The ideal partnership, as defined by Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane, works something like this: “When you make the runs, as a striker, and you’ve got a player who can get on the half-turn and play forward quickly, that’s perfect.”
Kane offered the analysis several years ago. It was his description of his chemistry with Dele Alli.
In the first full season, 2015-16, that Alli, Son Heung-Min and Kane were fellow musketeers, it was the English pair who formed the most effective alliance. Alli picked out Kane; sometimes Kane picked out Alli – it kept working for Spurs and for England.
But on a wild half hour at Southampton in September, Kane-Alli was officially eclipsed as the most fruitful partnership the England captain has known among his current teammates. Son scored four goals, from four Kane set-ups, in the 5-2 Tottenham win.
That meant they reached 31 goals in direct combination, as many as Kane-and-Alli. The prevailing sound across the mostly empty stadiums Spurs have played in since has been of coaches and colleagues purring at the instinctive complicity of Son and Kane.
The number of direct Kane-Son goal-and-assist tandems has now reached 40 – from 182 games together – and that statistic ignores all those times when, off the ball, one of them opened up space for a shot by the other, and other immeasurables beyond simply who was the passer and who the finisher.
With Son and Kane, primary roles have become smoothly exchangeable, the designated centre-forward, Kane, often the deliverer of chances for the winger, Son, from deep.
It is the combination that has done most to make Spurs the Premier League pacesetters, just ahead of the Liverpool they meet at Anfield on Wednesday night.
Alli, meanwhile, has watched the harmonious duet develop mostly from distance, a marginal figure in manager Jose Mourinho’s planning. At Crystal Palace at the weekend, he was named in a matchday squad for a league fixture for the first time since October.
Alli made a five minute cameo appearance in the 1-1 draw, with some encouraging touches but the discouraging suspicion that he was invited to join the Kane-Son show chiefly because Gareth Bale was absent, unwell.
The temptation to supplement the Kane and Son axis with a little more Bale is powerful. But the Welshman, who rejoined Spurs on loan from Real Madrid in the summer, remains hampered by fitness issues and Mourinho reported on Wednesday he may not have recovered from his illness sufficiently to travel to Anfield.
It is a trip Bale would normally relish: he has a particular history with Liverpool, after all – perhaps the most blessed half hour of his decorated career, when he came on the 2018 Champions League final locked at 1-1 in Kiev and scored two dazzling goals that owed very little to partnership and everything to individual confidence, inspiration and talent.
Bale’s brilliant overhead volley and a long-range drive won that European Cup, eclipsing the efforts of both other members of what was once heralded as the finest striking alliance in elite football, the so-called BBC, standing for Karim Benzema, Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo. By the time it broke up, with Bale unfairly cast as the least vital link in the triangle, the trio had directly shared in almost 150 Madrid goals.
The most enduringly successful attacking trio still together? Probably Liverpool’s ‘Fab Three’. Roberto Firmino was joined at Anfield by a new manager, Jurgen Klopp soon after he arrived, by Sadio Mane the following season and by Mohamed Salah the year after that. They owe one another a combined 71 goals in terms of direct assists and finishes.
For Spurs, they have been a perpetual headache. Firmino has three goals in his last four league games against Tottenham, the last of them from a Salah assist in January’s 1-0 win.
And the Mane-Salah combination will haunt this generation of Spurs for ever, the Senegalese winning the penalty converted by the Egyptian soon after kick-off of Liverpool's 2019 Champions League final win. The same scenario led to winning goal in the last league meeting at Anfield.
Cultivating partnerships, oiling and calibrating the wheels and cogs, takes time. Mourinho pointed that out ahead of Wednesday’s summit meeting. “A result machine is what Liverpool have been for the past couple of years, and it is the result of - if I’m not wrong - 1,894 days working with Jurgen [Klopp].
"We are the result of the work of 390 days [since Mourinho arrived at Spurs]. For us to compete at the level we’re doing I can only give credit to the players.”