The evolution of Son Heung-min

Charlie Eccleshare and Tom Worville Nov 26, 2020 19

As Son Heung-min finished cooly past Ederson on Saturday to briefly move clear again at the top of the Premier League goalscoring charts, it was tempting to think about how far he has come over the last few years.

In the summer of 2016 after a mixed first season, Son almost left the club to return to Germany. Instead, after deciding that he would not run away from the challenge, he knuckled down and became almost the prototypical Mauricio Pochettino player. Intense, intelligent, indefatigable.

Under Jose Mourinho, Son’s level has gone up again — underlined by those nine goals in nine Premier League games so far this season (incidentally as many as the entire Arsenal team).

Son’s improvement over the last few years is why he will soon sign a lucrative new deal at Spurs. The contract will bring Son, now 28, in line with Tottenham’s highest earners Harry Kane and Tanguy Ndombele (excluding the on-loan Gareth Bale) and reflects his standing as one of the best players in the world.

The nature of the deal also reflects Son’s changed mindset. Short of confidence four years ago, Son is aware of his value now. He knew he merited a contract commensurate with his performances and standing at the club, and made that point to the Spurs hierarchy earlier this year. Chairman Daniel Levy and his colleagues agreed, taking us to the point where confirmation is expected imminently. Had they not, Son would have considered his options.

As Son’s performances on the pitch have cranked up a few gears, so too has his marketability. Last month, Son joined the sports division of Hollywood talent agency CAA — CAA Base. The company also looks after the commercial interests of head coach Jose Mourinho and midfielder Dele Alli, the latter of whom recommended the company to Son. To give a sense of how Son is viewed nowadays from a marketing perspective, Cristiano Ronaldo is another of CAA’s clients.

So how has Son transformed from struggling winger to elite forward? From shy newcomer to the centre point of the dressing room? From having a lot of commercial potential to becoming, in one source’s words, “East Asia’s David Beckham”.

He was given a rest in Thursday’s 4-0 win over Ludogorets, but against Chelsea on Sunday he will aim to return to the top of the Premier League goalscoring charts.

This is how he got to that point. This is the journey of Son the player, the man, the brand.

The player

Tasked with scouting Son, Tottenham’s talent-spotters could instantly see why Pochettino had tried to sign the South Korean when he was Southampton manager in 2013. Son decided to leave Hamburg for Bayer Leverkusen instead, and during the intervening two years he had developed into an even more exciting attacking option. Son was quick, made intelligent runs, and was seen as someone who could stretch opposition defences while playing off the emerging Kane, who would act as the team’s focal point.

Arsenal were among a host of other clubs watching Son, but it was Spurs who pushed hardest for the deal, completing the £22 million signing in August 2015. “He was a Mauricio-type player and what stood out was that at Leverkusen he played as a false nine, wide coming in, and his best asset which Mauricio liked was his running off the ball,” recalls David Webb, who was on the Spurs recruitment staff at the time.

“The timing of his movement and his runs stood out. He was a very smart, a clever mover. Those were his outstanding attributes at this stage. And though he wasn’t the biggest, physicality is about contact but it’s also about the quality and precision of your movement, which he had.”

Son scored 41 Bundesliga goals across six seasons with Hamburg and Leverkusen (Photo: Getty)

Son was 23 at the time and had scored 29 goals in 87 appearances for Leverkusen. He had joined two years earlier from Hamburg, where he lined up with a Tottenham favourite in Rafael van der Vaart. “We had a really good connection,” Van der Vaart remembers. “He was like a little boy at the time, barely out of his teens. I saw straight away that I need to play with him because I thought that us as a combination we could win some games. And that’s what we did.

“He became so good because he played one year with me,” Van der Vaart adds, laughing. “You have to ask him that, I always tell him that.”

Son started brightly at Spurs but a foot injury kept him out for more than a month and checked his momentum. He went on a run of 12 games without scoring and ended the season with eight goals from 40 appearances, and only four in the league (in his four completed seasons since he’s never managed fewer than 18 in all competitions). In the final game of the season, a humiliating 5-1 defeat at Newcastle, Pochettino was infuriated with Son and the team’s performance and lack of application.

On and off the pitch, Son was struggling to settle. He didn’t feature in Spurs’ first three games of the 2016-17 season and a return to Germany was a distinct possibility. But a deal could not be struck and with South Korea not having any fixtures during the September international break, Son spent the next couple of weeks training at Hotspur Way. It proved to be a critical period, as Son worked extremely hard and took advice from Pochettino about how he needed to knuckle down and not run away from a difficult situation.

