Is Son the finest Asian player ever to play in Europe?
The essence of Song Heung-min is captured in two goals, one day short of a year from each other, for Tottenham Hotspur. The first got the Puskas award in December 2020, the second had a teammate looking incredulous.
On December 7, 2019, Son embarked on an 80-yard run that for Fifa was about “12 thrilling seconds.” In the 32nd minute, Son took the ball from the edge of his penalty area and started moving up as Burnley began retreating. He looked for an option to pass, saw none and scootered towards the half-line. Two Burnley players tried catching up but failed and seeing that, a third cut across from Son’s right but did not go for the tackle. Big mistake. Because it gave Son more space and forced a Burnley player to try and take him front-on. Son veered right before the man in a claret shirt so much even stretched his leg and continued to chew up ground. “I put my booster on,” Son said later.
By now expectations were rising – if you listen to the commentary in Korean, you will hear one of them beginning to hit rapturous notes as the other goes into rapid repetitions of the player’s name, each an octave higher than the previous one. A tackle is attempted and as it fails, Son is on goal. With two defenders trailing in his wake, Son wraps his right boot past the goalie. One Korean commentator stretched the word “goal” till the other met him, the duet continuing till they were, possibly, breathless.
Also read: Bale double helps Tottenham crush Burnley
“That goal showcased everything that’s led Tottenham Hotspur fans to fall in love with their Korea Republic star with pace, power persistence and clinical finishing on show,” said Fifa, explaining the choice for the Puskas award, given to a player for scoring the "most beautiful goal" .
On December 6 last year, Son, 28, scored a goal almost as spectacular—the speed and execution had teammate Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg putting his hands on his head—in the north London derby against Arsenal. The strike encapsulated his partnership with Harry Kane that had Spurs briefly atop the table. Dropping to his half, Kane released Son down the left and like so many of his 103 goals for Spurs, this was a long-range right-foot curler after opening his shoulder.
Against Southampton in September, Son scored four goals, Kane providing all the assists. “I just know he is running behind. We have been building this relationship,” Kane said. “Sometimes it’s telepathy,” is how Son, Premiership’s Player of the Month in October, explained their “Thelma and Louise” act.
It was the first time an Asian had scored four goals in the Premier League and the first hattrick by an Asian in the competition since Shinji Kagawa in 2013. Son’s 100th goal for Spurs, against Leeds in January, was a right foot flick to Kane’s assist. In last month’s nine-goal FA Cup fifth round thriller, which Spurs lost to Everton, Kane scored off a Son assist.
Kane has 14 goals in the league this season, one more than Son and they have combined for 13 Premiership goals. Only Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton linked up for that many in the league and that was for Blackburn Rovers in 1994-95. Then, Kane got injured.
When Kane had got injured before in 2019, Son had stepped into the breach and was crucial to Spurs making the Champions League final.
“Son seems to play even better when Harry’s not there,” West Brom manager Sam Allardyce told sports radio station talkSport in 2019. But since Kane’s ankles packed up against Liverpool this season, Spurs slipped to three successive losses. Kane returned against West Brom on February 7 and though Spurs won 2-0 through goals from him and Son, they went south in the league with defeats to Manchester City and West Ham. In Sunday’s 4-0 win against Burnley—Son, in his preferred left wing position, had a role in both goals by a resurgent Gareth Bale. It has revived top-four hopes. Spurs are now eighth, six off fourth-placed West Ham who have played a game more.
There’s an EFL Cup final against City in April and Spurs are alive in the Europa League where they beat Wolfsberg 8-1 on aggregate to make the round of 16. Son, who has scored against four of the top six in the league this term, would be crucial in them. “Season after season after season, Sonny is showing how good he is,” Spurs coach Jose Mourinho has said.
Son’s contract expires in 2023 and Martin Lipton said a new deal should happen before the end of the season. “Likely to be around £200k per week until 2025-26 season,” said Lipton, author of “White Hart Lane: The Spurs Glory Years 1899-2017”. That would mean a hike of approximately £60,000 and will bring Son—who scored the first goal for Spurs in their new stadium in the Premiership and the Champions League—on par with Kane, according to spotrack.com.
Things weren’t going swimmingly after a fresh-faced Son posed in a Spurs shirt in August 2015 after being bought from Bayer Leverkusen for 22m pounds, making him the most expensive Asian signing in the Premiership, because coach Mauricio Pochettino liked his off-the-ball runs.
A tap-in against Qarabag on September 17, 2015 was his first goal for Spurs. Three days later when he scored with a left-footer against Crystal Palace, the voiceover at Spurs TV said: “There’s a new star down the lane.” But a foot injury was followed by struggles to be a regular and when Spurs lost 1-5 to Newcastle in May 2016, Son was one of those Pochettino was angry at.
Following a heart to heart with the coach, Son knuckled down to hard work. “Son has gone from a bit-part player for much of his first season to one of the first two or three on the team-sheet and an automatic starter. But that has been the case for at least three seasons now and he has continued to improve. Maybe the critical change is that he is embracing responsibility…He arrived as an auxiliary striker who wanted to play wide. Now he is so much more flexible and versatile,” said Lipton, chief sports reporter of The Sun, in an e-mail interview.
Son’s desire to improve has been evident from the time he practised individual drills under his footballer father Son Woong-jung in Chuncheon, nearly 75 km from Seoul. It has made him a two-footed player. One who is now a leader at Spurs. “Not by screaming and shouting but certainly by deed. That is part of the natural growth as he matures from a young man to where he is in his life and career now. But he is incredibly popular in the dressing room and with the club hierarchy. Nobody seems to have a bad word for him,” said Lipton.
Adjudged best in Asia in 2020, Son has dated a rockstar and has a rockstar’s following at home. Korean conglomorates are drawn to clubs which sign Son. Leverkusen or London, Son is known to take time for photographs and autographs for the throng of Koreans who come to games.
Yes, there were three red cards in 2019 and he was accused of diving to win a penalty against Arsenal in 2018. And there was that angry exchange with Hugo Lloris against Everton at half-time last July captured in detail in the documentary “All Or Nothing”. But Son has also got support from Everton fans after saying sorry to Andre Gomes for his role in Gomes’ injury. About the only starry indulgence is an array of expensive cars including a limited-edition Ferrari. The Ferrari though had to be black because at Spurs you can’t have a car that reminds you of Arsenal’s red, can you?