The reputation of Tottenham Hotspur’s Korean attacker Heung-Min Son has rocketed in the past few months.
Club team-mates Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen have, in the past, been awarded the unwritten European soccer accolade of being linked with Real Madrid; now, it’s Son that media pundits are thinking aloud on.
This is the 26-year-old’s third complete season at Tottenham, after joining from Bayer Leverkusen ahead of the 2015/16 campaign. Has he made the leap to superstardom this season, or was the soccer world sleeping on him for too long?
Emergence this season
The interesting thing is Son’s always been a big figure when it comes to Tottenham scoring goals.
He reached double figures in each of the last two seasons, as well as getting six assists (both times). On a per game basis, his goal contribution in the league was 0.87 and 0.7 per game.
That former rate, in 2016/17, was in the same range as Sergio Agüero at Manchester City and Marco Reus at Borussia Dortmund. Son was already really good, but this season, he’s on another level entirely.
He’s only a goal and an assist off his total for the entirety of last season and has contributed 1.06 goals per game, with 11 goals and five assists. It’s a better rate than Mohamed Salah at Liverpool and Robert Lewandowski at FC Bayern, and the best rate at Tottenham by a distance.
Why has it taken so long to notice him?
Principally, it’s Tottenham’s injury crisis that’s shone the light on Son.
English stars Harry Kane and, to a slightly lesser extent, Dele Alli have previously taken the limelight, and deservedly so. Both are incredibly talented and performing at a high level at a very young age. Kane was the Premier League’s top scorer in 2015/16 and 2016/17 and, of course, being English doesn’t hurt their chances of winning praise.
Both are now injured, though, and Spurs aren’t blessed with the same strength-in-depth in attack some other teams in the league are. Son has stepped up to the plate in a way he hasn’t needed to before.
There’s also the fact Tottenham’s other stars like Kane, Alli, and Christian Eriksen have tended to be regular starters, while Son has featured less often.
He played fewer than 2,350 minutes in both 2016/17 and 2017/18, averaging just over 60 minutes per appearance. By comparison, Kane has never dipped below 2,500 league minutes since 2014/15, averaging over 80 minutes per appearance.
Since returning from Asian Cup duty with South Korea in January, Son has played 89 minutes or more in all four of Tottenham’s matches. He’s in top form, scoring a goal in each of those games, and he’s now a proper starting player.
What will happen when Kane returns?
Kane’s return to fitness is no guarantee Son’s hot streak will come to an end. In fact, it started while both Kane and Alli were still in the side, back in December.
In the space of six games in 17 days over the Christmas and New Year period, Son bagged seven goals and five assists (a 7-0 FA Cup win against fourth-tier Tranmere Rovers helped).
It’s undeniable that Son will be asked to play in a slightly different area of the pitch when Kane comes back, though. Below are the heat maps – showing his touches on the ball – for this season when the English striker was fit and since he’s been out with his ankle injury.
The surge of admiration for Son is partly making up for lost time, a level of appreciation from the wider soccer public that should have come a long time ago.
The South Korean is a very talented player who’s stepped up to become a star when needed. When the rest of Spurs’ stars return to fitness, he won’t need to be a star any longer, but we should all remember the potential he has.
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