Heung Min Son Reaches Tottenham Tipping-Point
If there’s a reason to distrust Heung-Min Son, it’s because he resembles the past: he’s comprised of qualities associated with Old Tottenham.
Concentrated highlights can be deceptive and so, when Spurs paid just over £20m to bring the South Korean forward to England eighteen months ago, it was as surprising as it was exciting. Adding a reigning Asian Player of the Year, himself only 23 at the time, was a near-perfect garnish for Mauricio Pochettino’s young, blue-collared side. The foundations were in place – Pochettino had constructed a mean defence and would soon build a similarly obdurate (and gifted) midfield, and Son would be an architectural flourish at the top of the formation.
There have been flashes. An excellent home debut against Crystal Palace in 2015 brought a winning goal and another three points arrived via a neat flick at Vicarage Road at the end of the year.
And, ever since, a perpetual boom and bust.
Pochettino’s football involves an arduous physical regimen and, by the end of 2015/16, Son was ready to tap-out. Reports from the time revealed that he spent the summer keen on a Bundesliga return and that only a personal intervention from Pochettino himself prevented his departure.
For a while, that was just as well. Following his return from the Olympic football in Rio tournament, Son blazed a trail across the Premier League. He scored twice at Stoke – the second a gem – and got two more at Middlesbrough. At a time when Champions League ambitions needed solidifying, he skidded a late, crucial winner across the goal-line in Russia and then, days later, buzzed with purpose at the head of the Tottenham line against Manchester City.
But then – again – a reversion. His decisive cameo against West Ham at White Hart Lane and his scissor-kick volley during the trouncing of Swansea totalled his meagre winter return and his victory-sealing goal at St Mary’s last night, while extremely well-taken, was little more than a statistic.
It’s familiar. This, regrettably, is the kind of player he is. According to those with an intimate knowledge of the Bundesliga, Son was a second-level player for this very reason: he has the talent to be effective at the very top of the game, but the mind to only be of periodic influence.
He’s a seductive player and arguably the most gifted attacking piece on Pochettino’s board. Christian Eriksen has been productive of late, Erik Lamela brings roulette wheel creativity and a strong work ethic and Dele Alli remains one of the most alluring talents of his generation. Moussa Sissoko, although asterisked by his own temperament, has also begun stir. Neverthelesss, none of them bear literal comparison to Son – he possesses the broader skillset and his range of theoretical influence is wider.
And yet, perversely, he is the most awkward part of the jigsaw.
Without actually playing for Pochettino, one can only really guess at what it takes to be a reliable part of his side. It seems, though, that the common trait is a willingness to defer to the collective purpose. Though Tottenham aren’t unique in that regard, they are perhaps the Premier League’s most obvious sum-of-parts team: they attack together and they defend together. That’s a solid enough principle, but it hides a tenuous reality: if as many of two or three players underperform on any given day, they can quickly become vulnerable or impotent. This is not Andre Villas-Boas’ team – one designed to extract the very most from a single player – but one which relies on more intricate mechanisms and leans heavily on duty and responsibility.
Within that context, Son is an outlier. Whereas other Spurs players oscillate between narrow bands of form, he fluctuates violently between opposing states: he is either brilliant or awful and either scores goals or offers nothing at all. More troubling still, that “nothing at all” sometimes involves critical defensive lapses or badly timed drops in physical intensity. “Luxury player” is an outmoded term and not really a description which Son deserves to wear, but it is illustrative of the problems he creates.
The best player isn’t always the right one at Tottenham.
Our eyes are always drawn towards the spectacular. Given football fandom’s dependance on aspiration, we are trained to favour theory over substance and prioritise what a player might do ahead of what he actually does. That’s particularly pertinent in Son’s case. When the topic of his Spurs departure periodically reappears (his agent seemingly has a keen eye for superior opportunities) the fear of sanctioning a sale tends to overrride the paucity of the player’s contribution. Neither Daniel Levy nor Mauricio Pochettino – nor any of the club’s supporters – want to be watching Son achieve what he so obviously could in another team’s colours. When someone has flashed with such vivid colour, the temptation is to believe that the next firework display can happen at any time.
Next week, next month, next season.
But this is not old Tottenham. Their standards are higher and they can no longer carry players who rise to their apex for only six weeks of a year. Heung-Min Son seems a jovial, well-liked character in the Tottenham dressing-room and his native celebrity possibly influences his playing style in ways which aren’t even considered. However, his current context dictates that either he conforms further or surrenders his long-term future in North London; White Hart Lane is not the place for £20m substitutes.
He’s a precious player and one who, at 24, has time to emotionally evolve, but he might well be in the wrong place at the wrong time.