With his Asian Games gold medal, Son Heung-min finally has a military exemption to show for the effort he’s put in to winning a major tournament. He’ll be returning to Tottenham duty soon, guaranteeing that everything is about to get better. Son brings quality on the pitch and charm off of it and is a huge asset to the Spurs team.
Interestingly, his success as a footballer has been due in no small part to his father, Son Woong-jung, who coached him well into his teenage years and advised him on career decisions. Channel NewsAsia recently published “No pain, no strain: Korean football, the Son Heung-min way,” one of several excellent profiles of Son senior, once a promising footballer in Korea, and the relationship between him and his Son.
Since Heung-min will soon be returning to action for Spurs, I’m going to unpack a few of the most interesting parts of these profiles and then drop my take: Poch and Heung-min Son have had such a productive relationship because of the similarities between Pochettino’s coaching philosophy and the one Heung-min Son grew up under, his father’s.
According to the NewsAsia piece, Son senior now runs a football academy based on the same principles he once used to coach a young Heung-min. Son’s father coached him privately until he left to play for Hamburg at 16. As a Spurs fan, the most striking aspect of his father’s approach is its emphasis on technique and fitness drills over shooting. At Son Woong-jung’s academy, students do not learn to shoot until their mid-late teens, instead repeating exercises to develop agility and ball control over and over again. He worries about straining his players through overwork, preferring to develop fundamentals and add in the finishing touches later on.
This approach is evident in Heung-min Son’s play: he is one of the most consistent players on the ball for Tottenham. Unlike Eriksen or Dele, who are capable of some brilliant, inventive dribbles but also occasional imperfect touches or mis-controlled balls, Son is dependably competent running with the ball. Sprinting along the left flank, each of his touches is perfectly weighted and directed to keep him slightly out of reach of opposing defenders. In this regard, his running reminds me of Gareth Bale, who also has a gift for the kind of simple dribbling which, though never spectacular, reliably beats opposing defenders. Son Woong-jung’s emphasis on drills and fitness obviously resembles Pochettino’s approach, so it’s no surprise that Heung-min Son has become such a favorite at Tottenham.
Looking beyond the pitch, Poch and Son Woong-jung share a philosophy of football. In an interview with the Evening Standard, Son Heung-min remembers the moment that he told his father he wanted to pursue professional football.
“He was happy but he said: ‘Are you sure? It is very tough. Do you understand?’ He told me how difficult it would be, mentally and physically. . . He is very proud of me, and without him I wouldn’t be here.”
Tough, mentally and physically difficult, but also happy and proud—that’s basically Poch’s philosophy in a nutshell. Both relate the pride and glory of football to the hard work one puts into it. When Son Heung-min wanted to leave Tottenham the summer after his first season, Pochettino pressured him to stay, a decision which has paid dividends for both parties. What Poch said about Son at that time shows how well their philosophies matched up:
“I didn’t want him to go. You can see his reaction has been good. . . He struggled to settle, but he’s working very hard and that is the most important thing. Not all players would be able to do that. I’m impressed with him as a man as well as a footballer. He’s a very nice person and how he works is impressive.”
Son would surely credit his father’s tutelage with teaching him the work-rate that earned Poch’s praise.
Ultimately, players thrive under Poch for many reasons, and he has a real gift for nurturing confidence, passion, and hopefulness in players at all stages of their career. Still, it’s refreshing to hear how our beloved Sonny’s backstory overlaps so comfortably with Pochettino’s philosophy. Son Woong-jung clearly has a talent for coaching, and if his academy continues to run as smoothly as it is right now, I hope he finds bigger and better player-development opportunities to work on.
The headline of this piece is mostly tongue-in-cheek, but I’m a teeny bit serious. If we’re ever in need of a new assistant coach or head of youth teams, why look any further than the man who laid the foundation for a youth talent to become one of Tottenham’s best players. Daniel Levy, sign him up!