Son Heung-Min: Winger or Forward

My last post, along with Jinseok’s, seems to have re-sparked the debate on where Son Heung-Min’s best position is. Most seem to fall on the side of, winger, but others (and in the past) have advocated that Son’s best position may be more centrally. So, I thought it’d be good idea to take a look at both positions, and analyze where Son may be better.

First, I suppose we should take a look at Son himself. So, some basic stats:

Age: 21 (will turn 22 in July)
Height: 1.83m/6ft
Weight: 76kg/167.5lbs
Preferred Foot: Right, but very strong left foot as well
Injury History/Problems: No major problems, longest reported was a fractured foot in 2010 (two months out)

Based purely on the bio information, Son is comparable to other wide forwards/wingers. Most of the top wide players are in the 70 kilo weight range and 1.80 meter height area (Neymar seems to be the exception as he’s a bit more lightweight). Son, however, is also comparable in size to many of the world’s top strikers as well. There are of course, outliers who are bigger (Ibra) or smaller (Aguero, Messi), but many are similar in height and weight to Son.

Verdict: Either. Son’s physical characteristics would suggest that he could be successful at either position.

Probably Son’s greatest strength right now is his shooting ability. I would classify (as above) Son as being right-footed, but he has certainly scored some cracking goals with his left. In the past three years, with club and in the league, Son has scored 24 goals (7 this season, 12 last season, and 5 in 2011/12). Using FourFourTwo’s StatZone to diagram Son’s league goals for the past two league seasons (data didn’t go back more than that or have cup games) I charted where Son has scored from. Below you can see the league goals for Son’s last two year (13/14 on top, 12/13 below).

Son's league goals for the 12/13 and 13/14 seasons
Son’s league goals for the 12/13 and 13/14 seasons

The graphic is not perfect of course (the 8 yard box is far too big), but it serves it’s purpose which is to show where Son typically scores from. It’s interesting to see that this season all of Son’s goals have come from the left side. Not terribly surprising though, considering Leverkusen play a fairly rigid 4-3-3. His final year at Hamburg is an interesting contrast, as really only one goal came from the left side, with four from the right, and seven coming from the center. Another interesting note is that 13 of the 19 scored, are shots that went across the goal, which would indicate that most of his goals come from when he cuts in from the wing.

Another stat to consider is Son’s shot accuracy. In all competitions (as ESPNFC keeps them for several years), for 13/14 Son has taken 68 shots with 29 of them being on target. That would be a 42.6% accuracy. In 12/13 he took 80 shots with 35 being on target, 43.75% accuracy. And in 11/12 he took 46 shots with 13 finding the target (28.6%). Son’s accuracy isn’t phenomenal, but it is quite good.

Verdict: Either (slight edge towards forward). Son’s seven goals this season shows he can score as an out-and-out wide player as he’s on pace to at least equalize his tally from last season if not better it. But, the 12/13 season would suggest that Son could be an even greater threat if he has the greater freedom of movement that a striker may get. It’s clear that Son can score with either foot, and given Korea’s lack of options up front it may be worth giving him the chance to play there.

Son isn’t a bad passer, but it’s generally not what he’s known for. Thus far, Son has tallied five assists this year to go along with two from last season. Seven assists in over 60 matches started isn’t a great return. Vision and passing ability is a difficult thing to rate or assess, but just as a reference point, Sky Sports Scout did their best to rate Son last season and gave him a 7 pass rating and 8 vision rating (both out of 10). That would suggest that both skills are above average.

Son’s lack of assists may stem more from the playing style of Korea and Leverkusen/Hamburg rather than his ability. It should be noted that in 2012/13 he only notched two assists, but in just over half a season with Leverkusen he’s notched five. Why is that? Probably a confluence of factors. Son has probably grown more as a player since last year. The quality around him is higher at Bayer than Hamburg. And the system is more set-up for Son to provide assists. I imagine that it’s that third factor that has bumped Son’s assists up. While Son will drift more centrally when Bayer defends, he very clearly has a support role to Stefan Kiessling. In Kiessling, Son has a striker with plenty of quality to convert his passes into goals, and a clear reference point in the attack.

Verdict: Forward. Based purely on past performances, Son doesn’t seem to have the passing thing down quite yet. It’s difficult to remember him playing any really decisive passes for club or country. Granted Son has largely, until this season, been instructed to be a ‘finisher’ rather than ‘creator’, so it’s possible Son does have it in his bag somewhere.

Son is well-known for his pace. But, as Michael Cox recently discussed in this piece about Chelsea’s midfield trio of Hazard, Ramires, and Willian, “pace” is a word that needs to be broken down a bit. Is Son’s pace his initial acceleration? Is it over a short distance? Is it over a long distance? Or is it a combination of these?

