He scores early, he scores late; he scores at home, he scores away. Over two legs against Manchester City in the quarterfinal of the UEFA Champions League, Son Heung-Min gave a performance that perfectly summarised his entire season; he is a man for all moments, for all stages.
Of several players’ remarkable contributions to Tottenham Hotspur’s European cause — with a special mention, of course, for the often outstanding Harry Kane and Moussa Sissoko — Son’s is arguably the most extraordinary. City entered this tie with two of the most feared wide forwards in world football, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane, yet they found themselves bested by a footballer who, on current form, could grace any club. Take La Liga alone: Real Madrid could certainly benefit from his directness, Atletico Madrid could do with his work ethic and intelligence on the break, while for Barcelona he could be a thrilling foil for Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.
If there was a defining moment for what Son did against City, it came with the first of his three goals in the tie. That passage of play was, in essence, a short film of the attacker’s finest qualities: his ability to find space in the most congested areas, his speed to the loose ball, his persistence in regaining possession, his sleight of foot to elude defenders, and his ruthlessness in finishing. He could conjure no such magic in Spurs’ 1-0 Premier League defeat to City on Saturday.
Son is so accomplished that it is surprising he is rarely linked to other major clubs; perhaps he simply appears to be so happy at White Hart Lane that rival teams do not bother to enquire. Yet the South Korea captain remains underrated within Europe; so much so that, on the evening when he scored that winner against City in the first leg, his name was not even one of the top trends on Twitter in the U.K.
His statistics compare very favourably with players of greater reputations. Look, for example, at how he measures up against Sterling. He scores more Premier League goals per 90 minutes than Sterling (0.7 to 0.62), and he has 20 goals in 41 games in all competitions this season, while Sterling has 21 in 43. They also have uncannily similar records for their clubs; Sterling has 63 in 182 matches (0.35 goals per game), while Son has 67 in 180 (0.37). Sterling leads Son in assists this season, yet not by much: Sterling has 11 in the Premier League and Champions League, while Son has seven. They both have very strong passing statistics, with both of them completing in the 85 percent range in both the Premier League and Champions League.
In short, then, Son should be far more feted in the U.K. than he is. That could potentially be explained by him not being English, and so the local media is therefore less interested in his feats for his national team; in South Korea, by contrast, he probably has trouble walking the streets in peace.
When he arrived at Tottenham from Bayer Leverkusen, he did so as the most expensive Asian player in history. He also did so, in a manner befitting his entire career, somewhat under the radar.
Leverkusen, for whom he flourished in the Bundesliga, had long had the reputation of a side who were always on the brink of greatness but who could not quite deliver when it mattered; or, as some in the German media cruelly nicknamed them, “Neverkusen.” That name was harsh considering it ignored the fact that Leverkusen, despite having vastly inferior resources to several other teams, often found themselves competing for major honours. It is ironic, then, that Son finds himself at the English version of Leverkusen, a Spurs team led by a manager so good that he often outfoxes much richer opponents but remains devoid of silverware.
It is of course greatly to Mauricio Pochettino’s credit that he has coaxed such excellence from the boots of Son, but Son must also take many of the plaudits. The fact remains that a side once described somewhat disparagingly by Pep Guardiola as “the Harry Kane team” defeated City without Kane playing a major role. Son has the rare blend of the humility to accept second billing in Tottenham’s forward line, and the confidence to assume responsibility when the attacking mantle is passed to him.
So expertly has Son taken up the mantle that his team now stands two rounds away from becoming champions of Europe, in a tournament whose knockout stages have so far produced several performances of rare brilliance. At a time when so many around him are shining, Son has somehow contrived to be brighter than almost everyone else.