Son Heung-min: Tottenham's Mr Reliable turns focus to leading South Korea's World Cup bid

Spurs forward just as important to his national team as he is to his club as Korea face the UAE in Thursday's qualifier

Son Heung-min knows how to make a good first impression. In the last two years, he has served under five different managers at Tottenham Hotspur. Each new one has been immediately comforted by knowing that though the boss may change, the high-class Korean will deliver.

Back in 2019, when Jose Mourinho was Spurs’ surprise choice to replace the sacked Mauricio Pochettino, Son broke the ice, first Spurs goalscorer of the ill-fated Mourinho era. When Ryan Mason took over as caretaker on Mourinho’s dismissal in February, Son converted the late penalty that gave Mason a win in his first fixture in charge.

Enter Nuno Espirito Santo back in August. He was welcomed into the job with a stunning opening-day Premier League victory against Manchester City, thanks to Son’s ambitious strike from distance. Antonio Conte knew the script when he named a Spurs XI for the first time as successor to the short-lived Nuno. Last Thursday, Son put Tottenham 1-0 up in the Europa Conference League meeting with Vitesse Arnhem that lurched one way then another towards a 3-2 Spurs win.

All of which reminds how important the South Korea captain, chief threat to the UAE in Thursday's World Cup qualifier in Goyang, is to his club, and how, whatever Spurs’ shifting tastes in manager or coaching style, Son is blessing, trusted by whoever mans the touchline or assesses values in the boardroom.

He signed a new, four-year Tottenham contract in July, at precisely the time the Spurs captain Harry Kane was telling the club he wanted to leave and when various prospective managers, higher than Nuno on the shortlist, had been turning Spurs down.

The new deal held the promise of more goals in key games, and, as it turned down, once Kane stayed, more time to finesse what has for periods been a brilliantly effective partnership, Son’s pace and generosity as a foil complementing the finishing instincts and the eye for a pass of Kane, Spurs’ leading man.

This time last year, under Mourinho, their complicity was as fine-tuned as any pair of attacking teammates in world football: in Tottenham’s first 11 games of the 2020-21 league season, 11 goals were set up by Son and scored by Kane, or assisted by Kane and finished by Son, and Tottenham were top of the table in England.

Fast forward 12 months and it’s a partnership in need of repairs. From the last days of Nuno’s tenure and the first 90 minutes of Conte as Spurs’s Premier League manager emerges an alarming statistic. Tottenham’s dynamic duo have not registered a shot on target for four hours of league action. Nor has any other Spurs player, but inevitably, after the goalless draw at Everton on Sunday, analysis focused on the shortcomings of Kane and Son.

UAE train ahead of South Korea clash

Colleagues speak highly of Son’s positive outlook, and over his 11-hour flight from London to Seoul to join up with the national team, who sit second in Group A - two places and five points above the UAE - he refocused on Korea’s World Cup campaign. As ever, he is expected to spearhead the push for the points that would maintain their route to automatic qualification. Ahead of Thursday, he has been told that, even more than usual, the emphasis will be on him to supply the cutting edge.

Son, who typically starts from wide left position, is without some trusted allies up front. Hwang Ui-Jo, of Bordeaux, is absent with a hamstring injury. In his place, Korea’s coach Paulo Bento has called up the uncapped Kim Gun-hee, recently recovered from injury and without a goal in the K-League for his club, Suwon Bluewings, since May.

The early-season form of Hwang Hee-chan, who has four Premier League goals for Wolverhampton Wanderers since he joined them on loan from RB Leipzig in the summer, is some encouragement for Bento, who emphasised the importance of containing UAE. “They’re a side who are going to demand a lot of us defensively,” he said. “They work very effectively going forward.”

If that suggested Bento will look to Korea’s counter-attacking strengths, then it would be in keeping with the Portuguese coach’s instincts, and his trust in his captain. Thanks to a breakaway goal from Son, the Koreans earned a 1-1 draw with group-leaders Iran last month.

Thanks to an 89th minute Son match-winner five days earlier, they avoided a slip-up at home to Syria. Without their skipper and lodestar, the World Cup campaign would by now be playing catch-up.

Updated: November 10th 2021, 2:58 AM