The last time we saw Son Heung-Min on a football pitch, he was crying. His South Korean U23 team had just lost to upstarts Honduras in the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympic tournament, a difficult loss on a goal scored against the run of play in a match that the Koreans dominated.
In the moments after the final whistle blew, we saw Sonny seemingly move through all five stages of grief within a few minutes: shocked disbelief turned to anger and pleading as he heatedly confronted match officials who didn’t seem to give the full amount of extra time at the end of the match. When the dust settled, there was Sonny on a Brazilian soccer field, sobbing over the loss of a medal for Korea and, perhaps more personally, the chance of avoiding his country’s mandatory military service.
It hasn’t been the easiest year for Son. He moved to Tottenham Hotspur from Bayer Leverkusen on transfer deadline day last summer for £22m in a move that was hailed as a masterful signing by Daniel Levy, but with that move came the expectations that accompany being Asia’s best player.
Sony struggled to adapt to life in London and the Premier League, and also struggled with injury and never made a big impact that was expected in his first year at Tottenham. He scored eight goals and notched five assists in 43 total appearances last season for Spurs, but only started 13 times in the league, and there was talk that he had fallen out of favor with Mauricio Pochettino. This led to inevitable rumors in the media and even an actual bid from Wolfsburg to bring him back to the Bundesliga where he was so effective.
But the dust has settled on the 2016 transfer window, and Sonny’s still in North London. Despite everything, he still appears to be firmly in Pochettino’s plans for this season. Tottenham are leaner now, having dispatched a number of players with ruthless efficiency that had chances to feature in the forward attacking band. Nabil Bentaleb, Alex Pritchard, Nacer Chadli, Clinton N’Jie, and Ryan Mason have all departed the club, and that provides a big opportunity for Sonny to re-establish himself as a key player in Tottenham’s offense.
It can be argued that one of the problems Sonny had last season in his role as a reserve was that he was considered one of the primary backups, along with Clinton N’Jie, to Harry Kane. While Sonny can play striker and has on numerous occasions, he’s not at his best when placed at the tip of the spear.
The signing of Vincent Janssen solves this problem, but doesn’t change the perception that Son never really seemed to be in sync with his Spurs teammates last season. The knock on Son was that, despite his ability, he was somewhat wasteful in possession, wayward with his finishing, and didn’t adapt particularly well to Pochettino’s pressing system. He had a bright start to the season last year, but went down with a foot injury and never really seemed to get that opening mojo back.
Son is much better when employed on the flanks as an inside forward where he can use his dribbling ability and his speed to take on defenders. He’s (normally) an adept finisher and at his best is a creative playmaker, and he seemingly possesses all the tools to thrive in Pochettino’s pressing system. After all, he was masterful under Roger Schmidt at Bayer, who’s high-tempo, high press system was significantly more bonkers than anything Pochettino has done up to this point.
So what’s the difference now? Time. He’s had a whole year to get to know his teammates, adjust to life in London, and learn how Pochettino wants him to play. We already know that there’s a steep learning curve when it comes to Pochettino’s methods. If the progress of Erik Lamela is any indication, this might be the season where things start to click for Son.
It would be difficult at this point to say that Son is a starter for Spurs. He’s almost certainly behind Lamela on the right flank, his preferred position, and he could jostle for minutes with new signing Moussa Sissoko, depending on where on the pitch Poche wants to play him. It’s possible he could come in elsewhere in the attacking band. But it’s not at all a stretch to say that he’s well ahead of Josh Onomah, and Son could end up being one of the first names off the bench if Pochettino is considering a different look. Throw in Champions League competition and the necessary rotation that will come with it, and Sonny will almost certainly get a chance to succeed in Premier League games.
Despite missing much of Spurs’ preseason training while on Olympic duty, Son has reportedly been training well. He’s survived Spurs’ offseason purge, which feels like a tacit, if unspoken, acknowledgement of his importance by Tottenham’s coaching staff. Now, he is uniquely placed to re-establish himself as an important member of Tottenham’s squad. He has the tools, he just needs the chance. I suspect he’ll get it.