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Can Sonny fill Harry Kane’s boots?

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The Korean attacker nearly left over the summer. He may now be key to Tottenham’s success over the next two months.

Stoke City v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

One thing that came up in the comments to yesterday’s post about how Spurs will cope with Harry Kane’s absence following his ankle injury against Sunderland is that we don’t really have a great backup plan should Vincent Janssen need a rest over the next two months.

As it happens, we’re going to have to confront this question almost immediately due to Shayon Harrison’s injury and resulting absence from today’s League Cup tie with Gillingham. Prior to the injury, it made sense to start Harrison today and then play Janssen in the next three fixtures—Middlesborough, CSKA, and Manchester City. Following the City fixture, we’ll have two weeks off for the international break, which could allow Janssen to come back rested and ready to continue starting each match.

Unfortunately, Harrison’s injury leaves us with fewer options, none of which sound that exciting:

  • Start Janssen, who has played a full 90 minutes only once this season, four times in two weeks, the fourth of which is the home date with Manchester City.
  • Play Heung-Min Son at striker tomorrow and then rest him at the weekend since tomorrow would be his fourth start in two weeks.
  • Play Janssen tomorrow to give him a trial run leading the line in a 4-2-3-1 without Harry Kane playing behind him and then rest Janssen against Middlesborough or CSKA so that he’s fresh for Manchester City. In that case, Son would start up top in whichever fixture Janssen did not start.

None of these options are great, but Harrison’s injury mean we have to pick one of them.

Can Heung-Min Son even work as a center forward?

Of course, the above scenario assumes that Sonny can player center forward. Certainly, he’s been talked about as one (remember the dumb Twitter freakout when the club announced him as a forward last summer?) and he led the line a few times in last season’s Europa League, though he never played as a forward in the league.

But is he actually good as a striker or are we headed for Nacer Chadli Center Forward, the Sequel? (This time he’s still bad, but at least he runs!)

Qarabag FK v Tottenham Hotspur FC - UEFA Europa League Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images

If we’re going off last season, the signs are not great. His Europa League performances as a striker were mostly unimpressive. He posted a hat trick early on against Qarabag (LOL), but then only made three more starts as a striker in that competition and his record was fairly mixed.

He posted two assists in a home win against Monaco in December and scored a goal in the meaningless second leg against Dortmund last season. But his performance up top in the first leg was uninspiring, to say the least. (Though Mauricio Pochettino did seem to phone it in that day if his squad selection is anything to go on.)

If we want to know how Son might play at center forward, then, the best we can do at answering that question with actual evidence (rather than conjecture) is looking back to his time in Germany, where he occasionally played as a central forward. But this means going back further than even the 2014-15 season since Roger Schmidt used Son primarily as a wide attacker.

Son as a Striker at Leverkusen

We need to begin with the 2013-14 season when former Leverkusen boss Sami Hyppia used Son as a striker prior to his being sacked in April of that season. (He only started once as a striker after Hyppia’s departure from Leverkusen and in that game he was taken out at halftime.)

In 23 starts up top for Hyppia, Son scored nine goals. However, five of those came in two matches in November. In the remaining 21 games, Son managed only four goals—hardly the sort of thing that fills our hearts with hope and confidence at the thought of him backing up Janssen.

That said, we may want to be careful about judging Son too harshly. There is a reason Leverkusen sacked Hyppia, after all, and it’s not as if the former Liverpool defender has gone on to do great managerial work since leaving Leverkusen. Moreover, Roger Schmidt enjoyed remarkable success almost immediately upon his arrival the next season with a largely unchanged squad.

Borussia Dortmund v Bayer Leverkusen - Bundesliga Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images

It could just be that Son under-performed at Leverkusen because Hyppia isn’t a great manager. Leverkusen sacked him with six games remaining and the team languishing in mid-table and the squad responded by taking 16 points from their final 18 to claim a miraculous fourth-place finish and Champions League qualification with it.

So let’s back up a year. How did Son do as a striker during his one season of featuring regularly for Hamburg?

Son as a Striker at Hamburg

Here the results are more encouraging. After playing most of the first half of the season at right wing, Son played primarily as a center forward for the second half of the season. He played striker in 13 of his final 18 starts in the league for Hamburg. In these 13 games, he scored six goals and managed two assists. Of the 13 starts, a few were particularly worth noting.

