The affection Mauricio Pochettino has for Son Heung-Min radiated from his press-conference on Saturday. As well it might, because for the second time in four days and still presumably afflicted by some heavy jet-lag, Son had made the critical difference to Tottenham, ramming a winning goal through Martin Dubravka and putting his side temporarily second in the Premier League.
Son has grown as a player, that’s inarguably true, but perhaps the biggest development in him has been emotional. As revealed by Pochettino in his book, A New Day, the South Korean actually wanted to leave North London at the end of his first season. He was discouraged by his lack of playing time and, in a move which would have reflected his flakey reputation of the time, wanted passage back to the Bundesliga as quickly as possible.
He was a divisive presence in those days. Gifted but peripheral, talented but prone to being ineffective. Son’s early career characterised him really as more of a flat-track bully: as someone likely to run roughshod over weaker teams but who would invariably shrink when the opposition and the circumstances were tougher.
What a difference, then. It’s perhaps a semi-illusion created by the void left by Harry Kane and Dele Alli, but as Tottenham have grown more desperate over recent months, so Son has become more prominent. Beyond simply wanting the ball in pressure situations and being willing to take game-winning risks within them, he now chases games with an almost febrile determination to be influential.
Broadly, it speaks to the multiplying effect of personality. There has been some technical refinement and growth in Son’s game over the past four seasons – his defensive work has certainly improved and his finishing is more efficient – but the greatest change is in the person behind the attributes. Wembley was quiet on Saturday, it was full of moans or groans, and perhaps the Son of 2015-16 would have deferred that late shooting opportunity, choosing instead to push possession out-wide or back to a supporting teammate.
Essentially: what he’s able to do with a football at his feet hasn’t really changed, but what he’s willing to do with it probably has.
There are different ways of describing Son’s heightened importance to Tottenham at the moment. Given the continued absence of Kane and Alli, the range of positions he’s able to cover is vital to Pochettino. However, what allows him to occupy that compensatory role is his developed status within this Spurs squad. Eventually, at a certain stage in some careers, a player reaches a point at which he is not only comfortable with taking the last shot of the game and being under the spotlight when time runs out, but when he actually craves that opportunity.