Pochettino sensed that it had been a slight trepidation in Son that had led to him turning down Southampton and initially saying no to Spurs in the summer of 2015 before completing the move late in the window.

Son clearly took Pochettino’s words on board and his hard work during that international break impressed the manager, who started him for the next game away at Stoke City. Son scored twice and set one up in a 4-0 win.

There have been dips in form since and flashes of his temper — Son was sent off three times in 2019 — but Son developed massively in the 2016-17 season, scoring 21 goals in all competitions, which surprisingly remains a personal best.

Now fully fit and willing to embrace Pochettino’s demanding methods, the Spurs coaches set about maximising Son’s obvious potential. His speed and two-footedness were obvious, so they worked on Son’s finishing and his explosiveness, putting him and Kane through drills that tested their ability to be strong enough to repeat the same shooting actions again and again.

Then it was about developing the timing of Son’s runs, to ensure he could get in the positions to make the most of his improved finishing.

“He was always working on not just his shooting but his timing of runs and finishing,” Webb remembers. “From both sides. And rarely you’re coming onto through balls straight, you’re normally coming onto the ball at an angle. So your angled finishes are sometimes a little trickier depending on the goalkeeper’s position. So he’d do a lot of that kind of stuff to try and get a more realistic sense of how you finish in those kinds of situations.

“He didn’t play as an out-and-out winger so he’d play in the half-spaces between centre-backs and full-backs, and would always be coming in slightly at an angle so he wouldn’t be going straight through two centre-halves, which means his finishes would have to have a bit more of an edge and curve to them. That obviously had to be worked on because that was how Tottenham wanted him to play, making runs beyond defenders and getting shots away.”

Son’s improved finishing was reflected in his absurd numbers from that 2016-17 season, where he scored more than double the number of goals his Premier League expected goals (xG) tally suggested he should. Son’s xG from the quality of chances that fell his way was 6.7 goals, but his lethal finishing meant he ended the campaign with 14.

Son may have doubted himself during that first season at Tottenham, but throughout his career he has always been an exceptional trainer. As his manager at Leverkusen Roger Schmidt puts it: “He would train a lot, do extra training with his dad. After training he would take a lot of shots with his left foot and right foot.”

The mention of his father and his two-footedness is important, as they are two factors that have been central to his development. Son’s coaches in Germany and at Spurs would love to claim credit for how two-footed he is, but this is something that the forward has been developing since his father started coaching Son as a child.

Son’s father Son Woong-jung is a former footballer himself but retired because of injury at 28. He then made it his mission to train up his sons Heung-min and Heung-yun, who played in the German fifth tier but is now a coach at his brother’s academy (more on that later). Woong-jung did not let his sons join a competitive team until they were teenagers, instead forcing them to partake in repetitive drills that would improve their technique. This is now the philosophy that underpins Son’s academy, based in his hometown of Chuncheon, a couple of hours east of Seoul.

One exercise, according to Heung-yun, involved the brothers having to keep the ball up in the air for four hours at a time, restarting the clock if the ball fell to the floor. The story sounds apocryphal, but Erik Thorstvedt, the former Spurs goalkeeper who visited Son’s academy last year for Norwegian channel TV3, says given the way the youngsters are trained at the academy it wouldn’t surprise him if it were true.

Son only had a couple of years playing team football in South Korea, before moving to Hamburg as a 16-year-old. And his technical grounding is best illustrated in his ability with either foot, even though his father only introduced shooting once his sons had mastered the basics of passing, dribbling and ball control.

In any case, Son’s ability to play off either foot has been a major reason in his development into an elite-level player. As the below tables illustrate, no Premier League player has registered a higher proportion of shots or goals with their wrong foot since Son joined Tottenham in 2015.

Over the last few years, Son has continued to work on his left foot, ensuring that it remains as strong as his right by staying behind after training and practising with it. Team-mates and coaches say if you watched Son shooting with his left foot, you wouldn’t know he was right-footed. Van der Vaart, who scored some spectacular goals for Spurs with his weaker right foot, says Son’s two-footedness was the quality that instantly struck him, and adds: “I think he doesn’t even know if he’s right or left-footed.”