While the video (from the excellent ScoutNationHD) is a bit dated (from last year), it generally highlights the kind of goals and play we associate with Son. I haven’t attempted to actually calculate an actual speed number for Son (and won’t) nor have I been able to find anything on the internet, but I would guess that Son’s pace comes more in the short-to-medium distance range. In the 5-15 meter range or thereabouts. Meaning, that while Son’s initial acceleration is good, he isn’t likely to leave defenders standing like statues from a standing start (like say, Messi can).

It also puts him in a similar class to Ronaldo (in terms of style). Son seems most effective on the counter because it gives him space to knock the ball into and then quickly go through the gears, and it’s here that Son will more often than not win the race. Son may not beat a defender in the first few steps or over 30+ meter races, but if he can get that space over the medium-term, than he can keep defenders on his heels.

Verdict: Wide player. Son’s pace seems to put him in the wide player category. A more central striker is less likely to get that space to run into, which Son thrives on now, as central defenders and holding midfielders are likely to mark him more closely. However, Son could still succeed as a center forward if he was intelligent with his movement off the ball and took full use of the channels.

Skill moves/Ball control
Both having skill on the ball and control of it, are vital for wide players and forwards as both are expected to be able to beat defenders. However, there are subtle differences between the type of skill moves that each position uses. Now, this may be a bit of an oversimplification, but forwards generally need to be able to turn quickly and make space for a shot or pass, while wide players will just look to make space to pass or shoot. Again, that may be simplifying the positions a bit, but I think the general point holds. The modern forward does need to now how to play with their back to goal. They need to know how to receive the ball, use a bit of skill to make space, turn, and then do something (pass, shoot, dribble). A wide player by comparison will often receive the ball facing the defender, and then use skill to beat the defender.

For me, this would be my biggest concern with Son as a forward. I can’t really remember playing as an out-and-out lone striker before. We’ve seen that Son can play off of a target man, but not by himself as a “one-top”. My worry would be does Son have the skill and ability to play with his back to goal?

Verdict: Wide player. Simply because we haven’t seen him do it, I can’t say that Son (currently) has the skill and ability to play as a lone striker with his back to goal. He’s certainly comfortable and capable of taking players on, but usually it’s when he’s facing up to a player.

Off the ball movement/Positioning
We move into the increasingly difficult skills to measure of off the ball skills. Yet, it’s something that must be done as a forward’s movement off the ball and positioning is a vital skill to succeed against modern defenses which seek to close off all attacking space. If you think about the top strikers today, the likes of: Falcao, Lewendowski, Higuain, Messi, Van Persie, Negredo, Aguero, Benzema, etc. All of them are either very clever with their movement, or are very good at positioning themselves where it’s difficult for defenders to track their runs or mark them. In short, they are all good at being proactive in prompting attacks.

Son, for all of his talent, always seems a bit too reactive. It seems like he will wait for the ball to come to him, and then he’ll start. As a winger that’s workable, but as a lone center forward it’s really not. It makes it too easy for defenders to mark the striker, it ends any flowing attacking moves, and just slows the play down.

Verdict: Wide player. Son’s lack of movement off the ball would likely cause some problems and frustrations in the attacking moves. It’s fine as a wide player where he can break games open one-on-one, and can be a little more isolated in terms of the team’s moves, but as a center forward it likely wouldn’t work.

Overall, based on my armchair analysis, I would say that as of now Son is better suited to being a wide forward than a center forward. BUT, Son has the raw tools to be center forward in the future should he develop more in a few key areas, mainly his ability to move off the ball and take up better attacking positions. The bright thing about that, if you’re an advocate of Son as a center forward, is that those things can be taught and learned. The key may be how he’s used at the club level. Based on his first half-plus season at Bayer, it seems that Son is very clearly seen as a wide forward, but with main striker Stefan Kiessling just turning 30, it’s possible that if Son sticks it out, he could eventually be groomed to be the successor there.

The flip side is that if Son stays as a wide forward and continues to develop there, he could become a Ronaldo-esque style player. Considering he’s just 21 and given his current level, it’s not difficult to imagine that Son could become an absolute world class player in a few years time. The key for that will be Son himself. Whether he has the will and determination to continually improve himself and his game, and if he can continue to make smart decisions about his club situation. It must be noted that Son is just on the first year of a five year deal with Bayer (contract expiry 2018).

