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The Hindu
The Hindu
AFP, Reuters

Electric Son Heung-min turbocharging Spurs’ Angeball revolution

Tottenham’s captain is thriving in his new role as a central striker under manager Ange Postecoglou. Already a cult hero, he can attain an even more exalted status after Harry Kane’s departure to Bayern Munich — that of talisman

Attempting to fill a Harry Kane-sized hole in any squad is a headache for a manager.

Considering how central the 30-year-old was to Tottenham Hotspur’s football and identity, new manager Ange Postecoglou was confronted by an even more demanding task. Kane had grown into a talismanic figure at Spurs, which had become increasingly dependent on the England captain. Last season, he scored 43% of the side’s Premier League goals and contributed to a large proportion of the remainder in his role as one of the world’s best playmaking No. 9s.

Kane’s departure to Bayern Munich in the summer — in pursuit of the first silverware of his career — meant that Tottenham, for the first time since 2014, was unable to call upon its standard-bearer for a north London league derby against rival Arsenal last month. Kane, the club’s all-time top-scorer, also has the most goals in the derby’s history: an impressive 14.

Stepping up in style

But Son Heung-min stepped into the breach, producing two silky finishes, one in each half, which ensured that the 194th edition of the London rivalry ended with honours even. Son has a reputation for being a lethal finisher who delivers in the clutch — in the absence of Kane, with whom he had formed a deadly strike partnership, the South Korean forward enhanced his standing with a performance that proved Postecoglou was right to trust him.

Son, whom Postecoglou named Spurs captain on the day Kane joined Bayern, played as a centre-forward against Arsenal. While he did not replicate his former teammate’s all-around style, he did everything his manager asked of him to a high standard, leading the press, pinning the centre-backs, and making runs behind the last line of defence to devastating effect.

Son found the back of the net again last weekend, in the controversial 2-1 win over Liverpool, taking his tally to six Premier League goals this season, second only to Erling Haaland’s eight.

Postecoglou had said Son could play as the central striker in his system, but had started his new captain on the wing in the season’s first three games. It was against Burnley that Son first found himself in the No. 9 role. He scored a hat-trick in a 5-2 win and has not looked back since.

“He’s been outstanding as a leader and as a player. I’ve put him in that nine position now and he just works so hard,” Postecoglou said. “His first thought is what’s best for the team. And he puts himself into that position and then he has the quality to finish.”

Against Burnley, Son led Tottenham’s high press — vital for a side that wants possession of the ball — with great intensity. At 31, he recorded the most sprints (27), the third-most intensive runs (288), and the most pressures (49), with 11 of those pressures leading to turnovers. More to the point, Son has shown he can repeat these efforts in his other starts at No. 9.

Doing it his way

While Kane was a high-touch No. 9 — he liked the ball at his feet, with a lot of Spurs’ attacking moves flowing through him — Son appears to have been instructed to perform a low-touch role. His job in possession is to push the opposition’s last line back with his positioning, dynamism and goal-threat, buying his midfielders space and time.

Once he realises he has an opening, either to meet a cross or a cutback from wide or to run onto a through-ball from midfield, he explodes into action with intelligent, incisive runs

Effectively, Postecoglou has replaced Kane’s output by marrying Son’s elite movement with new signing James Maddison’s creative passing. Maddison is clearly enjoying his still-developing partnership with the South Korean.

Strong bond: Son has quickly built a close relationship with new manager Ange Postecoglou, who has entrusted the South Korean forward with greater responsibility. (Source: Getty Images)

“In the last weeks Sonny has gone more central and is playing as the nine. As a number eight or 10, you want to have a nice relationship with your striker, he’s the one you are looking for,” said Maddison. “We get on really well, which helps on the pitch. In training when we are working on little through balls, we are still figuring each other out. But I’m starting to know what he likes.”

Postecoglou’s team sits second in the table after going unbeaten in the Australian’s first seven Premier League games in charge. His impact on the club has been remarkable since his close-season arrival from Celtic. He has lifted the gloom left by his predecessor Antonio Conte’s troubled reign. Spurs has enjoyed more than its share of good fortune, but it is playing eye-catching football, dubbed Angeball, and looking a real threat.

The players also appear to enjoy Postecoglou’s leadership, something Son is feeding off. “If you think about why you started playing football as a kid, you are just having fun with your ball,” said the Spurs captain. “I think it’s very important, having fun. It helps you with your confidence and your self-belief. There’s a lot of pressure playing in a Premier League team. I try to be an example, try to smile and take responsibility on and off the pitch.”

Fuelled by disappointment

The start to this season is markedly different from 2022-23, when Son struggled physically. Having won the Premier League Golden Boot for the most goals in 2021-22 with 23 strikes, he scored only 10 times last season as Spurs finished eighth.

Partners in mime: The combination of Son’s elite movement and new signing James Maddison’s creative passing is a match made in heaven. (Source: Getty Images)

Son played while dealing with a hernia last season, delaying surgery because he felt he could not let the team down. He also suffered multiple fractures around his left eye just before the mid-season World Cup. “I was in pain every single moment, literally,” he said.

Son did enjoy a historically significant moment last season, becoming the first Asian player to score 100 times in the Premier League, but 2022-23 was a low point. It did, however, fill him with the determination “to prove [in 2023-24] that I’m the Sonny that we all know”.

So he turned down a lucrative offer from Saudi Arabia in the summer and made a vow to “give back to the club where I belong”. Son has enjoyed a remarkable career with Tottenham, scoring 151 goals (and assisting 80) in all competitions since signing from Bayer Leverkusen for what now looks a bargain £22 million in 2015. Already a cult hero at Spurs, he can attain an even more exalted status — that of Tottenham talisman.

The manner in which he has started 2023-24, powering the Angeball revolution, suggests he is well on his way towards earning that honour.

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