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Chained tiger: Struggles of Son Heung-min

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MARCH 21, 2023

Last May, Son Heung-min was on top of the world.

Tottenham was back in the Champions League after two years adrift, and it had the South Korean to thank.

His 23 goals drew level with Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah for the league’s Golden Boot — and the Spurs ace did it without penalties.

Ten months on, Son has six goals in 26 matches played.  The eye test backs up the numbers. His touch has looked leaden, and his choices in the final third have left much to be desired. He hasn’t given us many signature curlers to compensate.

Football fans are fickle, and Son is the latest victim of their favorite f-word: finished. With the hitman now on the wrong side of 30, even Spurs fans are doubting his staying power. After its recent Champions League elimination at the hands of A.C. Milan, Tottenham’s season is on life support.

Reviving Son’s form would breathe new life into its campaign. Spurs manager Antonio Conte has to look beyond fan criticism and figure out why the winger looks so lost. Having done so, he must reshape Spurs’ tactics based on his findings. It’s a tall order.

But as a diehard Tottenham fan and noted tactical visionary — if my Football Manager CV is anything to go by — I’d love to humbly offer my insight.

To analyze Son’s failings, we need to understand his past successes. After a shaky start to life in the Premier League, he steadily grew into an elite role player in Mauricio Pochettino’s fluid, high-pressing 4-2-3-1. His biggest assets were his pace and especially his versatility. Thanks to his uncanny two-footedness, he could cut inside from the left or right but also play an orthodox winger on either side. Son went from strength to strength, racking up double-digit goal tallies for the next three seasons.

It was under José Mourinho that Son truly came into his own, this time in a radically different system. Mourinho replaced the rabid press with a counter-attacking mid-block. The Portuguese looked to drill in defensive solidity (with inconsistent results) and let players take the reins on offense.

To that end, he developed a telepathic partnership between Son and Spurs talisman Harry Kane. Kane would make use of his understated creative talent, dropping deep to find the runs of teammates with through balls and long passes. Son was his most common target, cutting in from the left to bear down on goal.

When the two were at their best, it was almost like they were playing a different sport: American football. Kane was the quarterback, pulling deep into midfield and sending bombs to Son Heung-min — his star receiver.

No single goal better captures this duo than Tottenham’s first in a 2-0 North London Derby win in December 2020. Kane received a cushioned header from the back of the center circle, sliding a pass into the left half-space for Son to run onto. The Korean burst forth, driving inward and stealing Hector Bellerin’s soul before sending a 25-yard screamer into Bernd Leno’s far corner.

Son ended 2020-2021 with his most productive season yet: 17 goals and 10 assists, most finished by Kane. Kane, in turn, owed many of his 23 goals and 14 assists to Son, who was just as capable of finding him with less flashy combinations in the box.

For all this brilliance, the club languished in 7th place come the end of that season. Mourinho was sacked for his squad’s many flaws, but the Son-Kane partnership was not one of them.

When Antonio Conte came to N17 (after some other guy, but he was the gas leak coach), he only enhanced Mourinho’s model. January signing Dejan Kulusevski provided much-needed width up front as Kane and Son tended to stay narrower. The ginger from Sweden sent Spurs to new heights, and his added creativity was key to Son’s Golden Boot triumph last year.

But in an interview with The Mirror even before taking the Spurs job, Conte expressed different plans for Son’s partner-in-crime.

“It’s in the box where (Kane’s) clinical and as a coach, I would always keep him in there because he’s devastating.”

Conte wanted Kane to hang in the box as an out-and-out striker. It was in this role that he saw his greatest goal scoring seasons under Pochettino: 29 and 30 in 16/17 and 17/18, respectively. Perhaps Conte anticipated needing his presence in the box to outmuscle low blocks — Conte’s Spurs would follow up a famous win at City with a dismal 1-0 loss to Burnley.

Conte executed that design to start his second season in charge. He placed Kane at the tip of Tottenham’s attacking trident, rather than Son. This forced the South Korean deeper into the midfield to compensate.

It’s now Son getting the ball either in traffic or with his back to goal. Playing out of such situations has never been one of his strengths — as we saw under Mourinho and even last season under Conte, Son is best receiving the ball in dangerous positions, not carrying the ball into them.

Son isn’t the only player to suffer from this arrangement. Spurs lack creativity in the center of the park. It’s great to have a world-class presence in the box, but not even Kane can change games without service. The Korean can pick a pass — though nowhere near as well as Kane — but again is much better on the end of them.

Usual midfield suspects like Oliver Skipp, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and the injured Rodrigo Bentancur all have a line-breaking ball in their locker, but none can execute consistently enough to be called true playmakers.

Kane’s 21-goal haul this season comes almost in spite of Conte’s new system — it’s a testament to his quality as a striker, not Conte’s tactical sharpness.

Son owes some of his woes to another recent change by Conte, the arrival of wingback Ivan Perisic. The Croatian is no stranger to Conte’s system — he experienced a late-career renaissance under the Italian, winning the Serie A title in 2020-21  with Conte’s Internazionale. On the blue side of Milan, Perisic developed a reputation for long shots, marauding runs and a capable delivery from out wide.

To Spurs fans, that should sound familiar.

Perisic’s best role might as well be Son’s. Both are attack-minded wide players who operate on the left flank. Son wants to cut in and shoot, while Perisic wants to put in a (frequently aimless) cross.

A look at their heat maps confirms my fear: they’re stepping on each other’s toes. We don’t have this problem on the right side: Kulusevski stays wide while his corresponding wingback, the reborn Emerson Royal, now shifts inside to support the midfield. I want to reiterate that Perisic shouldn’t be scapegoated for Son’s lost form — and instead for his defensive lapses — but their lack of chemistry hurts him and the team.

When the tactics are taken into account, the solution seems obvious — just go back to what we were doing last year! Getting the best out of a star player in Son secured us top four. But while Conte’s changes have gone awry, they didn’t come without reason.

Spurs have suffered when allowed the ball since Pochettino left. AC Milan demonstrated that in its 1-0 win at the San Siro, as did sides like Burnley and Brentford under “peak Conte.” Mourinho’s men were played off the park by Steve Bruce’s Newcastle when handed the ball in a 2-2 draw at St. James’.

When a boiled cabbage can figure you out, you’ve got a systemic problem. Conte should have Son firing, but his end goal isn’t to win Son Heung-min the Golden Boot — it’s to make Tottenham Hotspur a consistent, winning side. An in-form Son will help with that but can’t guarantee it. Not when we have such crucial issues in possession, not to mention our ropey defense.

In considering how to lift Son to his former heights, I realized that saving Spurs doesn’t just mean reviving one man. It means elevating the entire team from the ground up.

But I want to end from a different perspective — not that of the tactical mastermind who’ll no doubt be fielding Conte’s calls soon enough — but that of the rabid, passionate fan.

Will Son be part of Spurs’ future? I don’t know. Maybe he is aging out. Maybe he won’t kick on and he really is finished. But damn it if he hasn’t earned second chances aplenty. This is the man who signed a new contract when we were without a manager, the man who carried us on his back under … Nico (was that his name?), when Kane’s head was turned by Manchester City.

Bringing Sonny back won’t fix Tottenham Hotspur. But someone better do it: I’m surely not the only one who wants to see him smile at the South Stand again.

Contact Daniel Gamboa at 


MARCH 21, 2023