Talking Tactics

How Son has stepped up to fill Kane void as striker

By Adrian Clarke 6 Nov 2023
Son Heung-min - Spurs

Adrian Clarke explains why South Korean has flourished in a central role for Spurs this season

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Player analysis: Son Heung-min (Spurs)

Filling Harry Kane’s boots at Tottenham Hotspur was an unenviable task, but after scoring eight goals in seven appearances as a central striker this season, it is a challenge Son has gleefully accepted.

Son has been a revelation ever since being moved inside from the left flank by head coach Ange Postecoglou for the trip to Burnley on 2 September. 

He scored a hat-trick at Turf Moor and has since found the back of the net in five of the seven matches which have followed.

Son has a surprisingly poor record against Chelsea, scoring just twice in 17 appearances against them in all competitions – and not since 2018.

Yet despite that, his former head coach Mauricio Pochettino will be acutely aware of the threat he carries.

Son's goal v Palace last weekend
Rapport with Maddison

He may have spent most of career on the left, but Son is also comfortable playing down the middle.

Resisting the urge to drift wide, most of his touches across the last eight matches have been in central areas, where he is happy to show for a pass.

Floating playmaker James Maddison has struck up a brilliant rapport with him, picking out Son with more passes than any other team-mate.

Rather than backing into central defenders, Son is astute with the way he stays in between them.

This helps the likes of Maddison and Yves Bissouma slide progressive passes into his feet.

Team-mates with most passes to Son 23/24
Player Passes*
James Maddison 43
Yves Bissouma 35
Destiny Udogie 33

*excluding crosses

This Maddison to Son pass map below from their last home match against Fulham is another good example of the way they combine.

James Maddison pass to Son Heung-min

Son’s positioning between two centre-backs paid off for him when producing key strikes against Liverpool and Fulham.

His run through the gap left by Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk helped him get on the end of Richarlison’s cross, as shown below.

SonLiv

At home to Fulham, Son stayed free in the middle when Marco Silva’s central defenders split apart to play out from the back.

He scored from this turnover shown below, and then later in the same fixture he set up Maddison from a near-identical situation.

SonFulham

Since he joined Spurs from Bayer Leverkusen in 2015, Son has proved to be one of the Premier League’s most elite finishers.

Strong with both feet, any profligate spells have been short-lived during his time in north London.

This season, his shot conversion rates are significantly higher than ever before.

When he scored 40 times across two outstanding seasons in 2020/21 and 2021/22, Son did so with over 30 per cent of his unblocked shots, but right now he is averaging 40 per cent.

In previous campaigns, Son has never converted more than 58 per cent of big chances, but after 10 rounds of matches in 2023/24 he has dispatched 85.71 per cent of those opportunities.

Son’s current standards are perhaps unsustainable over 38 matches, but his clinical edge deserves enormous respect.

Son's improved finishing
  Ave. previous eight seasons 2023/24
Conversion (exc. blocks) 23.20 40.00
Conversion (inc. blocks) 17.24 28.57
Big chance conversion 48.10 85.71

Over the past eight years, Son has consistently shown he is capable of excelling as a lone central strike.

When deputising for Kane in the past, he stepped in and delivered plenty of goals.

Across his time at the club, Son’s attacking data in those two differing roles for Spurs actually shows a minimal difference in the goals and assists he supplies.

Son has more shots – and possibly a lot more from close range – when he leads the line, but because he has always been terrific at sliding infield to become a "second striker" there is not a huge upturn in his involvements inside the box.

Son stats per 90 in different roles
  Non-striker Striker
Matches played 219 59
Goals  0.49 0.56
Goals + assists 0.74 0.75
Total shots (inc. blocks) 2.61 3.35
Shots on target 1.21 1.58
Touches in opp. box 5.09 5.95
Chances created (inc. assists) 1.90 1.52

Chelsea’s three units must get their distances right on Monday evening.

If they press and hold a high line, Spurs will look to release Son in behind just as they did against Burnley, as shown below.

SonBurnley

But at the same time, Son is constantly on the move and difficult to pick up, so if the Blues drop off and leave space for him to explode into from between the lines, he can be equally effective.

Postecoglou’s call to use Son as a centre-forward has been one of the smartest tactical decisions of the season so far.

Also in this series

Part 1: How Douglas Luiz epitomises Villa's strengths in top-four race
Part 2: Nketiah must find some away form if he is to rival Gabriel Jesus
Part 3: Will Palhinha or Amrabat dictate key midfield battle?

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