Son-Heung min is used to taking on a big burden when Harry Kane is missing, and under Ange Postecoglou he’s showing he is now Tottenham’s most important player.

Before Son Heung-min set off for Asian Cup duty in January, he asked his teammates to step up in his absence. The forward had plenty of his own experiences to call upon.

“I feel like when Harry [Kane] was here and he was missing some games with injuries, I felt like I needed to step up in previous years,” he said. “In this situation, you grow as a player and a human being.”

From leading the line in the run to the Champions League final in 2019 when Kane was out, to being the main man on the many occasions that Kane suffered a recurrence of the ankle ligament injuries that plagued him for years, Son has always been on hand as Tottenham’s go-to guy.

So, when Kane left for Bayern Munich last summer, Son knew he would have to raise his game. After the season he’d just had, there were some concerns he wouldn’t be able to fill the massive hole that Kane had left.

After jointly-winning the Premier League golden boot in 2021-22 with 23 goals (level with Mohamed Salah), Son managed just 10 goals in 33 starts and three substitute appearances last season. Spurs had a below-par season overall, but in the context of Kane having one of the most prolific years of his career, Son’s malaise was striking.

There was even a point when he lost his place in the team, dropped and replaced by Richarlison in the starting lineup for a home fixture against Leicester City in September 2022. He responded by coming off the bench to score only the seventh hat-trick in Premier League history to be scored by a substitute. His frustration was palpable in his celebrations for each goal.

But in his 35 appearances other than that exceptional performance off the bench, Son scored just seven Premier League goals in 2022-23. His total of 10 goals came from 10.2 expected goals, making it the first time he had underperformed compared to his xG since 2015-16, his first season in England and one during which he has since admitted he was struggling to settle.

Son heung-min xG map 2022-23

Take out that hat-trick against Leicester – which was scored from just 0.67 xG – and Son’s numbers for the campaign read seven goals from 9.53 xG.

A month after the end of the season, he turned 31. For a player whose physical capabilities – namely his raw pace and ability to shift the ball away from his body and get a shot off before the defender can react – make up such an important part of his game, there was a bit of concern that this might be the start of a decline. Was this to be the beginning of the end for Son?

Absolutely not.

Son has bitten back at his doubters with great effect. Even accounting for the six weeks of the season he missed due to his participation in the Asian Cup at the start of the year, Son has 14 goals already in 2023-24. That puts him fifth in the goalscoring charts, and only four off the leader (Erling Haaland, 18).

Oh, and those 14 goals have come from just 7.9 xG. His overperformance of 6.1 is the best of all players in the Premier League this season – 28.7% higher than the player who ranks second in this list, Jarrod Bowen, who has overperformed his xG by 4.74.

Son heung-min xG map 2023-24

Despite ranking fifth for goals scored, Son ranks 20th in the Premier League this season for expected goals, behind the likes of Chelsea’s Nicolas Jackson (nine goals from 12.6 xG), Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin (three goals from 9.3 xG) and Brentford’s Bryan Mbeumo (seven goals from 8.5 xG). This is an elite finisher playing in attack for a better (at least according to the league table) and more dominant team. Spurs have had more shots this season (418) than every other team in the top flight apart from the top three and Brighton.

So, the obvious next question is whether Tottenham and manager Ange Postecoglou are getting as much out of Son as they could or possibly should? Their priority should surely be getting this genuine world-class goalscorer into more and better goalscoring positions, right? As often and as much as, say, an injury-prone and often absent striker at relegation-threatened Everton.

It’s worth taking into account a couple of things here when considering why Son’s xG is relatively low. Firstly, Son not only missed a portion of the season but also had no break after the tournament to recover, and was asked to go straight back into the matchday squad for the Brighton game just four days after South Korea lost their Asian Cup semi-final in Qatar.

Then, there is the fact Son has spent much of the season on the wing, with nine of his 23 league starts and 35% of his game time coming on the flank. Not only does this mean that for much of the campaign Son has been further from goal and not spearheading the Spurs attack, but it has also been another obstacle to gaining consistency. And this is all while adapting to life under someone with a very different playing style to that of the last few Tottenham managers.

son heung-min played positions 2023-24

A big part of the reason Son has spent so much time out wide has been the form of Richarlison, who scored nine goals in a run of eight Premier League games from December through to February and was, quite understandably, an immoveable object in the Spurs starting XI in that time.

Son had spent much of the early part of the season up front with Richarlison on the left, but when the Brazilian returned to full fitness in December following a layoff, it was decided that the best option for the team was to put Son on the left and Richarlison up front.

Now, Richarlison has failed to score in two games and then missed the next two with a knee injury. Now fit and available again, there’s a chance that he might now find it difficult to get back into the team.

That is largely because although he did a fantastic job up front in that purple patch through the winter, there were a few notable moments that would have left Postecoglou longing for someone who could finish like Son. One example was when he was put through on goal against Brighton by James Maddison at 1-0 down, but fluffed his lines and just never looked like he was going to score. He let the ball run too far across him before failing to set himself with his first touch and then planted his shot straight at the goalkeeper.

richarlison through on goal
richarlison poor touch

Late on in Tottenham’s next home game against Crystal Palace, Son raced through and never looked like missing.

Then, in Tottenham’s 4-0 win at Villa Park last weekend, Son scored a chance that Richarlison surely wouldn’t have, sending an unstoppable first-time finish into the roof of the net from 12 yards. In that game, Son also got two assists, showing remarkable composure in the box to set up goals for Brennan Johnson and Timo Werner. Richarlison has three assists all season.

Of course, playing up front isn’t only about finishing. You’ve got to get into good positions in the first place, and Richarlison’s numbers suggest he does that better than Son.

When just looking at their time playing up front, Richarlison averages 3.7 non-penalty shots per 90, compared to Son’s 3.0. Richarlison’s shots also come from better chances, worth 0.62 xG per 90 compared to 0.42 xG for Son. Richarlison also has more touches in the opposition’s box per 90 than Son, averaging 7.3 per 90 compared to Son’s 6.2.

son vs richarlison stats

He is also bigger and stronger than Son, though, and his hold-up play is better than the Korean’s. He offers a threat in the air that Son simply does not, too. Just four of Son’s 117 Premier League goals have been headers.

son heung-min premier league goals

But while Richarlison (10 Premier League goals from 8.6 xG this season) largely relies on good chances coming his way, Son scores more goals and does so from harder chances.

Richarlison is more single-minded than Son – focusing on scoring goals more than anything else. Son creates far more chances when playing up front than the Brazilian (2.0 per 90 vs 0.8) and also wins the ball back more, with 0.8 regains in the final third per 90 to Richarlison’s 0.6. To play the role that Postecoglou wants his striker to play, Son probably needs to learn to be a bit more selfish.

He hasn’t spent much time up front at Spurs because Kane has always been there, and learning to play a role as focused on goalscoring as Postecoglou wants is a process that could take a little while. Improving his movement in the box to get into better shooting positions is unquestionably something he can learn. Giving him a chance to do just that with a run of games up front could be a good idea. Spurs would only stand to benefit from it.

After a disappointing 2022-23, Son has proved with his performances since Postecoglou came in that last season was simply a forgettable campaign that is best left in the past. In Harry Kane’s absence, he is now Tottenham’s most important player, and there is no sign of that changing any time soon.

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