With Son Heung-Min’s white-hot December, online debates have naturally started to heat up comparing two of Asia’s finest in the Premier League: who’s the better Asian player between Manchester United legend Park Ji-sung and Spurs’ Son Heung-min?
And, to be fair, it was bound to happen. Park Ji-sung needs no introduction as a staple in Premier League folklore: a four-time League winner along with numerous cup titles including United’s European triumph in Moscow, Park is most often referred to as United’s big game player and indefatigable work-horse, with a third of his goals coming against Chelsea, Liverpool, and especially Arsenal while usually deployed as a defensive winger either on the left or the right.
Son’s growing role as a goal-getter alongside one of the league’s top strikers in Harry Kane has gotten him noteworthy recognition. A member of Spurs’ talented attacking quartet alongside Eriksen, Alli, and Kane, Son is in a unique position where his development almost matches that of his current club Tottenham – a team that had not very long ago aspired to break into the top 4. Now, a fledgling European power whose presence in the Champions League no longer comes as a surprise.
But the better player between the two?
Statistically, the numbers heavily lean in one direction. Son Heung-min has already surpassed Park Ji-sung in the amount of goals scored by an Asian footballer in the Premier League, despite Son being in England for half the time Park’s played for United. Let’s forget Queens Park Rangers even happened.
And appearances don’t lie; besides two outstanding seasons, Park never hit the thirty appearance mark for United – although the last couple of years could be attributed to his niggling knee injuries. Meanwhile Son has cemented himself in Tottenham, missing no more than two matches a season if not for injuries or international duty.
But it’s their roles at their respective clubs that provides a greater perspective.
Park’s career actually painted a different picture to the more fondly looked-at revisionism of his time at United. Despite playing in the majority of United’s games in his first season, Park had been seen more as a bit-part player while at United.
It wasn’t until his breakout season, in a sense, in 09-10 where his reputation began to change. It had been a massive year of questioning for United; with their talismanic “World Player of the Year” now at Real Madrid, questions loomed over the club as to whether they’d be able to fill the gap, especially after a window where they signed Antonio Valencia from Wigan, Michael Owen on a free, and young Gabriel Obertan from Bordeaux.
Wayne Rooney obviously deserves the credit for answering emphatically to filling that role, but Park certainly did not shy from the challenge as he began to cement his status as an important player in important games. Following a season where he had scored away at Chelsea to gain a precious point and against Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final, Park would continue by scoring against Arsenal at the Emirates once again, against Liverpool in front of the Stretford End, and against A.C. Milan in the Champions League, glossing the tie with United’s 7th goal on aggregate. It was this same match-up Pirlo alluded to in his own autobiography, where he claimed Sir Alex had “unleashed” Park upon him.
Park would continue to perform, despite his limited appearances. The following season he was the hero in another chapter of Fergie Time folklore, scoring a brace against Wolves with the game winner coming from the Stretford End in injury time, and it was this same season where he also scored the immediate reply against Chelsea in the Champions League quarter-final, sealing the tie for United to win 2-1 on the night, 3-1 on aggregate.
Son Heung-min’s career has developed differently; in fact, it’s still developing. At 26, he continues to ply his trade in his fourth year at Tottenham Hotspur. Like Son, Spurs as a football club seem to be reaching new heights – a young, talented team making noise in Europe, and one of the two reasons why the ‘Top 4’ is now a ‘Top 6’.
With Son firmly backed by Pochettino, the grandmaster to Spurs’ entire project, it’s tempting to flirt with future grandeurs; Son is a striker who continues to grow as a prolific forward. Including this month’s haul, Son has been involved in at least one goal per two appearances at Spurs. That’s 89 goals or assists in 164 games.
Statistically, there’s no denying that Son Heung-min is an asset to any squad. He’s continued to grow in the Premier League, and his white-hot streak of form seems to show just that.
But that’s what they are – streaks.
Son is that type of player; even at both Leverkusen and Hamburg, he would hit highs and lows in form. There is no questioning his talent – no one can deny his ability of hitting worldies or far-post dingers. But there are spells of absence in both goals or assists in his game, and even this season he hit that perpetual obstacle that he’s faced every year.
Of course, this year is a bit different; fresh off a Germany-beating World Cup summer and then an Asian Games trip in the following month, Son would have to be nearly superhuman to return to Spurs and hit the ground running. Yet it took until the end of November for Son to score his first goal.
But, as stated, this year is a bit different. After that solo run against Chelsea, Son has seven goals and three assists to his name in the month of December. It would come as no surprise if he finished December as the league’s Player of the Month – a third for Son if he is to seal the award.
Looks like his form has struck earlier this year.
The question as to who’s the better Premier League Asian export boils down to what each player provides; Park throughout his time at United molded himself into a player who, despite being sparsely used, delivered on numerous occasions be it closing down players, providing that extra energy in midfield, or breaking-up play just as often as he’d link it. And as his career developed, he’d develop a knack for scoring massive goals.
Park competed in a title-winning midfield that rotated its wingers with Ronaldo, Giggs, Nani, Tevez, and a number of others depending on formation – two Champions League final appearances being just a pair of the nearly 200 appearances Park made for United in all competitions. His role varies widely from Son’s, as Park functions more as a support player, but one only needs to take a look at his company, club, and accolades if one were question his ability.
Son finds himself in a different position. As a goalscorer, there’s no denying that there’s a more poignant responsibility he’s expected to fulfill when on the pitch. What’s brought him in contention with this comparison with Park already speaks to his quality; the question now boils down to consistency, and then, of course, if he’s capable of doing it with a side that can win silverware. As for now? He still has time.
Son certainly holds the unique potential of possessing an even more extravagant career than Park Ji-sung’s. Whereas Park had to deal with public scepticism of his worth and ability at United, Son’s talent almost seems universally appreciated – the considerable attention on Korea’s result at the Asian Games freeing Son of mandatory military conscription just a minute example of such recognition.
For now, Park Ji-sung holds the title of Asia’s best Premier League export. In terms of ability there is room for debate, but in regards to influence and success on the pitch, it’s not even a contest. But with Son yet to hit his peak, there remains yet another chapter in Son’s career – and it’ll depend on his development to answer whether or not there is another player worthy to be considered the Premier League’s best Asian player.