As for his overall game, Son has developed hugely since 2016-17, even if he has not yet beaten that season’s goal tally. It’s strange to think that back then he wasn’t an automatic starter, and as late as December 2017 Pochettino had to field questions about why he remained so underrated. At this point, he was still behind Dele, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela in the pecking order.

But Son’s subsequent performances made him impossible to leave out and harder and harder to keep away from the centre of the pitch. His outstanding displays as a No 9 in Kane’s absence during the 2018-19 season helped Spurs reach the Champions League final, and made the idea of him playing on the left wing feel like a waste of his talents.

Since Mourinho has taken over, Son has started games nominally from the left wing but now plays more as an inside-forward/No 9 hybrid, with Kane dropping deep into more of a No 10 role. As the below graphic shows, Son is currently taking fewer touches than ever before and spending far less time on the flanks than in any of his previous seasons at Spurs.

And as the next graphic shows, meanwhile, this season Son is doing much less defensive work, and focusing almost exclusively on progressive passing and getting shots away.

How good has Son become? There is the argument that he is not quite at the elite level yet, which is why none of the traditional superclubs have tried to sign him. The fact that he is still prone to the odd goal drought supports this — something that would not be tolerated at a club like Bayern Munich or Real Madrid. It’s also been pointed out that it’s difficult to know if a player is mentally strong enough to play for a club with the pressure of, say, Barcelona if they are approaching 30 and have never done it.

The flipside is that a big reason no club has aggressively pursued him is that he’s always been signed to a long-term contract under a chairman who has zero intention of selling him. Manchester City for instance are understood to have held an interest but have never taken it beyond that, while in scouting circles, he is deemed good enough to play for anyone.

What seems inevitable is that Son will better his 21 personal best for goals this season, having already registered 11 in his first 14 appearances. And his improvement is such that there are those who consider Son to be even more important for the team than Kane. “He is the main player for Tottenham,” Van der Vaart says. “Yes there’s Kane but I think he’s maybe more important. With his pace he’s such a threat, he creates for himself and his team-mates and can score. When he’s not playing, I believe that is a bigger miss than when Kane’s not there. He played really well when Kane wasn’t there.”

Whichever way you fall on that debate, what is clear is that since joining Tottenham, Son has proven himself to be an elite finisher. And beyond Kane, broadening this out to look at the Premier League as a whole, the next graph shows the relationship between goals and xG for all players in the division since Son joined in 2015-16.

The diagonal guidelines indicate by how much a player has scored above/below expected goals. These are important, because they help determine the amount of under/over performance by a player irrespective of how many goals they have scored.

Take Kane for instance, the top goalscorer in the league over this timeframe. Kane has scored 106 non-penalty goals from an xG of 81.6 in this time, scoring almost 24.4 more goals than he would be expected to do given the quality of his shots, which equates to an additional 30 per cent more goals.

Son on the other hand has scored fewer — 62 non-penalty goals from 40.3 xG. As a ratio, though, he’s added 54 per cent more goals than xG suggests that he should have scored.

These guidelines help point out players who have scored more goals than expected at roughly similar rates. Notably, there’s only a handful of players who have consistently beaten their xG in recent seasons.

Focusing on this season, the table below shows that Son has stepped up another level and is averaging 1.11 goals per 90 minutes, while again substantially outscoring his xG.

“He was excellent with me at Leverkusen, and has become world-class at Tottenham,” says Schmidt.

The man

Son’s improvement on the pitch after his first season went hand in hand with him feeling more settled off it. Players coming in from different leagues often struggle early on when it comes to adapting to the new culture and way of playing, and Son was no different. More recently, record signing Ndombele suffered similar issues. Pochettino said shortly before leaving Spurs that in his mind it took new signings two years to fully settle in the Premier League. He even cited Son as an example to prove his point.

Son had been a bit shy and nervous when he first arrived at Spurs, but over time he has become one of the most important figures in the dressing room. His energy and sense of fun make him someone that everyone at the club gravitates towards. His dance moves and handshakes are well known, but within the club he is also known for his frequent, and awful, singing around Hotspur Way. It’s something his team-mates enjoy teasing him about.

As well as constantly making them laugh, Son is seen by his colleagues as someone who is always willing to help out. And reassuringly, his increased fame and reputation are not said to have changed him — despite the fact that he is hero-worshipped in his native South Korea. He still lives at home in a north London apartment with his parents, and always makes sure to stop for the Korean journalists in mixed zones who have come to matches specifically to see him. Specifically to satisfy the needs of his legion of fans who have stayed up through the night back in South Korea to watch him.

