1. Son Heung-Min (Last Year: 6)
Tottenham Hotspur (ENG) / South Korea / Striker
Words by Tom Danicek
Last year, I christened Ki Sung-yueng the “European jewel of Asian football”, labelling Son Heung-min as its “darling” in the process. Since then, Son’s position has shifted somewhat: while he remains the poster boy he’s naturally suited to embody, his actual performances across 2016 more or less match his charm.
To fully appreciate Son Heung-min, one must first grant him some sort of exemption; something many – including yours truly (and the army, ha!) – have struggled with. He is fundamentally a “luxury player”. To consider Son a top class player, you simply need to overlook certain shortcomings – his lacking physicality, his tendency to blow hot and cold, and his little use inside his own half.
However, while there will always be shades of this and that, you simply cannot say he’s not trying to correct himself.
It doesn’t seem so anymore, as though a frustrated Son offers nothing bar wasteful long-distance shooting, unpurposeful dribbling and mishandled passes. While there are still well-articulated critics of his oft-brutal oscillation between utter brilliance and the exact opposite, it’s fair to say his cold streaks used to be a rather different, more complex nightmare.
That’s obviously not to say he hasn’t had his lowlights in 2016, the Olympics quarter-final vs Honduras being his most disappointing. With the best shot for military exemption yet on the line, Son’s finishing was simply horrendous and he could’ve been easily blamed for that weird defeat first and foremost, as he squandered two fantastic chances. However, on another occasion, the Olympics also attested his growing maturity; against Germany, for example, Son took on a more disciplined, creative role in which he nevertheless stood out.
On this matter, I have asked some prominent South Korean football experts to give me their perspective on Son’s progress over the years, and their answers somewhat encouragingly differed – highlighting the sometimes understated complexity of Son Heung-min the Player. One careful observer has noted his rising fitness levels, or greater endurance; Tim Lee has noticed Son is now more convincing with his take-ons; and Jun (along with others) stresses that he’s clearly worked on his off the ball movement.
This context is, arguably, the one thing that leads some people to undersell Son as a lazy player who doesn’t track back and sometimes switches off for longer periods; or rather to reduce his profile. The more accurate assessment, meanwhile, would be a description of someone who definitely works on improving himself but knows a limited scope while doing so.
If Pochettino doesn’t turn him into a two-way winger, no one ever will. But the main question is: do we really need him to be one in order to rate him as a top drawer difference-maker? For all his periodical criticism throughout 2016, Son has arguably been Spurs’ best performer in the early weeks of 2017, equalizing against Man City in the league and single-handedly refusing a shocking FA Cup exit via two goals vs Wycombe.
And in a South Korean jersey, too, there appears to be greater consistency to his performances lately. While he was admittedly awful against Uzbekistan in the most recent qualifier, having no clue whatsoever how to deal with a deeper sitting, CB-turned-RB marker, Son was excellent vs China earlier in September (two assists) and scored the crucial winner against Qatar in another crazy, high-scoring affair from the following month.
When you consider all this occurred in the middle of a full-blown crisis surrounding manager Uli Stielike, which Ki Sung-yueng notably hasn’t handled well at all, Son Heung-min deserves some huge credit.
Highlight of the Year – Becoming the first Asian to claim Premier League’s Player of the Month award
One would forgive him if he returned to North London with his tail between the legs after that crushing end to the Olympics campaign, but Son Heung-min preferred a different kind of comeback altogether – shining ever so brightly right from the offset. First Premier League start, first league brace in a Tottenham shirt. Then another trip two weeks later, one more pair of goals. And in the end, a well-deserved September POTM award, given to him as only the second AFC zone representative after Mark Schwarzer (February 2010).
Overall, Son’s productivity on the club level is a highlight of his year in itself. To date, he’s still the only Tottenham player to score in Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League over the course of this season. And by January 8, he would already accumulate as many competitive goals (8) as he had at the end of the last season. As of now, he’s on eleven strikes – poised to set his new career high (17; 2014/15).