Tottenham’s recent dismantling of Liverpool and Real Madrid at Wembley has seen their temporary ground begin to feel a little bit more like home. Yet a dire first-half display against Crystal Palace on Sunday left some suspecting that another Wembley slip-up was impending. But midway through the second-half, Hueng-min Son stepped up to stroke in a fine curling effort and score a crucial winner for Spurs.
It was also the goal which made Sonny the highest-scoring Korean to grace the Premier League, surpassing notorious ‘big-game player’ and Arsenal slayer, Park Ji-sung.
In truth, Son shares many similarities with his Korean counterpart – an industrious work-rate, selfless attitude and positional versatility spring to mind. But unlike Park, scoring goals is a primary facet of Son’s game. Indeed, the winger-come-forward has needed less-than-half as many games to overtake Park’s Premier League goal-tally of 19.
Struggler to star
Even so, it could have been very different for Son. Having joined Spurs from Bayer Leverkusen in 2015, he struggled to adapt to English football and quickly became unsettled. In fact, Son asked to leave the club the following summer only for Mauricio Pochettino to eventually convince him to stay.
it was a decision which paid dividends for Son and Tottenham as the Korean burst into life during the 2016/17 campaign. Sonny quickly forged a reputation as one of the league’s most-feared attackers, boasting blistering speed and a keen eye-for-goal. He picked up 14 goals and six assists, winning two player of the month awards along the way.
The former Hamburg man scored more league goals than the highly rated Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho, despite starting fewer games. Yet there was always a feeling that Son had never truly nailed-on a starting place at Tottenham. Nevertheless, his importance to the team was plain to see.
The beginning of this season saw Son start just one of Spurs’ opening four league fixtures. With limited opportunities and recovering from an arm injury, the speedy winger was unable to find the form that made him such a threat last season. However, as Spurs’ fixture list has grown increasingly congested, Son has seen more game-time and has recently started four consecutive league games.
Despite this, Son still remains a ‘Plan B’ for Tottenham – an alternative option. Whilst a string of successive league starts represents an improvement, Son barely featured in Tottenham’s memorable double-header with Real Madrid. Of course, rotation is crucial for any club competing on several fronts, but there’s a fine line between a player being happily rotated and feeling somewhat underappreciated.
Pochettino typically utilises a 3-4-2-1 system which is headed by the frightening attacking trio of Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane, thus leaving no room for Son in his favoured position. Despite the Korean’s obvious qualities, it’s difficult to justify him a place ahead of any of these three.
As devastating as Son can be and has been, he is rarely trusted to start ahead of Dele or Eriksen. Plus, some would argue that his abilities are perfectly suited to the role of ‘impact sub’. Of course, Son himself would aspire to more than this.
Still, opportunities to start do arise regularly, whether through injury, rotation, suspension or simply a tactical change. In fact, on certain occasions, Pochettino will deploy Son in addition to the usual attacking trio. This has typically occurred in home games against teams who tend to sit-back, handing Spurs a command of possession and an opportunity to play a more forward-thinking formation.
Making an impact
Son, Dele, Eriksen and Kane have all started together on four separate occasions this season, all of which coming at Wembley against Burnley, Swansea, Bournemouth and Liverpool.
On three of these occasions, Tottenham were generally underwhelming and struggled to break down their opponents. Son himself was particularly ineffective against Burnley and Bournemouth, lacking creativity and appearing slightly low on confidence.
Fortunately, following a disappointing display against Bournemouth, Son kept his place in the side for Spurs’ clash with Liverpool. This time, in a tactical masterstroke, Pochettino deployed Son as Harry Kane’s strike partner.
The South Korean was at his very best against Liverpool, combining seamlessly with Kane throughout and scoring a well-taken goal having blitzed past James Milner in the process. He left the field to rapturous applause midway through the second-half having run himself into the ground.
The next week, in the absence of Harry Kane, Son was deployed as Spurs’ only striker at Old Trafford. Despite working tirelessly once again, his efforts were futile. Without Kane’s presence, the Korean was isolated and ineffective.
Yet Son proved his worth once more against Palace on Sunday. He may have squandered two arguably easier opportunities, but his goal was the only moment of class in a game absent of real quality.
The future for Son
The North London Derby is up next for Tottenham and with a few injury doubts elsewhere, Son may get another opportunity to make a statement.
In recent years, Tottenham have been accused of having a squad which lacks depth, but Son’s failure to cement a consistent starting role is a credit to the growing strength of this Spurs team. Whilst Son’s presence must provide a predicament for Mauricio Pochettino, its surely one he’s thankful for.
Son’s attitude and professionalism is of no question, but Pochettino must make sure the Korean gets enough game-time to remain satisfied and continue to contribute. Although, with the long-awaited return of Erik Lamela apparently imminent, the competition for places could become even fiercer at Tottenham.