Why is Heung-Min Son struggling this season for Tottenham Hotspur? – scout report
The new Premier League season is only four matches old but already narratives are being formed around various teams. In some cases, those narratives are disproved almost as quickly as they are formed. Look, for example, at the turnaround at Old Trafford after Manchester United lost to Brighton and then Brentford only to outplay and outfight Liverpool at home.
Speaking of Liverpool, there were some around the footballing ecosystem who were voicing the opinion that Jurgen Klopp was under pressure after a slow start to their season. This narrative does not look as good after the 9-0 humbling that Liverpool handed out to Bournemouth at Anfield last weekend.
Another narrative currently doing the rounds surrounds Tottenham Hotspur’s South Korean international forward Heung-Min Son. So far this season, in four league games, the South Korean forward has registered just one assist and zero goals. This is after a 2021/22 season when Son was so effective that he almost eclipsed the Engish international captain Harry Kane as the key attacking player for Spurs.
Now, bear in mind that the club spent a reported £52.2M to sign the Brazilian international forward Richarlison to the club from Everton so there is a sense that Spurs may be forced to consider dropping Son to the bench, at least for the short-term. But would this be the right choice at this point though?
While there is no doubt that Son has not had the impact so far this season that we may have expected, that is not to say that he has suddenly become a bad player. Indeed, there are some around the club who feel that Son is feeling the effects of a difficult pre-season as the club looked to cash in on his popularity with a tour of South Korea. During that tour, the demands on Son’s time were constant while other players were allowed to work in training in the background all eyes were on the South Korean forward.
It is also worth pointing out at this point, however, that Son’s actual underlying performances so far this season have not been as bad as you might expect given the talk around his place in the team. Let’s take a minute as an example to consider his xG from a game-to-game basis so far:
- Vs Southampton – 0.85
- Vs Chelsea – 0.28
- Vs Wolves – 0.69
- Vs Nottingham Forest – 0.24
That gives Son a total xG so far this season of 2.06. Now, for analysis, one absolutely cannot use xG as a rock-solid example that a player is performing well but it is an indicator of what we should perhaps have expected so far this season from Son. A return of 2 goals and 1 assist from four matches would, of course, be much easier on the eye for Spurs fans. We also have to acknowledge that traditionally, it is the club captain and talisman Harry Kane who starts the season slowly before reestablishing himself from the end of August onwards.
How did Son look in the 2021/22 season?
The above pizza chart shows Son’s data across the 2021/22 Premier League season with all of the data converted into percentile data which allows us to compare Son’s performances as compared to all other players in the Premier League.
Immediately, it is clear that Son was outstanding as a purely attacking player. Previously in his career, at Bayer Leverkusen and then at Spurs, he was perhaps more of a threat from a chance creation point of view but last season saw him develop as a pure goalscorer. Positionally, he would still generally start from the left of the attack but his positioning when the ball was in play was very much central.
Last season he finished in the 95th percentile for goal contributions (goals and assists) and the 91st percentile for expected goal contributions (expected goals and expected assists) but only in the 76th percentile for shots per 90, his lowest key attacking output. What was really impressive, however, was how often he hit the target from those shots as he finished in the 95th percentile for shots on target %.
Now, let’s take a closer look at what we have seen from Son so far this season.
Rushed decision making
Make no mistake about it. Professional footballers are fragile. While there are exceptions, Thomas Muller and Cristiano Ronaldo spring to mind, most will at some point in their professional career have a crisis of confidence of some kind. This can lead to a downturn in performance but it can also see a player, and especially an attacking player, start to make decisions that may seem strange based on what we have seen from them in the past. To a certain extent, this seems to be the case when it comes to Son’s performances so far this season.
He is still getting into good positions, as the list of xG we showed earlier in this article shows, but there are points where he is almost rushing his final action or even deliberately not looking to take a shot himself.
Take this moment from the Spurs game last weekend against Nottingham Forest as an example. Son is well positioned at the edge of the penalty area and, as the initial attack is cleared, the ball drops to the South Korean forward who tries, and ultimately fails, to curl the ball into the far top corner of the goal.