Son is friendly with everyone in the squad, especially the likes of Dele, Moussa Sissoko and Hugo Lloris. No Spurs player though has ever held as special a place in his heart as former defender Kevin Wimmer. Helped by Son speaking fluent German, the pair became inseparable and used to have their team-mates in stitches the way they would do everything together. Be it walking to the car park, turning up for meals, or going to the gym. It’s just a shame the Amazon Prime cameras weren’t there a few years ago, or the pair could have had their own spin-off series.

Son’s closest confidant though has always been his father, whose disciplined approach means the forward doesn’t socialise apart from during training and at games. But Son loves living in north London, and it’s understood to be one of the reasons he has not seriously pursued a move away from the club.

He knows as well that he is hugely valued at Tottenham. “Everybody at the club is totally in love with this player and this boy and is trying also to make him feel part of the furniture,” Mourinho said ahead of last month’s 1-0 win at Burnley when asked about Son’s new contract. Son naturally then scored the winning goal that game.

For those who knew him at the start of his career, Son blossoming into such a confident character has come as a surprise.

“I didn’t think that he had the (ability to be) really open and walk into a dressing room,” Van der Vaart says. “Never. He was a little bit shy.

“But I saw him recently and he’s totally found his place at Tottenham. Really the right club for him. Everybody loves him, I’m so happy for him.”

Son “totally finding his place” meant he has been in a strong position to make his case to Levy when it came to renegotiating his contract. Having been seen under Pochettino as someone who was easier to leave out because he wasn’t one to kick up a fuss, Son has become more assertive. He is not someone who is going to aggressively self-promote, but he knows how much he is worth.

Which thanks to his performances and marketability, is a quite considerable amount.

The brand

When it became known that Son was looking for new representation, the ears of every talent agency pricked up. A world-class athlete with an enormous following in emerging markets has the potential to open up a host of commercial opportunities. “Every big agency tried to get in touch with Son because they know he’s the David Beckham of East Asia,” says a source.

In the end it was CAA who won the race, helped by Dele speaking well of the agency to his team-mate. Mourinho is also a client but does not want to get involved in his players’ representation.

Son has held endorsement deals with brands including Gillette, Samsung, and Cartier, and his hero-like status in South Korea makes him viewed as one of the most marketable footballers in the world. His standing in his homeland is such that according to a recent study by Nielsen Fan Insights, Tottenham have become comfortably the most well-supported club in South Korea having previously held negligible appeal in the country. More than 21 per cent of those surveyed said Spurs was their favourite club, with Manchester United second with 6.1 per cent.

That Son should be so influential is not surprising — one need only visit Spurs’ training ground in normal times to see that whatever the weather and time of year, there will be Son fanatics who have made the pilgrimage over from their homeland to try and catch a glimpse of Son.

Even prior to joining Tottenham, Son’s Leverkusen team-mates were given an insight into Son-mania when they visited a shopping mall on a pre-season tour of South Korea and around 30,000 people turned up.

“He’s a national hero,” says Lee Sook-young, a South Korean journalist based in Seoul. “It’s crazy, so crazy. He’s untouchable, a really big star, he could not be bigger. Every kid learns football now.”

And in Seoul, the sports bars like Bonghwangdang (for Liverpool fans), Good Neck (Manchester United), now show Tottenham games as well.

Son’s popularity is helped by the fact that as well as being the nation’s foremost athlete, he has managed to remain connected to his homeland. In April he returned to South Korea to complete his three weeks of basic military training, and enhanced his reputation by being given the best performance award from his cohort. He was especially commended, fittingly, for his shooting skills.

That Son only had to do a basic training programme was because of an exemption earned by winning a gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games — yet another reason he is so revered.

Son is generally, in non-pandemic times, a regular visitor to South Korea. He likes to return to his home country around four times a year whenever he’s not playing to check up on his academy. Having invested almost £10 million to clear the land and create his own academy, this is not an enterprise he takes lightly.

Son’s performances have made Tottenham the best-supported club in South Korea (Photo: Getty)

Overseen by his father and with his brother as one of the coaches, the sprawling complex only allows in a small number of students and focuses on basic skills rather than team play or matches.

