Son Heung-min will never be the star of this Tottenham team. He does not have that blanket name recognition of Harry Kane, the media ubiquity of Dele Alli or the gilded suitors of Christian Eriksen. Other players are better known, better paid, better covered, simply seen as being more important to Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs.
Perhaps that is to do with Son’s personality, his humility, or his nationality: the fact that England internationals playing for an English team are always going to get more headlines than anyone else.
But to watch Spurs at all this season is to realise that Son has an attacking importance equal to anyone else. No one else makes the runs that he does. No one is nearly as quick as him. Only Harry Kane can match his clinical efficiency in front of goal. There were times in the past when Son felt like a fall-back, an option, a wildcard for Spurs. Now he is an indispensable part of the machine, a perfect Pochettino pupil who carries out his instructions as well as anyone. That was true when Son destroyed Chelsea here in November, when he led the charge at Goodison Park, or in the evisceration of Bournemouth on Boxing Day.
But it has never been truer than this week, when Son raced back from crushing disappointment in the Asian Cup to effectively win two games for Spurs. He was expected to be playing the final in Abu Dhabi this Friday, but South Korea lost their quarter-final to Qatar last week. So Son flew straight back and was training in Enfield the next day. He only had to do three days before Pochettino started him against Watford, when he gave 90 minutes and scored the crucial equaliser that turned the game.
After that game Pochettino said he did not know whether Son would be able to start on Saturday against Newcastle but he passed his fitness test, impressing the medical and sport science staff. And he was just as good against Newcastle, running and running and running and then finally breaking through with his powerful shot with eight minutes left.
Had Son not flown back last weekend from the UAE, it is certainly questionable whether Spurs would have won either of these games. But they won both, and are still very much in the title race. Pochettino spoke at length about Son afterwards, and two things stood out.
The first was the physical energy of Son, the willingness to keep running for as long as his body would let him. It would not have been easy coming back into competition after returning from the Asian Cup but he did it. Pochettino said he was an example to everyone else.
“He works so hard, always pushing, never gives up. He will try try try try try. He’s like in his effort with and without the ball, he’s very regular and consistent and that is most important.”
Pochettino compared him to a battery that would run and run until it was empty. “Sonny is like when you have a battery, you work work work work and then the battery is gone. He is like this, he gives you everything and when he’s exhausted he says ‘I need to change’ or needs to rest. He’s like this. Always on the pitch he’s 100 per cent in every action without or without the ball. That is the most important thing, it’s a very good example for everyone, watching him play.”
But if football was just about running then teams would sign long-distance runners. The point about Son is the intelligence that directs his energy. Defensive pressing to stop the opposition. Incisive runs in possession. Anticipatory runs off the ball. Able to follow the Pochettino playbook, or to intuit when he has to. That is why he is now so important to this team, because he is the gameplan in action on the pitch.
“Of course after the first season he understood what we expected of him. If you see him now, he’s one of the players who is always moving on the pitch, trying to get the best position in defensive and offensive situations. Always giving options to team-mates, running forward, dropping and then arriving from the second line. He is a very complete player today and we are so happy with his performance.”
Sometimes there is an assumption in football that distance covered is proof of a hard-working player. But the reality is that most reasonably fit people could run 12km or 13km in 90 minutes if they had to. The point with Son is the capacity to sprint and sprint again, to make the clever, difficult, thankless runs, and to repeat and repeat and repeat until it comes off. This is what it means to take responsibility, and this is where humility and leadership intersect. Because with Son there is no one to do the hard yards like him.
“It’s not about the distance, it’s about the quality of the run,” Pochettino explained. “You can run 12km but if you don’t have sprints or beat your opponent, and depends how you run it’s not going to affect the game. The most important thing is how you run and how you affect the game and the capacity and quality. It’s not about distance. It’s like if you say Messi ran a lot of distance. No, but in the distance he applied the pace, or how powerful he is in the moment which made the difference. Sonny is similar, the quality is top because he has a lot of quality in his movement.”
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