When watching this live, it felt as though this was a relatively unusual action for Son to look to complete. What we would have expected last season, for example, would have been for Son to take possession of the ball at the edge of the area and then quickly cut and drive inside and past the defensive line as there is no defender who has the ability to get touch-tight quickly to Son in this example. We would generally see him drive into the shaded area before giving himself a chance to finish past the goalkeeper.
Here’s another example from the same match where Son has even more time and space than we saw in the last example. This time, he has possession of the ball as he drives into the opposition area. Once again, we have to acknowledge that there is no opposition defender who is anywhere near to being touch-tight or close enough to even look to make a late block.
We feel confident that last season we would have seen Son look to either power a shot past the goalkeeper at the near post or drive the ball low and hard for the far corner. Instead, we see Son look to play a square pass across the goal to find the run of Harry Kane. In the end, he got the angle and weight of the pass wrong and the chance was wasted. A more confident Heung-Min Son would have finished this chance.
When a player is low on confidence, it can lead to them rushing actions and chances as opposed to showing the composure that we would generally expect when a player is in form and has confidence in themselves.
We have another example of this from the match between Spurs and Wolves, although this time, there is definitely more pressure on the ball as it drops to the South Korean forward. This chance comes after Spurs have hit the bar and, as the ball drops in the centre of the area, Son is the first player to the ball, which is actually a positive in itself, but he snatches at the opportunity and hooks the ball wide.
Another of Son’s strengths in the game comes in the transition from defence to attack where he provides a real threat in terms of his ability to progress the ball through a drive up the pitch. He is a very strong ball carrier who has the pace and power to attack into space and move his team through the thirds all on his own. There are few players in the Premier League that defenders are less comfortable defending against in 1v1 situations because he has the ability to attack them to the left or the right side.
Here, we see Son in possession in the attacking transition and even with an opposition player tracking back, we effectively see a 3v3 for Spurs against the opposition defenders. Normally, in these situations, we would expect to see Son drive further forward against the central defender before outplaying them and bursting past on the outside or the inside. This time, however, he plays what amounts to a lateral pass to Harry Kane. This wasn’t even a pass into space and Kane, as a less dynamic player than Son, effectively slows the transition and allows the opposition to recover their position.
Positives? Son is still getting into good areas
While there is no doubt looking at Son’s performances so far this season in isolation that he is in relatively poor form (relative that is to his performances last season) and his confidence does look to be low at this point in time. There are still some positives for Spurs fans, however, the least of which is the fact that quality tends to show over the medium-t0-long term.
We would expect to see Son bounce back towards his best form sooner rather than later for Spurs. This assertion is further supported by the fact that Son is still getting himself into good positions with his intelligent off-the-ball movement.
We see an example of this here from the match between Spurs and Chelsea and as Spurs are chasing the game, the Chelsea defence found it difficult to deal with the attacking movement from Son.
Part of the identity of Spurs’ tactics last season, and now this, was the way that Harry Kane would start as the central striker but looked to drop off into the midfield in order to get on the ball. We would then see Son look for opportunities to move centrally and to provide the threat for Spurs to run in behind and stretch the opposition defensive line. We see this here as Kane gets on the ball deep inside the opposition half. He receives in a pocket of space and as soon as he gets the ball, we see Son set off on an aggressive run to attack the space. Kane will immediately look in these positions to find through balls to release the South Korean forward.
Something similar here from the match against Wolves as Dejan Kulusevksi, who plays from the right of the attack, cuts inside to attack the corner of the penalty area. As he does so we see Son making an aggressive and intelligent run across the face of the opposition defence in order to attack and access the available space.
Son is an intelligent forward whose appreciation and understanding of space are genuinely top-level. Here, his movement is absolutely correct and, as he receives the pass in the shaded zone from Kulusevski, he is just too slow to finish the chance as the opposition defenders are able to get back and close him down before he gets his shot away.
A footballer’s psyche is a difficult thing. There is no doubt that Son is suffering at the moment and he is not looking as composed in front of goal as we would generally see. What is the right choice here for Antonio Conte though? Does he drop Son and take Richarlison into the team for the next league game? Or does he persist with Son in the belief that he is still getting into good positions?
Strikers need goals to thrive and we believe that as soon as Son finds the net his form and performances will improve measurably. We are just glad that we are not the ones who are trying to decide whether to persevere with Son now or drop him to allow him to breathe and get a rest.