John Duerden on the pressure facing the Tottenham star as the spearhead of an unspectacular Korean side.
The South Korean city of Chuncheon is well-known around certain parts of Asia for two reasons. It is the home of the spicy chicken dish called ‘Dak Galbi’ that can these days be eaten at restaurants all over East and Southeast Asia. It is one of those great Korean dishes that you cook yourself. Also, it is where the hit drama ‘Winter Sonata’ was filmed. It is a pleasant part of the world.
It is also the hometown of Son Heung-min, a place where he returns whenever he can, not least to help out at his father’s football academy. Fans in Korea will be hoping that he does not have too much time to head back to the lake city this summer as he will be spending much of the summer in Russia.
Son’s stay in Brazil four years ago was all too short as the Taeguk Warriors struggled to collect just a single point from three games. In 2014, he was only 21 and still perhaps the team’s best performer at a dismal World Cup.
The youngster returned home to be showered with a hail of ‘yeot’, traditional Korean sweets and a traditional greeting for a returning team that has underperformed. All knew that they were not aimed at Son but it was still an unpleasant experience.
— SPURSTORIES (@SPURSTORIES) May 28, 2018
No other player in Asia has as much written about him as Son, both inside and outside his homeland. The general consensus in the Land of the Morning Calm is that if Korea is to have any chance of getting out of a tough group containing Germany, Sweden and Mexico then it is all down to Son – if he plays well, it can happen. If not, then it won’t. The pressure that every big player welcomes is in danger of becoming too big and all-pervasive.
Korea don’t have many players that will scare defenders but Son is one. At the moment, perhaps the only one. The pressure on the star has only increased since the injury to Kwon Chang-hoon on the final day of the French season in May. Kwon had scored 11 goals from midfield for mid-table Dijon and was looking red-hot and there was a feeling that he was going to have a great World Cup.
Now Kwon is gone and even more hopes are gathering around the head of the main man like a fried egg on bibimbap. This looks to be affecting his play which is not a surprise given the months of conversation about his role in the team. Against Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 1, the forward was trying to do everything himself: shooting when there were better options, dribbling when there were better options, not passing… well, you get the idea. Son is best when he follows his instincts. When he is not doing so then his effectiveness can be much reduced.
Korea are likely to adopt a formation that Shin believes will get the best out of Son and that is 4-4-2. He has also talked to Son’s boss at Tottenham, Mauricio Pochettino, about ways to get the best out of the player.
The formation may suit Son but the quality that surrounds him for country doesn’t match that of his club even if there is not much Shin can do about that. The 25-year-old scored 18 times this season for Spurs and has continued to show what a talent he is. Yet that has often not been the case for his country.
🗣What the @FIFAWorldCup means to me.
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) June 4, 2018
At various times over the years in the red shirt of Korea, the former Bayer Leverkusen man has been on the wing, played as a lone striker and also started behind the number nine. There have been flashes of what he can do but nothing consistent – hardly a criticism given that Korea have been hit and miss for a number of years now.
Son can’t do it on his own and others have to step forward to help relieve some of the burden. Youngsters like Lee Seung-woo and Hwang Hee-chan can make a real name for themselves. Lee Jae-sung has been the best player in the K-League for the past two years and Ki Sung-yueng has to be the leader on the pitch. It is to be hoped that Ki is not fielded too deep and can use his wide passing range to give Son, and the others, the service they need.
Son Heung-min is Korea’s star player and there is nothing wrong with saying that, but while he has to show that he can transfer club form to country, it is not as simple as that. He needs help.