In a January home clash with Werder Bremen, Son scored a goal while starting up top in a 4-4-2 diamond playing just ahead of number 10 Rafael van der Vaart and alongside Artjoms Rudnevs. His role in this game seems to have been playing off the shoulder of the defender and racing onto long balls played over the top or through balls played down the channels. Here are the passes he received in the match:

son-passes-received-v-werder-bremen

If you’re wondering about the goal (you’ll see the yellow line indicating the pass he received that led to his goal), you can see a replay of it here:

What we have there is a long ball played into a wide area that Son chases down successfully. He then takes on his man, gets inside of him and scores a curling goal not that different from Harry Kane’s wonder goal last season against Arsenal.

Given his ability to do things like the above, it may be worth asking whether or not Son may be a better option to lead the line in certain games. If Janssen struggles to move laterally and create space in the center, perhaps Son is the better choice to start?

The other two excellent performances are a bit different. In a late-season 2-1 win against Borussia Dortmund, Son scored both Hamburg goals. That being said, this match is a bit odd as it came during the middle of Dortmund’s Champions League charge (this was the year Dortmund made the Champions League final) and both sides finished the game with ten men, which made the game much more open and, therefore, conducive to a player like Son who relies so much on his pace.

Hamburger SV v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga Photo by Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images

Hamburg also played a diamond in this game, which means Son was, again, more of a second striker alongside Rudnevs than a primary center forward. So the game is weird to begin with, plus even if it weren’t, we’re unlikely to learn much from it that we wouldn’t learn from the Werder Bremen match.

The other game is the interesting one, however. In a road fixture against Thomas Tuchel’s Mainz, Son led the line on his own in a 4-2-3-1 shape. He scored both Hamburg goals and led his team to an impressive 2-1 victory. That said, despite being the lone striker, Son still was a remarkably vertical attacker as Hamburg played a more counter attacking style against Tuchel’s side.

Here are the passes he received against Mainz:

son-passes-received-v-mainz

Son is doing two things as he gets these passes. In some cases, he’s getting the ball played into his feet and then holding it up as his teammates surge forward on the counter. In other cases, he’s charging after balls played into space ahead of him.

One thing he is doing very little of in this game is dropping deep to involve himself in any kind of intricate buildup play. To be fair, he didn’t necessarily need to as it was a road fixture against a team that likes to have the ball. It makes sense for him to stay camped out in more advanced positions and wait for vertical balls played forward.

That being said, if Son’s ability to drift into wide areas could be a major asset should he play up top while Kane is out injured, his relative lack of technical ability in tight spaces and struggle to contribute to more patient build-up play could make him a major liability, should he start up top for Spurs. This is one of the primary reasons he struggled last season, I believe, and largely explains why the club needed to sign a more orthodox center forward to back up Kane.

There is one other possibility we should consider, however.

Should Son replace Dele Alli in the starting lineup while Kane is out?

(Credit to Ben Daniels for first mentioning this in the comments to yesterday’s post.) Harry Kane and Dele Alli have a fantastic relationship in Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1 system. Dele loves to get the ball in central areas and look for simple through balls threaded into the box. Kane loves to make outside-in runs from the channels into central attacking positions to latch onto those through balls.

Example:

That said, Alli’s success largely relies on having just enough space in those central areas to dribble around a bit and create the lanes he needs to make those sorts of high-risk-high-reward passes. If that space isn’t there due to Christian Eriksen’s narrower positioning and Vincent Janssen taking up more central positions as well, Alli may be less effective.

In that case, there may be an argument for shifting to a normal front four of Eriksen, Lamela, Son, and Janssen while Kane is out injured. Son can play as a more conventional wide attacker, will provide a similar goal threat to Alli but in different positions, and won’t be nearly as stifled should Janssen prove to be a narrower striker than Kane. (Of course, as I noted yesterday, we still have a very small sample on Janssen so it’s possible that he will provide the same sort of intelligent lateral movement as Kane. We simply don’t know at this point.)

Conclusion

We should be cautious about coming to any hard conclusions right now. Harry Kane has started 71 straight Premier League games (really). It’s been a long time since Tottenham lined up without him in a league game, let alone had to figure out how to do without him for two months. Son and Janssen weren’t even playing in England last time Kane started a game on the bench. Janssen was actually with second-tier Dutch club Almere City the last time Kane missed a league game for Spurs.

At this point, there is almost certainly more that we do not know about how this will work than there is that we do know. So both yesterday’s post and today’s are fun, educated speculation more than anything else.

However, as we consider Son’s record as both a striker and wide attacker, it seems entirely reasonable to suggest that he may be just as important as Janssen in determining how the team copes with Kane’s absence.

As with Erik Lamela last season, Pochettino’s ability to talk a player out of leaving the club in the summer could prove crucial to the team’s success in the following season. Time will tell.