Nuno Espirito Santo did few things right in his doomed spell as Tottenham Hotspur's head coach, although there was at least one quote that will surely stand the test of time. “Sonny knows the game,” said Nuno at the start of this season. “He is a killer.”
Killer? It might not be the word that immediately springs to mind when most people think of Son Heung-min. With his boyish charm and enthusiastic approach to life, the Tottenham forward is often perceived as one of the league’s more angelic and inoffensive players.
Appearances can be deceiving, though, and there is a ruthless edge to Son that does not go unnoticed by those within the sport. Just ask Arsenal defenders Rob Holding and Cedric Soares, who fell so foolishly into the traps laid by Son during Thursday’s drubbing at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
If Son’s season so far has been defined by his deadly finishing off either foot, then this was a night for him to display the more cynical side of his game. First he suckered Holding into committing repeated fouls near the touchline, then he won the first-half penalty after feeling a nudge from Cedric, and then he prompted Holding’s red card. After the dirty work was done, he joyfully converted Tottenham’s third goal of the night.
In the midst of it all, Son even found the time to thrust a sneaky elbow into Holding’s throat as they tussled on the floor. It was the sort of move that would have landed a less subtle player in serious trouble, but Son is usually wise enough to creep up to the line without crossing it. As Nuno said in August, the South Korean knows the game.
It is a simple reality of football, surely the world’s most competitive industry, that one does not reach the very top without having a merciless streak. Son is a hugely popular and generous figure behind the scenes at Tottenham but on the pitch he is as driven as anyone to win, both as a team and on an individual level.
This could be seen in his reaction to being substituted on Thursday night. Son was visibly furious, despite his team’s comfort in the game, no doubt because he knew more goals were on offer as he chases down Mohamed Salah in the race for the Premier League’s golden boot. “I am not angry,” Son said afterwards. “Just disappointed.”
Salah is similarly focused on his personal goals tally, and has produced similar reactions to being substituted by Jurgen Klopp. This is the drive that so many top strikers possess, and Son is certainly among them: he has 21 goals in 33 league games this season, only one fewer than Salah.
It is a measure of Son’s approach that he has earned the full faith of both Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte in the last few seasons. Mourinho and Conte do not tolerate players without the requisite ruthlessness, and in Son they found a player who has become a master of some of the game’s darker arts.
This is not to say that the 29-year-old is never caught out. Earlier this season he prompted ridicule by collapsing to the turf after West Ham United’s Kurt Zouma had kicked the ball at the back of his leg. In a match against Bournemouth in 2019, Son was shown red after throwing Jefferson Lerma to the floor off the ball.
Generally speaking, though, Son treads carefully. Just as there is a skill to smashing the ball into the back of the net, there is also a skill to manipulating the little moments that can ultimately lead to substantial victories.
Holding, in particular, was made to look painfully naive by Son’s brand of sly cunning, and one can only imagine how the Arsenal defender felt as his opponent wheeled away, that wide grin etched on his face, after scoring yet another goal. The famous smile and superb finishing are the images that most people associate with Son, but Thursday’s derby was a reminder that there is far more to the game of one of the Premier League’s most effective players.