There is education on offer as well for the children of secondary school age. Young people from all over the country have joined the academy in the hope of becoming the next Son, and since there is no accommodation on-site it’s a requirement for families to move to the fairly remote Chuncheon. A Son museum is being built as part of the complex, and the hope is that the academy will allow young South Koreans to move to a European club like their hero did back in 2008.

A supplementary point to Son’s huge popularity in his homeland is whether this has much of a commercial benefit to Tottenham. Of course this wasn’t a factor in Spurs looking to renew his contract, but it is a question that has been raised when considering Son’s value to the club.

By way of an answer, Marco Nazzari, Managing Director of International at Nielsen Sports, explains: “Son’s popularity brings access to a large, growing and engaged audience of football fans not just in South Korea but more broadly in Asia.

“Spurs can capitalise on this popularity through insights into their fanbase and engagements with Son across social channels. A clear understanding of the athlete’s total value provides the club leverage during negotiations for new and existing deals involving sponsorship, licensing and merchandising. This leverage enables them to extract maximum market value under the best possible terms.”

Typically it’s been shirt sales that have been proffered as a way of making big money in Asian markets, but this is seen as an increasingly outdated strategy. For a start clothes manufacturers take much of the profit, and as Simon Chadwick, professor of Eurasian sports at Emlyon business school, explains, in many East Asian countries, the majority of Spurs’ target audience simply don’t buy football shirts. He points to what Manchester United are doing in China as an example of clubs moving away from the trying to sell shirts model.

“Manchester United have been opening up a whole series of experience centres in China, including one located in a fashionable part of Beijing, very close to Tiananmen Square,” professor Chadwick explains. “There’s a Starbucks roastery where you pay $10 (£7.75) for a cup of coffee, there’s a Muji hotel which is ultra, ultra cool and then there’s a Manchester United experience centre that’s part of this development. So what United’s figured out is that lifestyle and status and middle-class spending power is really important in China, meaning people don’t buy football shirts.”

Essentially then, the key to Spurs capitalising on having such a popular player as Son will be how sophisticated their commercial approach in different Asian markets is (while bearing in mind that each market is very distinct). Fortunately, they have some good form in this area.

Spurs have typically focused on China when looking for commercial opportunities in Asia, and as far back as 2009 joined up with Coventry University in a British Council project that involved visits to China and Thailand to foster improved business understanding between the countries. Professor Chadwick, at Coventry University at the time, went on the trips and was impressed by Spurs’ willingness to try and properly understand foreign markets. “I do commend and praise Tottenham for the way in which it uses a research-driven approach and engages with overseas markets,” he says. On one of the trips Chadwick went on, club representatives even joined up with Spurs fans at a Tottenham Hotspur Beijing supporters club meeting, realising how important it is to engage with fans on a personal level.

In the case of Son, though, Spurs may well find that any benefit is only really in the short term, with supporters increasingly following an individual player rather than a team. Meaning that when Son leaves the club, many South Koreans who were previously Spurs fans will either start following whoever he moves to or focus their attention on the next most talented of his compatriots.

“There is an emerging trend among football fans globally but particularly in East Asia and with younger Generation Z and Millennial fans, where engagement with a player is not necessarily the prelude to engagement with a team,” Professor Chadwick explains. “What we’re instead seeing is that fans are following players, not clubs. In Britain something similar is happening where there are a lot of young fans who love (Kylian) Mbappe, they don’t care about Paris Saint-Germain, they just love Mbappe.”

The growth of gaming, and especially the hugely popular Ultimate Team mode on the behemoth FIFA series where you build up a squad with players from all over the world, has added to this sense of allegiance more towards individuals than teams.

More broadly it remains hard to quantify the value of a supporter — be they in Seoul or Southend. There are many “fans” who contribute nothing financially to their club in terms of buying match tickets or merchandise, but may do so in less lucrative, less quantifiable ways by, say, retweeting a team’s social media content. Many of you reading this may not actually directly contribute much financially to the teams you support.

None of which is a concern to Son, who only stands to benefit from supporters identifying more with players than with clubs.

Given Son is 28 and unlikely to be able to command a mega transfer fee by the time he turns 30, Spurs offering such a lucrative, long-term deal could be seen as a risk.

But given his recent performances and improvement over the last few years, it will likely end up being viewed as a shrewd investment.

Since his unhappy period in 2016, Son has become one of the most important, respected and liked players at the club, and in the Premier League as a whole.

If his current trajectory continues, the next few years will be even better — starting on Sunday perhaps.