THE Premier League’s smiling assassin claimed his latest victim with typically ruthless efficiency last weekend. With barely enough time to draw back his left foot as the ball ricocheted his way after a blocked Harry Kane effort, Son Heung-min lashed home the game’s opening goal at Villa Park, a third-minute strike that would spark a hat-trick.
In the second half, an intelligent and well-scouted flick of Kane’s head sent Son clear through on goal. Once again the South Korean dispatched the chance presented to him with unerring directness; one right-footed touch knocked the ball into his stride, then a left-footed blast put Tottenham up 3-0.
Finally, in the 71st minute, his treble was completed when he connected with a Dejan Kulusevski cut-back, sweeping into the corner this time with his right foot.
His destruction of Aston Villa took the Spurs forward’s Premier League tally for the season to 17, a mark only bettered by Mohamed Salah. And for the consistency of his play and the comprehensiveness of his technical skillset, it’s time for Son to be considered in the same category as Liverpool’s Ballon d’Or-contending superstar.
“For me, Sonny is an important player,” Tottenham boss Antonio Conte said recently. “a player who can move a result in the end. It can happen that a player can be in not the best form or a period that he’s not playing so well, because we’re talking a player who plays every game, but for me, he is playing well and that doesn’t depend if a player scores a goal or not.
“It’s about their performance totally. Sonny is a player in my thoughts and in my plan and that’s also for his commitment. So he has to start. I don’t have an idea to drop him. Honestly, no. It doesn’t happen. I’m not crazy to do something like this.”
Conte’s faith in Son is well placed. The 29-year-old appears to have taken another developmental leap this season. Already among one of Tottenham’s most important players and of Europe’s most well-rounded attackers, his goal threat has sky-rocketed.
He has already matched his goals return from last season, doing so in nine fewer games. More than simply a hot streak of finishing, his productivity is backed up by sustainability – his average for expected goals per 90 minutes has risen from 0.3 last term to 0.45.
And he has done so without sacrificing his creative output. Son has registered six assists for the campaign so far, just four shy of his return of 10 from 2020-21. His per-90 average for expected assists has remained steady, tracking at 0.26, the exact same as last season.
Conversely, Kane is on course to finish with his lowest goals return in the league since his breakthrough as a first-team regular in north London. Son has stepped up to fill the shortfall.
“We’ve being playing with each now for a long, long time. We just understand each other’s games well,” Kane said of his on-field relationship with Son, which has seen the pair assist each other more often than any other strike duo in Premier League history.
“When I drop deep, Sonny knows where to run and hopefully I’m able to put him in.”
And since January, the deadly duo has become a terrifying trio. Kulusevski arrived from Juventus mid-season to form the perfect complement to Kane and Son. The 21-year-old winger has scored three goals and provided six assists in just 11 league appearances.
Conte’s side’s run of four straight victories – and six wins from their last seven games – has seen them climb above Champions League-chasing rivals Arsenal and Manchester United into fourth place.
Tottenham’s ascent into the top four, as they charge towards a likely return to Europe’s top table for the first time in three years, can largely be attributed to the form of their front three. And while Kane might still be the headline act, Son – who has notched six goals and an assist in the last three games – has emerged as the true star.
On an individual level, Salah has separated himself as the Premier League’s – and perhaps even the world’s – finest player this season, topping both the goals and assists charts. But the Liverpool man’s form has dipped of late, with just one goal – and a penalty at that – in his last nine all-competitions games. If Son’s hot streak holds, he might yet catch Salah in the race for the Golden Boot.
For the unassuming South Korean, a top-four berth with Spurs will be reward enough for a fine season’s work, but as the players and writers pondering their end-of-season awards ballots consider their options, Son is worthy of recognition.