A number of reports have Spurs making a sizable bid to sign South Korean international and Bayer Leverkusen winger Heung-Min Son:
Kicker confirm that Heung-Min Son is in London right now to undergo a medical at Spurs. Reliable source.
— Daniel Busch (@dan_bu) August 26, 2015
Predictably enough many Spurs fans (most of whom I’d wager don’t watch the Bundesliga) have dismissed the move, saying the price is far too high and calling Son a Dempsey-like panic buy as the window closes and the Berahino deal appears to be no closer to resolution. This is an almost entirely mistaken reaction, although I do suspect that in an ideal world Spurs would still sign Berahino and would also sell Lamela, making Son a Lamela replacement rather than a Berahino Plan B.
Tottenham haven’t had a credible inside forward with pace during the Pochettino era.
Mauricio Pochettino’s system thrives on fast attacking moves played out of transition situations. When the ball is between possession (usually due to aggressive high pressing of the ball by Spurs) Pochettino wants a wide attacker making an aggressive, vertical run at the heart of the opposition defense. The idea is that there should only be a couple passes made from when his team wins the ball to win the shot is attempted. The ideal Pochettino goal is something like this strike from Nacer Chadli in last season’s first North London Derby:
However, the enduring problem for Spurs throughout Pochettino’s tenure has been the lack of a player who can consistently make the sort of runs needed to be in position to get the kind of aggressive through balls that Pochettino wants his team to play. Nacer Chadli is the closest Spurs have to that right now and, to be sure, he did some great things for the club last season. It’s a funny thing that he may well end up being the best of the Bale 7 before all is said and done at the Lane.
That said, Chadli doesn’t quite have the pace you want for a player in that inside forward role. He’s a reasonable enough finisher and he’s a smart, tidy player but he’s not the sort of anarchic wrecking ball of pace that you want in the role. The Platonic ideal for this player is probably Gareth Bale or Angel Di Maria—players who love to move outside-inside with their runs and have the pace and power to crash through a packed defense as well as the technical ability to receive the ball and finish well on their first or second touch.1)Andros Townsend, of course, has the pace for this role but he doesn’t have the technical ability and so he has been relegated to a reserve role and may yet be sold before the window closes.
To illustrate the point consider the following charts that show passes received for several of Pochettino’s players. The ideal is that the player will be receiving a ball played forward and that he’ll be on the run as he gets it. Those are the kind of balls that lead to quick attacks. If he is receiving more lateral passes that suggests that no one is making the vertical runs and so the ball just keeps getting recycled through the midfield.
First let’s look at Erik Lamela last weekend against Leicester. Lamela on paper is the best candidate Spurs have for this role but for whatever reason he has never shown the same kind of consistent vertical attacking ability at Spurs that he did so routinely at Roma. (I have my theories on that point if you’re interested.)
Chadli’s passes received from the same game is pretty similar:
In contrast, consider this map from Jay Rodriguez when the Southampton winger was playing for Pochettino in a similar role:
To be fair to Lamela and Chadli, Rodriguez was playing with Morgan Schneiderlin, a player comfortable making long raking passes from deeper positions. Lamela and Chadli have never had a player like that supplying them at Spurs, although I’m cautiously hopeful that Toby Alderweireld could mature into such a player.
That said, even with that caveat attached compare Rodriguez’s passes received with Lamela and Chadli’s. While Lamela and Chadli are receiving primarily lateral passes played into their feet with their body either perpendicular to the goal or their back to goal, Rodriguez is getting vertical passes played into the channels or even into the 18-yard box.
It’s those kind of passes (and those kind of runs) that are key to Pochettino’s system. If no one is making the run and no one is seeing the pass, then you stumble into this odd sort of game where Spurs frantically press the ball, win possession, and then possession stagnates until they turn it over and the chaos starts up again. Games like that probably favor the opposition rather than Tottenham, in fact, because eventually that Spurs press is going to wear down and break, as it did so routinely last season.
How does Son fit into this?
Well, if there is any manager in the world who is crazier than Pochettino when it comes to pressing, aggressive vertical passing, and lots of shooting it’s Son’s manager at Bayer Leverkusen Roger Schmidt. We’ve written about Schmidt before. Under Schmidt Son has played as a left wing flanking Hakan Çalhanoglu and opposite Karim Bellarabi. Schmidt’s 4-2-3-1, however, often turned into a de facto 4-2-4 with Son and Bellarabi storming down the wings and Çalhanoglu joining up with Stefan Kiessling up top. But the key point to understand is that making aggressive vertical runs to split the defense and then receive the ball into his feet was basically Son’s entire job at Leverkusen. Compare the two passes received maps below to those above.
Yes, the Bayern map is a bit more vertical which is to be expected given that Bayern would attack more than Hoffenheim. That said, the majority of passes Son receives in both charts are forward rather than lateral. There is more lateral passing against Hoffenheim because Leverkusen dominated possession more in that game, but in both cases we see evidence of a player who is going to look to make quick, vertical runs and get into dangerous positions in the space between the fullbacks and center backs. He is, in other words, precisely the sort of player that Spurs have needed ever since the Pochettino hire.
For the entirety of Pochettino’s time at Spurs the club has been without a credible passing midfielder to make the long aggressive passes Pochettino likes and without a wide inside forward who can make the runs down the channel that can destabilize the opposition defense. At Southampto he stumbled into a dream situation with Schneiderlin at Rodriguez but Spurs do not have a player that matches either of them. The result has been a struggle to implement his system successfully and get the team playing at the pace that we saw from his Southampton. The signing of Son would be a step toward fixing this problem by giving Spurs a second wide forward who can make the kind of penetrating runs that Rodriguez did so routinely at Southampton. With Son and Clinton N’Jie in the team, there is reason to think that Pochettino’s vision is closer to being realized.
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|1.||↑||Andros Townsend, of course, has the pace for this role but he doesn’t have the technical ability and so he has been relegated to a reserve role and may yet be sold before the window closes.|