Three games into the season, Tottenham Hotspur have gotten off to a good start, taking seven of a possible nine points possible. The only points dropped were against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, a fixture they have struggled in over the years. And while Spurs will be happy with their points return so far, it is fair to say that they have looked a little sluggish to start the 2022-23 season.
Against Southampton, Spurs started slow out the gates, but they looked the more-fit side as the match went on. Goal opportunities were plentiful in the second half en route to a 4-1 convincing win. Against Chelsea, Spurs really struggled to get anything going after a decent first few minutes. They were still able to eke out a draw thanks to two controversial goals. Against Wolves, Spurs were extremely lethargic in the first half, but none of Wolves’ chances at goal were convincing. A set-piece routine led to Harry Kane getting the only goal in a 1-0 win.
Looking back at how Spurs finished last season, there may not have been a more in-form team in all of England. They were defensively very astute and looked likely to carve open oppositions via their patterns of play and dynamic playing-style. Due to how they finished last season, it should have surprised no one that Antonio Conte went with the same starting XI in match day 1 despite all of the additions made in the offseason. Spurs’ sluggish start to the season has led to a lot of conversations of whether Conte should make some changes. The two players most discussed have been two mainstays in the starting XI in recent seasons — dating back to the days of José Mourinho — in Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Heung-min Son.
Son’s early season drop-off has been more noticeable because of the quality he showed last season and in recent seasons with his ability to partner with Kane in attack. Son’s decision-making has been poor, particularly against Chelsea. His inconsistent first touch led to a turnover and Chelsea’s first big goal-scoring opportunity. We, and others, have said before that Son is a player that runs hot and cold. When in form, he is a player that can open up defenses due to his ability to run in behind, while also providing elite finishing capabilities. However, when Son is in a rut like he is now, he is not someone who can up levels in other aspects of his game to provide an impact. By contrast, if Kane is in a finishing drought, he can still link up play by dropping into midfield and provide passes into dangerous areas. If Son is being limited in attack and is not getting on the end of goals, he struggles to make his presence felt.
All players react to decisions differently and for Son, who has been a starting XI player for Spurs for so long, many may wonder if it is time to insert Richarlison, Spurs’ £50m summer signing, in the starting lineup over Son while the South Korean looks to find his footing. I felt the need to write this article because this conversation is starting to make its way around the Spurs supporter communities and to be quite truthful, I think it is asinine.
It’s helpful to take a step back and understand what Conte is asking of Son when Conte deploys his side his preferred 3-4-3 shape. Since Conte’s Spurs have truly gotten going and the project has taken off from the ground, Son has been the first-choice option — no surprise — in the left-sided attacking position of the front three. In this position, he is asked to basically play in a dual number ten role alongside a right-sided attacker (mainly Dejan Kulusevski). In this position, Son is asked to play a role where he receives the ball many times with his back to the goal. And because Conte’s number tens are ball-progressors and often decision-makers, there are certain combinations he can make with either the wingback beside him, with Kane in the middle of the pitch, or even in the half spaces with the central midfield duo that typically recycles and carries possession.
At first, this role was a bit foreign for Son, as his best traits are of course his ability to run at defenders and run in behind particularly against more aggressive defenders. As Son became more accustomed to the role and Spurs got more comfortable with the tactics underlying behind the system, Son’s form improved immensely.
This season, it is looking more and more like the time where Son struggled when trying to adapt to the role. While the sample size is quite small, I think it is a fair criticism that Spurs are still in the process of getting up to full fitness in matches. Obviously Conte and his staff got the group in shape over the offseason, highlighted by the work of Gian Piero Ventrone, but they are clearly still getting their feet wet against competition. I have spoken here before how Spurs have shown a penchant in Conte’s time to win matches on account of their intensive, dynamic nature. I would also say that Son’s form is becoming more and more apparent because of the squad and how they are still piecing it together. Because of his game and the way he plays, it is a fair argument to say that Son’s struggles have been emphasized by the club’s current run of form; they just haven’t yet put everything into gear.
There is no denying how important Richarlison can be for Spurs this season and going forward. Richarlison is an intense player who offers versatility and a nonstop motor, something Conte loves in his sides. He will offer Spurs the ability to rotate often, which will be more and more important as the season progresses and the various competitions start to intersect and overlap with another. There will be plenty of times where Richarlison should and will deserve to start, but it would be just a fallacy for him to start over Son regardless of the latter’s poor run of form.
When we assess the two as starters and substitutes, Son is not only more familiar with Conte and the squad as a whole, but he offers the game-breaking ability of doing the hardest thing possible in the sport by putting the ball in the net. Richarlison is a perfect substitute for Spurs because he can be impactful when Spurs are ahead or when they are behind. Against Chelsea, Richarlison came into the game and Spurs changed their shape to an super-attacking 4-2-4 shape, which saw Richarlison play off of Kane in a striker partnership. The change led to two goals and Spurs got something out of the match despite the odds being against them. Against Wolves, Richarlison brought fresh legs and his excellent motor into a match at a time when Spurs were trying to see out the game, and also put himself in dangerous opportunities against a tired Wolverhampton defense.
It would be a poor decision to take minutes away from Son due to his goal-scoring ability. Inversely, you would be taking away the energy that Richarlison can provide by coming into games, giving him a longer spell than just as a substitute. So while Son may be in poor form at the moment, the argument of inserting Richarlison over him would be limited just to it being done to get a rise out of Son. The addition of Richarlison gives Spurs extra firepower in attack that they have lacked for years. He gives them a proven commodity and a true impact player they can turn to off the bench.
Richarlison will have plenty of opportunities to start and be an important player for Conte and Spurs. But despite the shaky start to the season for Son, Spurs should not be worried by a sample size of three games. The evidence is already there that Son can turn things around given the way he finished last season and how he can look when Conte’s Spurs are operating at an efficient clip. With time, the performances and form will come.
Sunday’s match against Nottingham Forest provides the perfect get-right opportunity for the squad. Forest are extremely intriguing this season due to the sheer number of players brought into the squad this summer. However, they are still a side that needs time to gel under manager Steve Cooper. Spurs are heavy favorites for Sunday — perhaps we will see Son open his account with some goals alongside the productive performance we know he can provide.
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