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.

Seb is a Premier League-accredited football writer in Bath, Somerset. He writes regularly for FourFourTwo and acts as content editor of uMAXit.

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8 Comments on “Heung Min Son Reaches Tottenham Tipping-Point”

  1. Donovan Klein says:

    I think every team needs one selfish player. Son does not fit the Hotspur’s disciplinary of futbol, but there is always room for one exception. Let’s face it Tottenham have one the most air tightening defense, but on offense it’s just pass around the outer rim for possession, and hope to score 1 goal for a win. Possession is great, but it creates natural tightening of formation for the opposition, which leads to less cutting edge of offense for Tottenham. Son brings different element of offense to the team. Isolation, yes, but it is necessary. Every time Son is NOT on the field, Tottenham’s offense looks predictable and stagnant. Even majority goals of Kane is from penalties. I wish my team, Hotspur don’t sell him. Sissiko was miserable fail attempt, it was desperate reach because they couldn’t sign Isco. I wish we continue to keep Son happy somehow, but I’m afraid it will not. I don’t think he’s teammates enjoy playing with him. The team don’t create chances or opportunities for Son to be happy

  2. Richard says:

    I strongly disagree. The style of play isn’t the best for Son, yet he has done good for the team. It’s puzzling for me that when the whole team is playing bad and struggling, finger pointing goes to Son. He seems to be the guy Spurs will sacrifice for someone else when team is struggling. Plus, subsituting Son out of the line up is less controversial than taking Kane, Dele, Erikson so it seems to me that is what Spurs choose to do. When I watch the game, I expect Son going off the pitch when the team isn’t playing well. He isn’t Bale, he isn’t reliable defensive mid fielder. He is an attacker with attackers mentality. He is vital to this team. The article to me feels like personal feeling then objective observation.

  3. dshin says:

    ronaldo, kobe, jordan… some atheletes are best when they are selfish… i totally disagree with this article because i think son isnt selfish enough sometimes to take on players in attack to be more effective… son’s production only dropped when teammates didnt need to rely on him to score after getting kane back.. son has been doing fine when he’s actually on the pitch… the gaffer just has depth on his side which is a necessity… not something that’s wasteful

  4. Anonymous says:

    I enjoyed this article quite a bit. I think you did well in expressing something I feel when I watch Son on the pitch. He just does seem to not fit the model of the rest of our players. Whenever the opportunity arises to play in someone in a better positions (a pass that Lamela, Alli, Eriksen, Kane, Etc. would make) you see Son being selfish quite often. While you can never doubt his technical abilities I do notice his selfishness multiple times a game. Honestly I think poch does too and it shows when he doesn’t get a start over players who had been struggling. Well written article.

  5. John Hotspur says:

    Really lame article tbh sorry.. I don’t know what else to say

  6. Terry says:

    I really don’t agree with this article. Son has won games on his own when Kane was out, without those points we would be 8th. Agreed he needs to be more consistent, but only game time gives a player that, need to stick him in for a dozen games, trouble is who swops out?

  7. S-P says:

    He came back from international duty carrying an injury, I believe – and he looked fatigued to me. I think that had an impact on his form after the Citeh game. Indeed, the international break seemed to generally have a negative impact on the squad as a whole, in terms both of fitness and form. Frustrating, really, as the performance against Citeh was so good – can’t help but feel that our position would be better if there had not been one.

  8. Blainey says:

    What an absolute load of drivel this article is. I don’t even think you know what you are trying to say in it. Price tags mean nothing, saying White Hart Lane isnt the place for £20m substitutes shows the scope of your ambition. Look at the Chelsea bench vs Bournemouth? Batshuayi cost over 30m and has been on the bench all season, look at Man City and Man Utd and who are on their benches? Man UTD brought on 3 players who on average cost over 30m.
    Who exactly would you rather have instead of Son on the bench? Tom Carroll???? Alex Pritchard (yes i know we sold him) but the point is price tag is irrelevant, you win things having strength in depth not by being bogged down on the idiocy of a price tag which is wholly irrelevant in the modern day, it measures nothing.
    Armchair fans writing pieces like this with a convoluted point that they can’t even work out for themselves are what is wrong with all these open blogging sites. Rant over.
    The main point I return to is that this article is absolute garbage which should be binned along with the torn christmas wrapping paper.

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