A series that may be a bit too late, but better late than never.
In this series, we’ll briefly evaluate the seasons of every Korean Player Abroad. And no one better to start with than Son Heung-min.
Son Heung-min began the 2016/17 season off the back of a disappointing Quarter-Final exit in the Olympics, where he was supposed to be the team’s star player. An imperfect first year at White Hart Lane left pundits and Son wondering if he could compete for a starting spot with Erik Lamela – so off he looked for a transfer. Wolfsburg were the most likely receivers of Son’s trade, but Mauricio Pochettino encouraged Son to stay in London.
After those rumors had subsided, Son Heung-min got his first start at Stoke and scored two goals and tallied one assist. Then at Sunderland, a 1-0 win where Son was absolutely electric, creating chance after chance with take-on after take-on. This set up a game where WhoScored registered Son’s performance as a perfect 10 – a brace against Middlesbrough. Follow that with the game winner away in Moscow in the Champions League – and Son had South Korea’s first Premier League Player of the Month.
And yet, Son went back to sleep when September ended – at least on the goalscoring charts. Lamela and Kane’s injuries meant a place for him in the starting lineup was assured, but with Vincent Janssen struggling, Poch decided to play Son up-top. Though it was a change that perhaps suited the side tactically, Son just wasn’t the same in the month of October.
With the wind out of his sails in November, Son saw himself relegated to the bench in December and for most of January, though a key leveler against Manchester City on the 21st of January followed by a brace in the FA Cup against Wycombe brought Son back regularly into the lineup.
Son started the season brightly and ended it on the similarly positive note, with a cracking March and April. A hat-trick against Millwall, and a 4 game scoring streak against Burnley, Swansea, Watford and Bournemouth in April saw him saw him win yet another Premier League Player of the Month award – the only player this season to claim two titles. However, a frustrating mistake against Chelsea on 22 April by Son – an errant tackle in the FA Cup semis, playing as a wingback, took the Spurs firmly out of contention for any hardware this season.
But his brace against Leicester on 18 May meant Son’s goal-haul for the season would finish at 21 goals, surpassing Cha Bumkun’s 19 of 1985-86 and becoming the most prolific Asian goalscorer in Europe – a testament to Son’s innate ability to score crazy goals.
What Went Well?
Son Heung-min’s return of 21 goals is an impressive one – especially for a winger. Granted, it’s not Gareth Bale-esque proportions, but still very, very solid. The key difference for Son this season was his ability to execute just a little bit more. Where last season, his touches betrayed him, this year, the ball oft looked glued to his feet. He’s getting into more dangerous positions, isolating defenders and decimating defenses on the counter with a convincing dribble or devastating shot. Sandals For Goalposts’ Tomas Danicek really summed it up well at the end of the 2016: “One careful observer has noted his rising fitness levels, or greater endurance; Tim Lee has noticed Son is now more convincing with his take-ons; and Jun (along with others) stresses that he’s clearly worked on his off the ball movement.”
More importantly, though I wonder if statistics can back this up, Pochettino tried last season to have Son play a bit more of a two-way winger role. The fact of the matter is, Son simply doesn’t do that. Though his energy allows him to track back if needed, his defensive work is quite sub-standard. It appears that Poch, recognizing this, allowed Son to play less of an active role while defending this season, which unshackled much of his attacking potential.
He’s also scored some ridiculous goals along the way…:
What Went Poorly?
Son Heung-min’s hallmark inconsistency means his season obviously had low-lights. He is best described as a “luxury player”, and the season was, as always, littered by Son’s physical struggles, periodical wastefulness or long matches in the wildness before sudden bursts of form. What’s more important this season is that such shortcomings did not define his year.
On the horizon, observers would be right to be concerned by what Pochettino’s opts for tactically in the next year. The 3-4-3 was perhaps the best shape for Spurs this year, and suited many of their assets. That is, everyone except for Son, who wouldn’t be first choice as winger (given Alli and Eriksen are irreplaceable) and can difficultly play wingback, given his defensive failings. Strangely, the success of the 3-4-3 may be the worst thing that could happen to Son next year.
Spurs are trophy-less in the last two seasons, but have been one of England’s best sides nonetheless. They are due for silverware. If Son can replicate – if not better – his superb 2016-17, he will be hoisting the Premier League trophy. But first, he must recover from his injury and put himself in the starting lineup ahead of an equally injured Erik Lamela in time for the start of next year’s season. Son Heung-min may have become the most prolific Asian goalscorer of all time, but there is still much more to achieve for the best Korean footballer of this time.