In basketball there is a term known as the ‘sixth man’: a player who is not a started, but introduced as a substitute to allow for different tactics or adapt to injuries. While these players are often praised for their versatility or game-changing abilities, they are sometimes criticized for simply not being good enough to become starters.
Son Heung-min, Korea Republic’s best football player after Cha Bum-kun and Park Ji-sung, seems to be the sixth man at his club Tottenham. Last season Son impressed with the best performance of his career. However, he is not considered a regular starter. As there are clearer distinction among positions in football compared to basketball, ‘sixth man’ might not be the most accurate term to use. However, the description fits Son better than ‘utility player’. A utility player is someone who can play in multiple positions thanks to his versatility, while the sixth man is someone who can’t be a starter due to the team’s situation or the player’s tactical role.
Son scored 21 goals in all competitions last year, including 14 goals and six assists in the league. His personal record is not far from Chelsea’s Eden Hazard or Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho. He runs a lot, and is good at breaking defenses by going forward. That is why Tottenham head coach Mauricio Pochettino lets him play in different positions: centre forward, wings, and even left and right wing backs. While English legend Alan Shearer is amongst those who have pointed out that Son tends to do better when he goes forward, the player has shown improvements at his secondary positions.
Having said that, Son has never settled in one position. While he played in 34 matches last season, he only played for 2,068 minutes, coming off the bench 11 times. Son has struggled even more since Tottenham settled on a three-back system. As he has continued to recover fitness following an injury at the end of the last campaign, players such as as Fernando Llorente and Moussa Sissoko have risen up as rivals. In addition, Son has just one goal and no assists to his name this season. Against Real Madrid in Champions League play this week, he took the pitch for just four minutes.
Why is Son struggling to find his place in Tottenham, despite proving his ability last season? The answer is unfortunately simple: when compared to his teammates, his positives are not enough to outshadow his negatives. If he was a better scorer or chance-maker than than Harry Kane, Son would start up top. If he could control the build-up like Dele Alli, Son earn more midfield starts. However, the Korean has not dominated in these areas.
Currently, Son has too many weaknesses to be a complete player. He is not strong against pressure, and prefers to control the ball before making a decision whether to pass or shoot. His fitness is not at 100 percent, and neither are his crosses – a necessity for players outside the box. His defensive skills too are lacking, making it harder to switch him to another position.
Son has vertical speed and can use both feet well, an advantage in modern-day football. Were Pochettino to use different tactics, Son could even be a starter. But if he wants to become a world-class player, he must improve what he is already good at or develop new skills.
Nobody knows Son’s future. If Dele Alli or Eriksen leave the squad, Son might step up to replace them. Or he could work hard to overcome them while they are still at Wembley.
Son has only played in major European leagues, which earned him a reputation as one of Asia’s most promising players. But at 25 years old, he can no longer be promising. He can claim the status of Korean legend through his accomplishments thus far, which include 18 goals in 59 appearances for the national team. But he has the potential to become a world-class player, rather than just a decent Asian player in Europe. He needs some luck too – but in the end, it will be up to the player himself, and how he improves.
Written by Eugene Choi of Football Tribe Korea