Studying Son Heung-min’s collapse in form shows Spurs miss more than just his goals

Just a few months ago, Son Heung-min was one of the most prolific strikers in European football.

He scored 23 goals in 2021-22 to share the Premier League Golden Boot with Mohamed Salah, scoring twice away to Norwich on the final day of the season to become the first Asian footballer to win the award.

Fast forward to the final days of 2022 and Son is experiencing his worst ever season in terms of goals, with 0.24 goals per 90 minutes, the lowest since his senior career began with Hamburg in October 2010.

Son has only scored in two of his 24 games for club and country since the season started in August.

When he has, it tends to be spectacular, with the two games in which he hit five goals – a quickfire hat-trick off the bench against Leicester in a 6-2 win for Tottenham Hotspur in September and then two Eintracht Frankfurt was. beaten 3-2 in the Champions League a month later.

Otherwise, it has been a season of drought for a player who was so key to Spurs claiming a top four finish last term.

Despite their most prolific player from last season struggling to find the target, as a team, Tottenham haven’t actually found goals too hard to come by.

They are the third top scorers in the league with 33 in 16 games, helped by the metronome of consistency Harry Kane who has netted 13 times while playing in every game, while midfielders Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (four each) thrive best . and joint best goalscoring seasons in their senior league careers.

If Spurs, currently in the fourth and final Champions League qualifying spot, are to retain a top-four spot, they will surely need Son to start scoring (as will Richarlison, who is yet to contribute a Premier League). goals from the 10 appearances, five of them starts, he has made since his £60m move from Everton last summer).

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So, what’s wrong with Son?

Well, it’s been a pretty relentless few years for a player who has now turned 30, and he didn’t exactly get much of a break this summer, playing every minute of four South Korea friendlies from June 2-14 and then joined. Pre-season action for Spurs in their home country on 13 July.

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However, any notion that Son’s poor early-season form might be a result of him conserving energy for the World Cup kick-off on November 20 was dispelled by what happened in Qatar, where his performances were similar to those seen in Spurs colours.

He sometimes looked half a meter off the pace and his finishes were generally tame. He produced one moment of brilliance when he raced forward in the final seconds of a must-win group final against Portugal, before deftly beating Hwang Hee-chan for the most dramatic of winners. But that was about it. In the round of 16 against Brazil three days later, Son was powerless to prevent a 4–1 loss and bowed out of the tournament without a goal.

To compensate, he had entered the tournament recovering from a fractured eye socket against Marseille at the start of November, but in terms of fitness, the three-week break would not have made much of a difference.

At Tottenham, his numbers are down across the board, not just for goalscoring.

As well as his current goals per 90 being the lowest of his senior career, his assists per 90 are (0.16) his worst since 0.08 in his debut season with Spurs in 2015-16. His completion rate (69.1 per cent) and per-90 figures for successful dribbles (0.9), passes received (27.7) and loose balls recovered (2.5) are all at their lowest levels since moving to the White Hart Lane from German Bayer Leverkusen.

And they matter, especially dribbles and rebounds.

His dribble numbers have previously been as high as 2.3 per game (2017-18 and 2019-20) and his rebounds have averaged at least four per 90 over the last four consecutive completed seasons.

The data reflects the eye test — Son doesn’t snap away and press defenders deep into their own territory, he doesn’t tackle players or gallop through the final third like he used to, he gives the ball away more, he looks less likely to score a goal or set one up.

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Conversely, he is registering more attempts at goal (3.2 per 90) than in all but one season since his first with Tottenham, and he is putting more of those shots on target per 90 (1.5) than at any point in his Premier League career.

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His expected goals (xG) and assist numbers are also pretty in line with what we’ve seen before.

Son has an xG per 90 minutes this season of 0.29 (in three of the previous four seasons his number for this metric has ranged from 0.28 to 0.33), and it’s a similar story with his expected assists (which is 0.22 so far in 2022-23 and hasn’t been higher than 0.25 for any of the last seven seasons with the Spurs).

The problem is that he doesn’t outperform his xG like he has in the past.

The South Korea captain has earned a reputation for being a clinical, lethal finisher; especially on the counterattack.

This graphic from last season showed how Son had outperformed his xG year after year – never more so than in the Golden Boot-winning 2021-22 campaign.

This season has been the first in which Son has underperformed on xG, with his three league goals from an expected goal of 3.62.

His goals and assists total of five after 14 league games this season is far lower than his total after 14 games in each of the previous four Premier League seasons:

Son’s goal + assist after 14 PL games






















It doesn’t help that Spurs are the worst team in the top flight for falling behind in games.

They have conceded the first goal in their last six games in the league and nine in a row in all competitions.

It invites opponents to sit back and protect their lead, meaning fewer counterattacks for Tottenham, who have to play higher up the pitch with the ball as they try to break opponents down.

A classic Son goal would be to latch on to a through ball, probably from Kane, advance towards goal and poke it past the ‘keeper. He has done it time and time again.

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Three of the five goals he has scored this season have come via this route – ie receiving a pass either outside the last line of defense or directly in front of it.

Here he first took Kane’s pass when he got the equalizer at home against Frankfurt.

This was his first touch for the first goal of the hat-trick against Leicester, where he proceeded to sprint into the box and beat Danny Ward in the goal…

…and here he took a pass for his third in the same game.

In each example we can see that there was a lot of lane for him to run into and get defenders back.

The Boxing Day draw away to Brentford was a typical example of Spurs’ recent games – conceding the first goal fairly early on and then spending the rest of the game trying to play through a deep-lying defence. Which is not necessarily Son’s specialty.

His three shots in the game all came from outside the box.

Here he has a turn with his left foot…

…and again here on the left side in the dying seconds. Each attempt was quite comfortably saved by David Raya.

“No player cannot be released,” Tottenham head coach Antonio Conte said in September when asked about Son’s early season form.

Earlier in the year he has had described Son as impossible to drop, but after that quote, Conte effectively left him out of the side.

Injuries to Richarlison and Dejan Kulusevski have meant that Son has basically had to play at times, but when the Brazilian returns next month from a hamstring problem, his place must be vulnerable unless he can rediscover more than just the important scoring. but also the all-round game that made him one of the best strikers in the Premier League and the player who has won the Spurs fans’ player of the year award in three of the last four seasons.

And that version of Son seems pretty distant right now.

(Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)


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