For my money, I suspect Son will eventually make the move, or at least try, to center forward. Given his natural attacking prowess, it just makes logical sense to at least try the position that gives you the best chance to score. Will he succeed should he try? I think he has a good chance. Son has shown in the past that he has a good head on his shoulders and the desire to improve. Other factors will of course play their part, but if someone gives him the chance to learn and improve as a center forward I think they could have a prolific goal scorer on their hands.

About Jae Chee 339 Articles
A football fan who got bit by the writing bug.


  1. Your assessment seems pretty good overall. The only thing that I was curious about though was that I thought he was left-footed. I’ve seen other publications that have stated that as well, including one that said he is often mistaken as a right footed player, but that he is, in fact, a lefty. I don’t know enough to make any claims except that on FIFA 11 way back in 2010 had him listed as a lefty when he was with Hamburg. Of course, since he has a reputation for being good with both feet, it really doesn’t matter. Lol.

    • Really? It seems like I’ve seen him use his right foot to do things like take free kicks, which I assume would be his stronger foot. But anyway, I suppose it is moot since he seems almost equally good with both.

  2. Just heard that DIEGO FORLAN moved to Cerezo Osaka. He even said it’s a very good league and good enough to prepare for the world cup. How come no world class players like Forlan go to K-league like this? Oh Osaka used it’s record transfer fee 5.8 million. Can’t K-league clubs do this? Now it will be 100x harder for K league teams to win AFC champions league. K-league really needs super stars like this. J-league and China-league is growing: K-league is shrinking.

    • In fairness Forlan is far from the player that he used to be 3-4 years ago, but that being said it’s an interesting signing for Cerezo. You always have to take footballer pressers with a grain of salt. Forlan won’t come out and say that he’s there for the money. If he was still halfway decent he wouldn’t be in Japan. 34 now, 35 this summer. It’s like when a player goes to the Mideast or MLS. Forlan’s signing won’t have any significant impact on the AFC CL. Remember, historically in terms of K League vs J League, K League teams have won the tournament 10 times vs just 5 times for J League. China is the greater threat to Korea’s AFC CL “hegemony”.

      Again, podcast teaser, we also briefly discussed the K League and ownership and the future. I won’t go into my thoughts on it much now though.

  3. Excellent discussion. I agree that he’s best suited as a hybrid wide-forward who can develop into more of a center forward. If he does make the transition towards CF, I can see him developing into an Eto’o-like player (stylistically).

    In the meantime the current Leverkusen setup is perfect for his strengths. He’s well positioned on the counter-attack, he can play with width, he can cut inwards and shoot, and he has Kiessling to lead the line and occupy central defenders.

    In addition to the center forward type skills you mentioned that he needs to work on, I think he simply needs to get stronger. He’s not so effective playing in a “phone booth” in terms of shielding the ball and maintaining possession. He’s 6 feet tall but I wonder if he’s destined to remain as one of those lanky players. Also he could work on his aerial ability if he wants to function as a center forward. With his height and athleticism it’s an underutilised part of his game. He really doesn’t have many headed goals in him.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on our world cup center forward situation. Is Kim Shin Wook our Heskey? Can Ji and Son play as a lone striker? What’s our best formation?

    Enjoy the site. Cheers, man.

    • I think Son will get stronger as he gets a bit older. Kim Shin-Wook as Heskey? I suppose so, Kim SW could get better over the next couple years though (which is the hope), but as of now he’s still quite one-dimensional as a player. I advocated Ji as the lone striker before, but given his in-and-out club situation it’s difficult to tell how good he’d be as a starter (plus clubs want to play him wide). Ji could be one to watch for the future if the Dortmund situation goes well. Best formation? I did a fairly detailed post about it a week ago, basically it’s the 4-2-3-1, but it has more flexibility and shifts to anything from a more attacking/possession 4-4-2/4-1-4-1 to a more defensive/counterattacking 4-3-3.

      • Oh my bad, I just found this site so I missed those articles. I’m excited to read them. I was kidding about Heskey – I tend to think of KSW as a guy who isn’t that good and doesn’t score much for the national team but whose presence frees up better forwards (kind of like with Heskey and Owen). But that’s probably not a fair assessment of him.

        • I would say that probably is a fair assessment of him. KSW’s best NT match that I can remember is when Choi Kang-Hee played Son HM just behind him. KWS just knocked balls down to Son who did quite well.

        • Awesome, Michael. You’re in for a treat. Roy, Jae, and Jin do a great job. I only found this tavern 3 months ago or so and am loving it. Reading the comments are a lot of fun as well as giving your own thoughts. I had so many thoughts with very little outlet/community to express it and not much opportunity to hear from others, so it’s been great here. I look forward to reading your comments, too.

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