EPL TALK: Son Heung-min cannot shine through Conte’s dark clouds

Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur looks dejected during their English Premier League defeat by Arsenal.
Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur looks dejected during their English Premier League defeat by Arsenal. (PHOTO: Marc Atkins/Getty Images) (Marc Atkins via Getty Images)

THERE was always Son Heung-min. He was Asia’s fallback position, the continent’s safe space, a handy refuge from the sneering cynicism on the outside and the self-harming cock-ups from within. He was our go-to guy when we needed a pick-me-up.

No Asian representation in the World Cup’s quarter-finals? There’s always Son. The world’s most populated continent being underrepresented at elite level? We’ve still got Son.

Singapore and Asia’s ongoing struggle to present pathways for rising talents in professional football? Just look at Son. The AFF Cup conformed to regional stereotypes by organising an event that had more hosting issues than the Fyre Festival? Yeah, well, at least Son knows what he’s doing (sometimes, the connection is a stretch.)

But whenever Asian football was considered a bit Mickey Mouse, we had Son Heung-min as our Walt Disney, a true artist and trendsetter for others to follow. And this was going to be his season, the time to reach his inevitable peak and validate an entire continent on our behalf.

The numbers indicated an unstoppable upward curve. His debut season for Tottenham Hotspur ended with four goals. In the next four years, he averaged 12 league goals a season. In 2020/21, he hit 17 in 37 games. And last season, he took home the Golden Boot after knocking in 23 in 35 games. He was dominating the box, smashing it, utterly addicted to scoring.

At the age of 30, a humble kid from South Korea was destined for the Ballon d’Or. Asia's greatest was looking at global GOAT status. And then, the summit turned into a cliff and Son appeared to fall off. His statistics plummeted across the board.

Another blank in the North London derby means the Spurs forward has failed to score in 21 of his 24 appearances. According to The Athletic, his goals and assists ratios, his pass completion rates and even his dribble numbers are the lowest of his Tottenham career.

A serious eye injury and the World Cup didn’t help, ensuring he lacked match fitness and looked like the Phantom of the Opera. But he endured. A man with his own TV programme back home - Super Son Time – bears a national burden that's difficult to comprehend. Son wore a mask in Qatar, but he had nowhere to hide in South Korea.

Ironically, he spoke of the mental difficulties in balancing his club and country responsibilities as he was announced as the first brand ambassador for AIA Singapore last week. One of his duties will be to “inspire Singaporeans to live better”, through improved mental health, presumably by not watching Spurs’ defeat against Arsenal.

Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min with manager Antonio Conte after being substituted.
Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min with manager Antonio Conte after being substituted. (PHOTO: Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs) (Paul Childs / reuters)

At odds with manager?

Tottenham’s first-half display in the North London derby was a skittish mishmash of cautious passing and half-hearted running, the dullest textbook interpretation of percentage football. A "risk and reward" strategy was like Hugo Lloris’ gloves. It didn’t stick.

Spurs’ tentative anti-football also alienated their drifting South Korean superstar. They had effectively applied a Son block, leaving him looking a pale imitation of himself. His game is built on ingenuity, quick feet and deft, improvised passes. He is both poacher and producer, an intelligent forward with no real weaknesses.

But he rarely got a chance to prove it in a line-up and approach that negated his strengths. Tottenham slowed to a ponderous, meandering stroll at times, somewhere between a petulant teenager and a drunk leaving the pub. They were all over the place.

If Arsenal (and Manchester United for that matter) really are being shaped in their manager’s image, then the same can be said of Tottenham. They appear slow, indifferent and almost sulky, as if Antonio Conte’s incorrigible snobbery has somehow infiltrated the dressing room. It’s certainly toxic.

The Italian uses press conferences to remind his employers of the alleged imbalance in their working relationship. Spurs are lucky to have him, apparently, and should cater to his demands, no matter how impractical. Like Prince Harry admonishing the British Royal Family, Conte believes in the divine right of managers. He’s not getting the privileges that befit his supposedly superior DNA.

In public at least, Conte and Son seem very different people. The Italian feels entitled at Tottenham. He’s killing time until a more appealing offer comes along. But the South Korean is committed to club and country, spreading himself too thinly as a result. He looks weary.

An eye injury, a World Cup, Spurs’ relentless training regime and a patchy squad have taken a toll on a 30-year-old body that is programmed to keep on running. Until it can’t.

Conte may believe he deserves better than Tottenham’s uncertain future, but so does Son. The forward’s overachievements last season drove Spurs towards Champions League qualification and inflated Conte’s mythology as a consequence: the manager who makes every squad greater than the sum of its parts.

Son helped to make that happen and his reward was a punishing tactical approach that relies primarily on fitness and physicality. He's short on both, along with many of his colleagues. The template and the team are no longer aligned.

And yet, Conte seems to be drifting towards indifference. It’s a familiar character trait. Spurs are flirting with irrelevance and Son’s career may be edging closer to anti-climax, which would be desperately unfair.

The South Korean is supposed to be our guy. The good guy. Asia's favourite filial son, the one who actually does subscribe to the increasingly archaic motto within the British Royal Family. Never complain, never explain. Son does neither, despite a broken face, a broken dream at Qatar 2022 and a dysfunctional club close to breaking point.

He’ll keep calm and carry on. It’s a familiar character trait. But he could use a karmic intervention and an upswing in good fortune any time soon.

Conte may be destined to leave Tottenham in disappointment, but Son is worthy of a more uplifting epitaph.

Spurs are flirting with irrelevance and Son’s career may be edging closer to anti-climax, which would be desperately unfair.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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