The Bento Era has begun. And with it, the Captain Sonny era has also begun in earnest.
It was confirmed over the international break by Ki Sung-yeung here that Paulo Bento has named Son Heung-min as the team’s captain. Ki said that he agreed that it was time for Sonny to be named captain so that he can lead the squad through the entire 4-year World Cup qualifying cycle. In my opinion, this is an important moment for the KNT moving forward.
Sonny is undeniably the most talented player on the squad and now will be tasked with stepping into the role as the team’s talisman. Is he ready for this responsibility? Let’s take a look at the evidence we have so far.
We’ve all heard the criticisms of Sonny when he puts on the KNT kit. He tries too hard to make things happen on his own. He is selfish with the ball and makes poor decisions to shoot. He doesn’t trust his teammates well enough to pass to them when they are in better position to score. He has bad body language and gets frustrated when he can’t find the net. He becomes a shadow of the player he is at Spurs. All of these criticisms have evidence to back them up.
However, since Sonny started wearing the captain’s armband, I have noticed a clear change in how Sonny carries himself on the pitch. Let’s go back to the first match that Sonny wore the armband: that famous win over Germany. Ki was out injured so Sonny stepped up to lead the Taeguk Warriors out in the must-win Group Stage match. Take a look at that picture above. That’s Sonny celebrating his goal that made the score 2-0 and sealed the victory. It’s a small detail but I think it has meaning. The subs bench went absolutely wild when the ball hit the back of the net and Sonny ran right over to celebrate with them. This was a huge individual moment for Son to score what could have been the goal to send Korea into the knockout rounds. In that moment though, it was all about the team. The team was happy for Son and he was ecstatic to celebrate with them.
Let’s fast forward to the Asian Games where Son was asked to be the captain of the U23 squad. In the second match of the group stages, Korea suffered a disappointing loss at the hands of Malaysia, 2-1. The team was dejected and the press was starting to worry about just how good this squad was and if they would be able to win the Gold Medal that Sonny and the players needed for military exemption. The team rebounded with a slim 1-0 victory over Krgyzstan in which Son scored the only goal off a corner kick. The level of play from Korea in the final two group stage matches was not going to be good enough to win the tournament and Son knew it.
Son Heung-min on scoring the winner as Korea beat Kyrgyzstan 1-0: "I hope to have a meeting with my teammates to discuss how we could improve. This was not a satisfying performance, but it's a relief that we won. We did give our best effort, but that should always be a given."
— Steve Han • 한만성 (@RealSteveScores) August 20, 2018
In that moment of adversity, Son stepped up right away and showed the leadership to admit that the team wasn’t playing well enough. He made plans for a meeting with the squad to figure out what could be done to help the entire squad play better. The results speak for themselves. Korea improved their play and went on to claim the Gold Medal that unlocks career opportunities for all 20 squad members.
Let’s take a look at another moment from the Asian Games that garnered a lot of interest. You’ve all seen it.
There were a lot of talking points after this moment lit up Twitter and Instagram. I want to bring up something that I thought about when Sonny commented on why he didn’t take the penalty himself. He said he wanted to give Hwang Hee-chan the chance because he felt that Hwang needed a confidence boost. Looking at the summer that Hwang had endured up to that point, I applauded the decision.
Hwang Hee-chan had endured a frustrating summer in a KNT kit up to that moment. He showed all the work rate of a top player but little else. His passes weren’t coming off and his touch was letting him down. When he got in front of goal he either shot right at the keeper or missed the net entirely. The low point for him was the Germany match. He was subbed into the match in the second half and then hooked by Shin about fifteen minutes later because he wasn’t tracking back to the manager’s liking.
In the Uzbekistan quarterfinal, the match was tied at 3-3 in extra time when Hwang Ui-jo won a penalty. Hwang Hee-chan stepped up to score the all-important winner for the Taeguk Warriors. It wasn’t the best penalty (the goalkeeper got a hand to it), but it got the job done. And it also could have provided the confidence boost that Hwang needed. In the final, Hwang leapt forcefully into the air to bury an absolutely beautiful header to seal the Gold Medal. Maybe, just maybe it was that boost of confidence that Sonny gave him with the penalty that helped him know that the captain was trusting him in that moment to bury the header. Sonny laid the ball on a platter and Hwang came up huge with another extra time winner.
Finally, let’s talk about the Costa Rica friendly and Sonny’s play. Bento clearly gave him a role as the playmaker of the offense. Bento wasn’t asking Sonny to go out and score the goals to win. He was asking him to drive the offense forward. I was incredibly impressed with Son’s play in that role. He drove at the defense every chance he got and looked for the right passes. On Nam Tae-hee’s goal, he played the through ball to Nam and let him go to work on the defenders.
Finally, when Son was subbed off I caught another little moment that I want to point out. Sonny points to his head and signals to the team that there’s 10 minutes left to play. He gives a little “Come on!” to his teammates and hands off the captain’s armband. It’s a little thing but it shows his commitment to leadership, even as he’s exiting. It’s the captain telling his teammates to keep focused and stay on their toes even though they’re up 2-0.
Being a captain is about all those things. It’s about being the leader your teammates look to throughout the match for guidance. It’s about providing that guile, setting the tone, and communicating effectively so the team can execute the manager’s tactics. Thus far, it looks like Sonny is taking his responsibility to lead the Taeguk Warriors with aplomb. The team has responded in kind.