Conor Kelly wrote the piece below in October 2016. Interestingly, though, Son Heung Min has again peaked in winter and, as he was against Stoke at Wembley this afternoon, has returned to form just in time to jolt Tottenham from their early season downturn.
Heung Min-Son was adamant that he wanted to leave. Frustrated by a lack of first team opportunities and with his mind focussed solely on Olympic glory for his country, the South Korean looked to be departing English shores after 12 solitary months.
Tottenham fans, many of whom voiced their displeasure at some of his performances, wouldn’t have been too displeased to see the back of him. Daniel Levy and his board were apparently willing to cash in.
Mauricio Pochettino had other ideas though. In a clear the air meeting, the Argentine alleviated Son’s fears and convinced him to stay at White Hart Lane. Son obliged and, happily for the two, it has worked out for the better.
Son arrived in North London from Bayer Leverkusen with a gleaming reputation, having excelled in the Bundesliga. Initially, he hit the ground running, netting two goals on his home debut in the Europa League against Qarabag and then grabbing the winner in a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace three days later. However, his form fluctuated for much of the rest of 2015-16. Son started just 13 league matches and added only five more goals in all competitions. There were question marks over his application and character; Son’s desire to represent South Korea in Rio (in a bid to avoid military service, most likely) could have potentially driven a wedge between himself and his manager.
Fortunately, Son’s coach is amassing quite the portfolio of footballers he has reformed – a quick glance at Tottenham’s squad illustrates as much. Harry Kane, Eric Lamela, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker are among those who have rapidly improved under Pochettino’s gaze, while he has also extracted more from gifted players such as Christian Eriksen and Moussa Dembele, getting them to buy into the collective ethos.
Son’s ability has never been in question, but there was a sense that he didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to go alongside his talent. Too often when Tottenham were in pressurised situations at the tail end of last season, he tended to shy away from the ball and shirk responsibility. He was maddeningly frustrating, particularly when brief moments of class (his goals against Leicester City and Watford particularly) would occasionally surface.
The past few weeks have been markedly different. Following the international break in September, the South Korean has made himself undroppable. Son has already surpassed his total of Premier League goals from the previous campaign and supplied two more for his teammates. More impressively, he has demonstrated adaptiveness, starting from the left but drifting inside to cause havoc for opposing defences. Pochettino requires a certain work rate from those occupying the three positions behind the forward, something Son is now exhibiting.
Son has always possessed a natural fluidity to his game, but he is now in synch with his teammates. In Kane’s absence, he played through the middle against Manchester City. A constant thorn in the league leaders’ side, he terrorised their backline with his precise and powerful movement. Significantly, neither Nicolas Otamendi nor John Stones had time to breathe when attempting to play their way out from the back as Pep Guardiola instructs his central defenders to do.
There are a few factors involved in Son’s transformation since arriving back from Rio, but arguably the most important is his exposure to Pochettino’s rigorous preseason training. Having arrived late in August 2015, he didn’t have the benefit of that last year, which contributed to his patchy form. Pochettino is incredibly demanding and it takes time to get up to the level of fitness he expects.
In Pochettino’s case, parallels can be drawn with his fellow countryman Diego Simeone. The Atletico Madrid coach has huge mental/physical expectations of his players, and even prodigious talents such as Antoine Griezmann have had to fine tune and adapt to what he desires. Pochettino is cut from similar cloth: his team were second in distance covered in the Premier League last year.
Son has admitted that he feels in much better physical shape now. “I had pre-season and I feel really fit. We played four games at the Olympics. I feel very fit. It is true I am in great form and have made a great start, but I have to keep working hard so I finish like this,” he said when speaking to The Telegraph recently. Son deserves credit for his recalibration, but it is also a testament to the work carried out by Pochettino, the tireless orchestrator of Tottenham’s best start to a league season in 56 years.