Son rising to celebrated status in Premier League
By STEVE DOUGLAS
He's the humble Tottenham attacker in the form of his life, breaking records in the Premier League and helping to carry his nation's hopes heading into the World Cup.
Son Heung-min might operate in the shadow of Harry Kane at the London club - after all, who doesn't? - but there is a growing appreciation of the artistry and end product of the South Korean and he is establishing himself as one of the best forwards in English soccer.
Son's statistics speak for themselves: He's scored in seven of Tottenham's last 11 games; he's either scored or assisted 10 of his team's league-high 24 goals since the start of December; with eight league goals, he has netted more than Alexis Sanchez, Eden Hazard and Riyad Mahrez - three of the league's most celebrated forwards.
Just as significantly for Son, he's a regular starter for his club, becoming as important to Tottenham's attacking unit as Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli.
"Maybe when you play next to a player like Harry Kane, who is every week breaking records, it's difficult to be focusing on another player," Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino said. "But us, as a coaching staff, we gave and are going to give credit that he deserves."
Records and awards are starting to stack up for Son, like never before for an Asian player in the world's most popular soccer league. With 26 goals, he is easily the most prolific Asian scorer in Premier League history (compatriot Park Ji-sung is his closest challenger with 19) and he became the highest-scoring South Korean in a single European campaign by netting 21 goals in all competitions last season.
He is the only Asian to win the league's player of the month award twice, and he recently won the International Asian Player of the Year award. In addition, he has scored in five straight home games for Tottenham, matching the club record of Jermain Defoe.
"Of course, I want more, like Harry Kane," Son said this week, part of which he spent in Barcelona where Tottenham's squad went for warm-weather training ahead of Sunday's league match at Southampton. "He beats every record and I want to beat every record as well."
Pochettino might have played a key role in adding that determination and single-mindedness to Son's character.
Back in the summer of 2016, the forward contemplated leaving Tottenham after his first season in England. He wasn't playing regularly - he had four goals in 28 appearances in all competitions - and there was an offer to return to Germany, having left Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen to join Spurs for a reported 18 million pounds (then $28 million). He was previously at Hamburg.
Pochettino convinced him to stay. Now, he's starring in the Premier League every week and is among the most recognizable sportsmen in Asia.
The millions from the continent who tune into matches from England's top flight each week will have been impressed by Son's man-of-the-match display last weekend, when Tottenham beat Everton 4-0 at Wembley Stadium.
One moment stands out - a spin as he received the ball that completely befuddled marker Jonjoe Kenny, allowing Son to race forward and set up Kane for his second goal of the game.
On his arrival at Tottenham in August 2015, Son pledged to be "bold and daring". He is staying true to his word.
He is playing as a left winger in a 4-2-3-1 system, but can move inside as a support striker if Pochettino switches to 3-4-2-1. Much to summer signing Fernando Llorente's displeasure, Son could now be considered as the preferred backup to Kane if the England international is absent.
The 25-year-old forward heads to the World Cup in Russia as one of South Korea's most important players. Just as much would be expected of him - if he plays - at the Asian Games in August-September, which assumes added importance because a gold medal there means players will be exempt from the country's mandatory 21-month military service that all able-bodied males must begin before they turn 28.
For Son, it promises to be a memorable year.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80
Updated January 18, 2018