been his second Premier League match in the last seven where he failed to take so much as a shot. In the four seasons prior to this one, only Manchester City had managed to deny the England captain the chance to strike the ball at goal. United came very close to joining Palace on that list, but the reality is they did not have to do much to bully him out of the game.

Early on, Raphael Varane bullied him out of a few aerial duels and then Kane drifted to the peripheries of this game. Ultimately, he registered only slightly more touches in the box (four) than throw-ins (three). He did not just struggle to get touches in the box. Any central area from which he might influence the contest seemed closed off to Kane.

Harry Kane's action points against Manchester United, a game where he was scarcely involved in the most dangerous areas of the pitch TruMedia

This is not a one off. Aside from the 2-1 win over Aston Villa, he has had either one shot on target or none in every Premier League match he has played this season. In 2020-21, he averaged four shots per 90 minutes, more than anyone else in the division. He is taking 2.32 this season, the 33rd-most in the division. Arsenal's midfield anchorman Thomas Partey is shooting more frequently.

Whether this decline is a question of his effort or Nuno's system only Kane knows, though his manager pointed the finger rather towards himself. Asked by CBS Sports to address his striker's form, he said: "We have to improve all of us. It's not about individuals. It's not only about our offensive game. We're vulnerable in defense. We concede.

"We have to be more accurate. The final pass is always not the right line. We have to improve. We have to do much better.

"The only solution is we try to stick together and work together."

Certainly, the system is not working. With their chief scorer invisible, it was fair to say that the attacking plan devolved to hitting the ball somewhere in the assumption that Heung-min Son probably would not be that far away. There was no urgency in advancing the ball upfield. Oliver Skipp and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg completed 103 passes between them. Only 30 went forward. There was crushing irony to one of the many sideways passes they played between them being stolen by Bruno Fernandes, setting the table for United's second goal.

Speaking after the match for United, skipper Roy Keane said that Spurs had lacked intensity after the second goal. That was certainly true. The issue was rather that they had lacked intensity before the second goal. And the first.

United were more than happy to cede the ball to them. Spurs had precious little sense what to do with it. Giovanni Lo Celso's passing was wayward. The delivery from wide areas by Emerson Royal and Ben Davies rarely tested the players.

"We're not on the right track," Nuno candidly admitted at fulltime. "We totally understand the criticism. It's part of football. When the team doesn't support, the fans suffer, the fans are not happy and they show they're not happy.

"It's up to us to take it, tell them that we try our best, that we are sorry because we didn't perform as we wanted. We keep on trying and in a humble way ask them to support us all the way."

Those were the comments of a man who knows he will carry the can for the travails of his players. It was telling that the supporters who had stayed behind to watch the on-field interviews were cleared away by stewards just before the manager made his way out onto the pitch. When his first substitution, withdrawing the dangerous Lucas Moura, is greeted with chants of "you don't know what you're doing," then you are clearly stood on a knife edge.

Kane was not entirely spared supporter opprobrium with what appeared to be a smattering of boos late in the game. The issue is rather that while Nuno is disposable, it seems eminently plausible that Spurs are now stuck with an ageing striker who does not want to be there and does not look anywhere near rediscovering the form that convinced Tottenham to reject a £100 million offer for his services from Manchester City.

Back then, Kane was the player you could not take your eyes off for a moment. Now you spend much of the match wondering if he might have already been substituted off.