Heung-min Son: Tottenham’s unsung attacker?
Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Heung-min Son and Harry Kane are a well-oiled machine that can break into even the most heavily fortified defences. The quartet find each other blindly with one destination: Kane, the man who scores in the blink of an eye.
It has always seemed that one radar in the machine was easier to change than the others though: Heung-Min Son. With his vivacious running actions, work ethic and smile he quickly conquered the hearts of the fans. However, his performances became irregular as he traded brilliant games with unlucky ones, and classy touches with clumsy passes. It appeared he was missing a small piece of genius to be considered as important as Spurs’ other three attacking protagonists.
Son fed this status at the beginning of the season. Winning the Asian Games released him of his military duty. Smiling he quoted it was “the most beautiful day of his life”. But on the pitch we couldn’t see this liberated soul. He wasn’t the confident winger or the playful attacker. On the contrary, he seemed to suffer from decompression and some fatigue. At the end of the day, it wasn’t a big surprise or an illogical issue after his heavy summer program.
His crisis peaked painfully against Dutch side PSV Eindhoven at the end of October. The ever-active Son was unable to create any scoring opportunities for himself or for his teammates. He completed hardly any successful, decisive or key passes, and picked up his teammates’ positions too late. Many considered him to be a little short of his usual complete self.
Favourite of Pochettino
But Heung-min Son did what he always did. He stood up and grew into a better version of himself. He shook off his dip in form, and in November and December was just brilliant. Did any other player reduce the Chelsea defenders to statues with one epic run? Who flattened out Everton, scoring twice and assisting? It resulted in a nomination for Player of the Month, and lots of praise from a Portuguese manager leaving Manchester: “Every team would be happy having a Son in his squad.”
Mourinho was a little too late to realise. Mauricio Pochettino has known for years Son is Tottenham’s latest unsung attacker in his 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 diamond-system (the latter in which Son is a striker). When the most expensive Asian player ever wanted to return to Germany after his first season, Pochettino managed to keep him in London. Even if Son was benched a lot more than he liked, his dedication, his versatility and discipline contribute made him a very important piece in his manager’s masterplan. Today this true even more than ever.
Son’s unique role
With his pace, timing and technical skills Son threatens defences. The Spurs number seven is Tottenham’s most important weapon in the counter-attack with the opponent’s defensive line in a high or medium press. Kane drops back to the attacking midfielder spot.
By asking for the ball deeper he gives the defenders two options to skip the midfield: play an early ball to himself, or launch Son into the channels. Both are efficients option for Spurs, with the excellent passing technique of Alderweireld and Trippier.
Son anticipates and runs the channels, almost always cutting towards the centre and beating his opponent with pace. Hard to stop in his directness, he arrives within seconds in a one-to-one situation with the goalkeeper.
When Tottenham play the ball long, Son is an attack on his own. If he doesn’t score, his teammates are still in position to win second balls. Getting on the back of his defender high up the pitch is what Son lives for.
In contrast to most naturally right-footed players on the left wing, Son doesn’t dribble inside very often looking for the right angle. He threatens, but prefers to use his explosive nature instead. He uses a quick and efficient dribble on the outside towards the byline before searching for Kane or Alli in the area.
While Son carrying the ball is important for the Spurs, his efficiency counts as well as a distractor for Kane and Alli’s benefit. He generously makes high-speed runs (topping 32 km/h against Arsenal) without touching the ball. In this way, he’s the perfect decoy for his fellow forwards.
By beating his opponent at pace and cutting towards the centre, he creates a big problem for the central defenders.
By beating his opponent at pace and cutting towards the centre, he creates a big problem for the central defenders. He forces them to choose. Either they must pick up the South-Korean, and therefore lose Kane or another Spurs player for just a second, or leave the right wing to open up.
The latter option is dangerous, given how easily Kane can profit from just a few inches of freedom. Unfortunately, the alternative is also deadly: allowing Son a breakthrough between the central defenders.
So even without having or touching the ball, he contributes to Tottenham’s massive goal production. In fact, Son only makes 30 touches a game on average, notably fewer times than playmakers Eriksen (58) and Dele Alli (44).
Out of possession Spurs have liked to vary between a medium and high press this season. Son’s job is to cut the passing angles of the right-back, and it’s effective: Tottenham’s rivals count fewer successful passes than average. Balls are kicked out wide or are recuperated in the middle of the pitch. This strategy only works with hardworking, disciplined and intelligent attackers with excellent stamina. Enter Heung-min Son.
Son seems not to be a clinical assassin. For every class goal, he lets a clear scoring opportunity go begging. But it’s just perception as the stats are very clear: Son was positioned 11th in the deadliest player rankings for 2017/18. This season too he has shown efficiency with eight goals from 30 attempts in the Premier League. Scoring with both feet (six goals with his right, two with his left), he has only missed three big scoring opportunities.
He should, however, be capable of making more decisive passes and assists. Sometimes he loses focus while dribbling or tries to deliver the most difficult pass. The image below demonstrates this point. Son cuts into the space on the right wing. He has got two passing possibilities in the centre.
He prefers to play the lateral pass, in between a number of defenders, even though he has a better and easier option. Playing a cutback would leave no chance for the defenders, and an ideal opportunity for his team to score.
Son is on a high and full of confidence. Two things have made the difference between the beginning of the season and today. Firstly, he is fully recuperated from an intensive summer. He can also enjoy the added boost of being able to focus 100% on his football career since last autumn.
Who wouldn’t want a Son like that? One hopes he can avoid a less convincing period than the one he had last season, and that he can maintain his flow after a new adventure with his national team in January. If he can, then he will not only add smart running actions and lots of energy to the team, but he will also produce more goals and assists. Just imagine Tottenham not only having Kane as a scoring machine. In that case, the sky seems the limit.
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