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EPL TALK: Tottenham can’t keep relying on Son Heung-min to power them on for Champions League qualification

Ange-Ball needs more than indefatigable South Korean to succeed, even as Spurs captain bails his teammates out with another winner

Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-Min greets a young pitch invader at the end of their English Premier League match against Luton Town.
Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-Min greets a young pitch invader at the end of their English Premier League match against Luton Town. (PHOTO: Ben Stansall/AFP)

THE post-match pitch invader only had one player in mind. At times, it felt like there was only one player on the pitch, inside the stadium and around the club shop. All eyes, as always, were on Son Heung-min.

The prepubescent boy initially evaded a chasing steward, displaying a nimble dexterity that was often beyond Son’s Tottenham team-mates, before the urchin was finally caught. The crowd booed. Son smiled and waved the kid over. The cheeky pitch invader got his hug with the South Korean. He wasn’t interested in anyone else.

Nor were the hundreds of South Koreans who took their seats in the Tottenham Hotspur stadium a full two hours before kick-off, in the hope of a bit of eye contact and a wave when Son took his customary pre-match walk around the turf. They were rewarded with both, thanks to their countryman’s generosity.

And Spurs got away with three points against Luton Town, thanks to their captain’s tenacity. Tottenham enjoyed almost 70 per cent possession, but rarely convinced in the spring sunshine. Fatigue was a factor for their returning superstars after the international break, as it was for Son. But he scored the 86th-minute winner anyway, calling upon those Herculean reserves to find that extra yard, that tiny space and the back of that net, the one beneath the golden cockerel, to pinch a scarcely deserved victory.

Ange-Ball depends upon a rested and refreshed skipper to thrive. Son was neither. And still the 31-year-old exceeded expectations to keep Spurs’ Champions League hopes alive.

“Irrespective of opposition or whatever game it is, he has this really high level of expectation on himself to be the best he can be all the time,” Ange Postecoglou said in his post-match interview. “It’s very hard to be like that.”

Yes, it is. But the Tottenham manager continues to rely on his finite resource anyway, a common theme throughout the club. During a stadium tour, a guide proudly claimed that 70 per cent of all jerseys sold in Spurs’ superstore have Son’s name on the back. Hundreds of South Koreans take the stadium tour. Every day. Like the impudent pitch invader, these visitors are only interested in one player. The name on the back of the jersey is arguably shouldering too much responsibility for the name on the front.

Against Luton, Son was clearly flagging after his midweek, goal-scoring efforts for South Korea in Thailand. But he rallied himself anyway with his 15th goal of the English Premier League season. He’s now fifth on Tottenham’s all-time list with 160 goals, moving ahead of 1961 double-winner Cliff Jones. If he’s not quite carrying the club, he’s doing a decent impression.

Tottenham's Timo Werner holds his head in disbelief after missing a chance during their English Premier League match against Luton Town.
Tottenham's Timo Werner holds his head in disbelief after missing a chance during their English Premier League match against Luton Town. (PHOTO: Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images)

Other Spurs players have to share Son's burden

When he sat down with me at an AIA Singapore event two days before the game, Son stressed the internal pressure that pushes him to be the perfect player, essentially burdening himself with the most tigerish expectations and he certainly defied his weary body to deliver for Tottenham. But these demands could be more evenly distributed.

Son’s attacking colleague, Timo Werner, somehow managed to miss the target with the goal gaping against Luton. He also conceded possession a little too easily for a frustrated Postecoglou.

James Maddison was taken off after a leggy display and Richarlison delivered another of his rather theatrical cameos, with plenty of fist-pumping but less of an end product.

Pape Matar Sarr faded, Yves Bissouma ran out of steam and Tottenham’s full-backs struggled to penetrate the disciplined Hatters, who were unlucky to leave North London without a point at least. The international break presumably affected most of the hosts, but Son was expected to go beyond once more, as if the usual rules of fatigue do not apply.

To a degree, they do not. Son is an exceptional case. He accepts his additional responsibilities without complaint, but he shouldn’t have to. Postecoglou needs a Plan B of sorts, an alternative outlet to the Duracell Bunny currently leading his line, dropping behind the line, drifting wide of the line and you get the general idea. Son was everywhere against Luton because others were going nowhere. It’s not a sustainable solution.

Ange-Ball requires more from Maddison, Dejan Kulusevski and the baffling Werner if it is to sustain its attacking impetus in the coming weeks.

Son barely had the energy to celebrate his winner before being substituted to a standing ovation. He practically flopped into his manager’s arms. Postecoglou’s bearhug offered a temporary refuge, which seemed fair. He propped up Son. Son had just propped up Tottenham. Again.

A tired wave was offered to the fluttering South Korean flags above the dugout and that was it. Son was spent.

Only he wasn’t. There was still more to give. After the final whistle, there were pitch invaders to embrace and visiting countrymen and women to recognise. Son acknowledged all four sides of the stadium. He was the last Spurs player to leave the field. As the sun set over the stand, he was still out there, alone, railing against the dying of the light.

Outside the stadium, he was no less omnipresent. There were more Son shirts to buy, more selfies to take beside the Son banners, more reasons to be cheerful after a largely cheerless game. Tottenham’s tireless leader continues to take care of business, in every sense, but he could do with a little help from his friends.

Tottenham’s tireless leader continues to take care of business, in every sense, but he could do with a little help from his friends.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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