It hasn’t always been so sunny for Son Heung-Min. Signed by Tottenham Hotspur in 2015, the South Korea international initially struggled to acclimatise to the demands of the Premier League. Joining from Bayer Leverkusen, the midfielder struggled to establish himself as a guaranteed starter under Mauricio Pochettino.
Son grew frustrated at a lack of opportunities and asked to leave. Pochettino didn’t want that, though. The Argentine coach knows what type of player he likes and Son, as a hard-pressing playmaker with a great eye for goal, he was prepared to give him a chance to prove himself.
Pochettino’s renewed faith transformed Son’s fortunes, starting the 2016/17 season like a house on fire with three consecutive Man of the Match performances.
A double at Stoke City, an eye-catching display against Sunderland and a brace to down Middlesbrough helped lift Spurs to their best start to a league season in 51 years. Son ended the season with 21 goals in 47 appearances. However, while such an impressive return hasn’t made him a guaranteed starter this season, Son continues to be one of Pochettino’s most dependable players.
Regularly Making An Impact
That much was evident on Saturday when Son scored Tottenham’s only goal as they drew with Watford. It wasn’t the first time he came to Spurs’ rescue this season either. He scored a beautiful winner to see off a stubborn, organised Crystal Palace at Wembley. With Dele Alli ruled out thanks to a hamstring injury, the Korean stepped into the starting line-up and produced a moment of magic, killing the ball with one touch on the edge of the area before lifting it into the corner beyond Julián Speroni.
Son also exhibited the kind of perfectionist mentality his manager would love to hear when offering a post-match assessment of his own performance.
“I had a number of chances,” Son said. “I am disappointed to score just the one goal, but the important thing is that we got the three points.”
But that wasn’t a surprise, in a disappointing season so far, he’s been a shining light. When Spurs capitulated to allow West Ham United to beat them 3-2 in the Carabao Cup, Son’s contributions were telling, setting up both of his side’s goals.
That came three days after Son, alongside Harry Kane, terrorised the Liverpool defence in a 4-1 win, scoring the second goal and generally impressing with his pressing, runs in behind and link-up play with Kane, who bagged himself two goals against a horribly misshapen Reds defence.
With Alli suspended from Spurs’ first three Champions League group games this season, Son admirably stepped into the England international’s boots. He scored the team’s first European goal of the season in the opener against Borussia Dortmund, finishing a blistering counter-attack with a stunning tight-angled strike.
The Dortmund defence were perhaps guilty of focusing their energies on stopping Kane. In fact, they should have been aware of Son’s abilities, having scored six times against them during his time at Hamburg and Bayer.
Can He Smash The Glass Ceiling At Spurs?
The frustrating thing for Son, of course, is that Kane, Alli and reported Barcelona transfer target Christian Eriksen are very much the established attacking trio under Pochettino. The coach’s preferred system is a 3-4-2-1, with Alli and Eriksen behind Kane. Son does not have enough defensive capabilities to be considered as a wing-back, while Spurs already have plenty of depth in those areas with Serge Aurier, Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose and Ben Davies.
Despite his decisive contributions over the last season-and-a-half, the glass ceiling remains at Wembley – one he is unlikely to smash through unless Eriksen or Alli suffer either a significant injury or a dramatic and sudden dip in form.
His qualities are obvious, but Pochettino does not trust him as much as the aforementioned duo and it means that the 25-year-old is forced to wait for his opportunity. However, if Son regularly takes his opportunities when he starts, does he not have a legitimate claim to a starting berth? Sadly, on merit, he doesn’t quite match up to Alli and Eriksen.
It could be argued that Son is similar to Liverpool attacker Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian winger has hit the ground running at Anfield after making a £36.9million switch from Roma in the summer, and currently leads the Premier League in terms of goals scored.
Salah’s goalscoring cannot be disputed, but his tendency to miss big chances has also been highlighted. Like Son – who missed two one-on-ones against Palace despite scoring – Salah is the kind of player who will miss but be undeterred by it. Both players are intelligent, instinctive and possess excellent movement around the box, which means they will always have chances to score.
The reality, however, is that although Son remains a devastating attacking weapon for Pochettino, he represents a plan B for the Tottenham boss. While it’s a sign of the coach’s flexibility that can partner Son up front with Kane in a 5-3-2 to thrilling effect like against Liverpool, there remains a concern over how long the Korean will be content with such a restrictive landscape.
At 25, Son is approaching what many would consider being a footballer’s peak years, and would ideally like to be playing as much as possible. Although Pochettino views him as an important squad member, Son would be excused of having a higher opinion of himself.
The other caveat is that, if Son continues to seize the opportunities he’s being given, he will also continue to attract interest from other clubs, clubs who may be able to offer him starting football on a weekly basis.