Had the summer gone differently and Heung-Min Son gotten his way, the South Korean forward would’ve been out of the door at Tottenham within a season. Apparently frustrated due to a lack of playing time and starting opportunities, the club decided against letting him leave, despite there being reason enough to suggest he might not work out under Mauricio Pochettino and his preference for military levels of hard work.
Although clearly talented, Son was seen as being work-shy, a defensive liability and not often enough clinical in the final third to indulge his half-hearted approach to tracking back. A phenomenal more prevalent in American sport than in England, players are often ranked and valued by how ‘clutch’ they are, meaning to determine who most often dictates the outcome of a fixture and seals victory under pressure, where lesser players would look to hide, or crumble.
For all that Son is, what he isn’t is clutch. The least likely player on the pitch to consistently grab a close game by the scruff of the neck and make it his own, Son is the garnish that adds a brace in a one-sided victory, or sense blood against weak opposition and pushes it up another gear, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be able to cope with him.
As pleasing as it was to see him respond to racist chanting against Millwall by gleefully skipping his way to a hat-trick, those types of dominant performances are too few and far between for a player of his quality. That too, is where the frustration manifests itself the most - if Son was just a bad player, you could happily discard him knowing nothing will become of it, but he so clearly isn’t.
Son will turn 25 during summer, and, theoretically speaking, that should signal the start of what could be the peak years of his career. The player that exists currently is little more than garnish, and for Son to truly establish himself as a talent worthy of being fawned over, he has to either decide to knuckle down, allow Pochettino to mould him and do his work diligently on both ends of the field or - more likely - make himself such an indispensable attacking option that Tottenham have no option to play him regardless.
That said, it would be unfair to peer in to the wounds in his game without acknowledging the specialist pressures that come with being both a celebrity and a sportsman, which is a balancing act Son has to perform on a daily basis given his enormous profile amongst his South Korean following, and status as the most expensive Asian footballer in history.
The star of his national team, the South Korean press follow his every touch, so the temptation is clear for him to play up to the cameras knowing that. Scoring goals, taking shots and being an attacking threat are more valuable commodities than being known for an exceptional defensive work-rate or dedication to the high-press, so the internal struggle of choosing who to bend more in the will of - his club or those who hero worship him in their millions – must be a particularly tough cross to bear.
Without doubt, there is a future for Son at Tottenham under Pochettino should they be able to work together in establishing the best way to move forwards. Not famed for his skills in compromise, Son represents an interesting test in man management, which is something that has been highlighted as a strength of Pochettino’s, with players like Danny Rose often going out of their way to highlight how having such a close bond and trust with the boss has helped improve their game.
To be a success, Son has to become a clutch player. If he isn’t going to be able to effect the game defensively as the likes of Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela have grown and adjusted to, he’s going to have to score more often than he does currently, and take his chances in pressure situations.
His first touch has to be sharper, his awareness of space and use of the ball has to become more intelligent on a consistent and reliable basis against more than just the lesser teams, or when a game has already been decided. Right now, Son isn’t the type of player you’d be comfortable betting your house on going through to score one-on-one in the 90th minute with the scores at 0-0, but you’d part with your last penny to back him scoring a screamer when you’re 3-0 up against a team who’ve already had their backs broken and given up hope – that’s the perception of himself he has to change.
Indulge the wrong facet of his career, and Son could find himself being the type of player who finds his chances limited thanks to a reputation for being too individualistic. Although he’s a clearly well liked member of the Tottenham dressing room, that understanding rarely manifests itself on the field, unless there’s a well rehearsed handshake to be performed. Bouncing from club to club, doing two or three seasons here or there across Europe is hardly the end of the world, but it’s a path that’s unlikely to lead to professional fulfilment.
To avoid the version of his career that’s plagued by constant questions of what if and what could be, Son has to be willing to make a change. More than just a coaching issue, it’s a test of character and personality, rather than skill, or ability. There are few sadder stories in sport than tales of unfulfilled potential, but right now, that’s where Son finds himself. How he reacts to that will tell us what he’s truly made of.