In May 2022 Son Heung-min scored two second-half goals to take home a share of the golden boot with Mo Salah and was on top of the world. His form and goal contributions were among the reasons why Tottenham Hotspur shot into the Champions League positions in the final games of the season. But about halfway through the 2022-23 season, that same player looks lost in confidence and is clearly struggling, both with his form and with injury, as evident by the orbital fracture sustained in a Champions League match vs. Marseille.
Truth be told, Son’s poor form this season had start long before he started wearing the face mask imposed on him prior to the World Cup break. Prior to last Wednesday’s critical away result at Crystal Palace, Son had not scored a goal in any game he started in. His three Premier League goals all came as a substitute against Leicester City in September.
Fortunately for Spurs, they have weathered the storm from a points return even though the overall style of play has not been quite convincing and their despised rivals Arsenal sit top of the table. Despite injuries to key figures such as Dejan Kulusevski and Richarlison (more so as of late), Harry Kane’s goal production has been spectacular and the predominantly-starting midfield duo of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur has also chipped in with goals. So while Spurs have gotten by this season without getting the expected goal production from Son, there have been a number of times this season where the offense has looked stagnant. Surprisingly and once again to Spurs’ fortune, no lead against Spurs has been a safe one this season as no club has taken more points from losing positions than the Lilywhites.
With Spurs looking to bring in reinforcements in the transfer window and get key players back from injury and in a better groove, there is still plenty of time this season for the squad and Antonio Conte to right the ship. But if Spurs want to get there, not only will they need to get their preferred XI healthy and in form but they will need to make a decision of how they can get Son going. And, if they cannot, they will have to make a hard decision about what to do with his minutes, and to consider dropping him for another offensive option. It’s worth noting Conte did do this against Leicester when Richarlison was selected ahead of him, and Son responded with a hat trick.
I want to say at this point in this piece that I am a huge Son fan, but that does not mean he is a perfect player. Nearly every Spurs supporter knows that you get the good with the bad when it comes to the South Korean. For while the times he can be a menace and stretch defenses, his poor first touch combined with his lack of consistency in build-up makes him run really hot and really cold.
In more recent seasons, when Spurs have been keen to sit deep and hit on the counter, Son’s strengths (his finishing ability mainly) have been quite valuable. Furthermore, with Kane coming more deeper to collect the ball and be a playmaker, his ability to find Son in space has been a big catalyst for Son’s skill set. But under Conte, where Spurs look to move up and down the pitch together as a unit, Son has been forced to become much more of a cog in the machine. This season in particular, Son has played in a role that has been mostly back to the goal, with Conte asking Son to really play more inside as an unorthodox number ten. Compare that to Kulusevski, the first-choice option at the role on the right side, who is much more adapt in the tight spaces as he has the intelligence to find the space or the right man as well as the strength to hold onto the ball. It is these “thinking-like” areas where Son struggles and it is the areas where he can run with the ball at defenders from wide positions where he strikes fear in the opposition.
But what we’re seeing now with Son is that even when he gets into good positions, he is thinking too much, which leads to him making more mistakes than correct decisions. Now, there is plenty of reason to believe Spurs have the ability to kick on in a big way for the rest of the season, but I do wonder if it could cost Son’s place in the lineup.
In the past two games, against Palace in the league and Portsmouth in the FA Cup, it looks like Spurs are starting to feature Kane more in that playmaking role. Because of how good the England captain is, it may give Son more license to roam and run in behind to get on the end of Kane diagonals and crosses. It would not shock me at all if Conte bringing Kane closer to the playmaking areas in his patterns is just as much to do with getting Son in better form as it is alleviating the impact felt from the lack of Bentancur in the lineup. Last season, really before Conte had a full summer to instill his patterns and the style of play, Conte — like José and Nuno before him — relied heavily on Kane to do this. This has not been the case as much this season but in more recent times with injuries to key figures in the side, perhaps this switch was designed purposefully — I suspect that it was.
Another factor in me writing this piece is the latest transfer link with Tottenham perhaps interested in Brighton’s Leandro Trossard. The Belgian’s contract is set to expire at the conclusion of the season and while he more recently lost his place in Roberto de Zerbi’s side, he is a quality player who could operate in a variety of roles for Conte. To be a competitive team in England, you need to have at least six quality attacking options. In more recent weeks, Bryan Gil has proved he is capable of contributing but a player like Trossard could play out wide while also doing jobs as a shadow striker and even a creative option as part of a three-man midfield if Conte were to go that route. To me, Trossard compares mostly to Kulusevski in Spurs’ attack. He is a player who operates with control, is intelligent, and is seasoned by years of experience in England as well as at the international level. He is technical and while he does not have blazing pace like Son, he would be much better suited in that back-to-goal role mentioned above than Son.
This is not to say that I would want Trossard over Son as the two players are not in the same classes, but Conte may want more from his attacking options to ensure their ability in attack and Trossard and Son simply have different profiles. On the periphery, perhaps the Trossard rumor is more about a Lucas Moura replacement than Son, but Tottenham certainly need another attacking option and getting a quality option like Trossard would certainly create competition for those front three attacking spots.
I talked briefly about injuries above, but I want to make a point here that the lack of Kulusevski’s inclusion for most of the season has been a huge reason why Spurs have struggled to break down mid-to-low blocks this season. From a creative perspective, there is no one outside of Kane more important to making Conte’s side tick than the Swede. Without him in the side, it has given oppositions one less player from Spurs’ attack to worry about — and nobody has been hurt more than Son because of what they are trying to replace and the fact that they play in like-minded areas looking to provide that near final ball in attack.
So while this article is not a complete slander to Son, Spurs simply need more out of him and out of the role from now until the end of the season. With Spurs getting healthier and Kane perhaps coming deeper more, Son in a position where he might be able to display something close to the free-wheeling attacker we saw last season. He is just too good of a player to be counted out all year long and while I cannot guarantee that his form will improve similar to the ones displayed last year, I can certainly hope we have experienced or are experiencing the worst of this poor run.
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