There was a moment 15 minutes from time in England‘s defeat of Serbia in Gelsenkirchen that could have changed the way their opening game of Euro 2024 has subsequently been viewed.

Substitute Jarrod Bowen made space on the right and dropped a cross straight on to the head of Harry Kane at the far post. The England captain’s contact was clean and powerful only for Serbia goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic to touch the ball brilliantly, and rather unexpectedly, on to the underside of the crossbar.

In that moment Kane was not only denied his 64th international goal, but also the opportunity to stop what appears to be a biennial tournament debate in its tracks.

Kane, coming off the back of a prolific season with Bayern Munich, did not score in the group stage of the last World Cup, prompting some chat about his place in Gareth Southgate‘s team.

It had been the same in the Euros of 2021, where he did not score until England beat Germany in the round of 16. Now we are in that place again, a place where for some strange reason Kane’s role, value and positioning is under scrutiny.

If Harry Kane scored this chance, it would have changed the way he and England were viewed

If Harry Kane scored this chance, it would have changed the way he and England were viewed

If Harry Kane scored this chance, it would have changed the way he and England were viewed

There is a strange biennial debate about his place in the team due to his tournament form

There is a strange biennial debate about his place in the team due to his tournament form

There is a strange biennial debate about his place in the team due to his tournament form 

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He is not the first England centre forward to suffer this way. Gary Lineker was under great pressure at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico before he scored a 25-minute first-half hat-trick to almost beat Poland on his own. Alan Shearer was similarly scrutinised ahead of the 1996 and 2000 European Championships. Shearer, as he usually did, responded with goals.

So too, surely, will Kane, maybe even on Thursday against Denmark in England’s second game. He is arguably the most accomplished centre forward in Europe.

Against Serbia, as England lost control of the game in the second half, Kane was dragged deeper and deeper both in search of the ball and often in an effort to add weight and physicality to what had become an unexpectedly dogged defensive effort.

Kane often plays in this fashion. He is not a top-of-the-formation striker like, for example, Erling Haaland, or indeed like Shearer and Lineker used to be. He likes to drop in to pick up the ball and use it. He is a superb passer with an excellent range.

If he is not spending enough time in the opposition penalty area then the chances are something has gone wrong with England’s play behind him and this is how it was on Sunday. 

Kane against Serbia was a symptom of an England problem rather than the cause of it. He touched the ball just 24 times and only twice in the first half. He did not receive a pass from Phil Foden all night and only one from Bukayo Saka.

‘He’s the skipper and he leads by example,’ Kyle Walker, Kane’s former Tottenham team-mate, said on Wednesday. ‘Sometimes putting the ball in the back of the net isn’t always his job. 

‘Sometimes you have to do the ugly part of football, which is nine times out of 10 what I’m doing. He’s probably seen what I’ve had to do over the years in defending for your life. It’s what you have to do.

Kane’s performance against Serbia was the symptom of an England problem, not the cause

He received the ball once from Bukayo Saka all night - and no times from off Phil Foden

He received the ball once from Bukayo Saka all night - and no times from off Phil Foden

He received the ball once from Bukayo Saka all night – and no times from off Phil Foden 

Kyle Walker insisted that Kane 'leads by example' and that his job isn't just scoring goals

Kyle Walker insisted that Kane 'leads by example' and that his job isn't just scoring goals

Kyle Walker insisted that Kane ‘leads by example’ and that his job isn’t just scoring goals 

‘In tournament football, there’s no standout individual. We’ve had it for years at Manchester City where we don’t look at one player and say we lean on them solely for the responsibility of defending or scoring. We’re in it as a team. He has done a great job, dug in for the team, which has got us the vital three points we needed to kickstart the tournament.’

There was something off about England’s performance against Serbia, for sure, and Kane’s match statistics point to that.

His most regular supply — six passes — was from goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who kicked the ball long more often than any England goalkeeper for quite some time. Second on the list was Jude Bellingham with five passes and that probably reflected how close the two men were standing to each other on occasion.

Bellingham himself was a little guilty of trying to do everything on his own on Sunday. Southgate alluded to this on Wednesday — albeit it in the gentlest possible way — by suggesting the emotion of the occasion and his early goal may have spiked the 20-year-old’s adrenaline early on.

Too much of England’s football was cluttered from that point on and as much as Serbia did not create any clearcut openings, they carried a menace and threat that saw their fancied opponents looking for the whistle to signal full time.

Kane will have his say in this tournament, certainly — he always does — and that moment will arrive quickly once England unpick some of the tangled strings from Gelsenkirchen. At times it is worth reminding ourselves that they won the game. In England we do seem particularly adept at hand wringing and that does not just come from the media.

France beat Austria 1-0 thanks to an own goal. Portugal needed two defensive errors to beat Czech Republic right at the death while Belgium lost 1-0 to Slovakia.

These are results that should serve to place England’s opening effort in proper context, but it was interesting to hear Southgate reveal on Wednesday that he had gathered his players together to tell them to ignore the din emanating from both mainstream and social media.

Kane received the ball most regularly from Jordan Pickford (six times) as England went long

Kane received the ball most regularly from Jordan Pickford (six times) as England went long

Kane received the ball most regularly from Jordan Pickford (six times) as England went long

France (pictured) and Portugal both managed narrow wins to put England's result in context

France (pictured) and Portugal both managed narrow wins to put England's result in context

France (pictured) and Portugal both managed narrow wins to put England’s result in context

‘He had a brief talk with us on Tuesday night,’ said Walker. ‘Normally there are 20 Premier League teams to write about and fill columns about. Now all eyes are on us over here representing our country, so obviously there is going to be massive scrutiny on certain performances or certain things we do.

‘But we cannot take away that we came away from there with three points on the board, a clean sheet and in good stead for this game against Denmark.’

Walker, 34, is playing in his fourth tournament for Southgate and knows it is always this way.

Only the 2018 World Cup in Russia represented a free hit because, after the darkness of Euro 2016 and the Sam Allardyce palaver that followed, expectations were so low.

At the Euros in 2021, in Qatar 18 months later and now here in Germany it has been different and England are once again being reminded that winning is not always enough.

‘When we get that scrutiny we have to take it as a positive because people expect so much of us,’ reflected Walker.

‘We know with the quality we have in the dressing room that we can go and score three or four in games, but in tournament football it is about winning and moving on.’

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