Son had been playing in the mask since surgery on a fracture around his eye socket before the World Cup, but after five-and-a-bit appearances for club and country, and no goals, the South Korean had had enough.
His decision to risk a blow to the face was a stirring show of willingness to put his body on the line for Spurs, but also suggestive of a player who is desperately struggling to feel comfortable again on the pitch.
But far from releasing the Son of old, removing the constraint had no discernible impact on his performance, and for the 16th League game in 17, last season’s Golden Boot winner failed to score.
Ahead of tonight’s derby at Crystal Palace, there is no getting away from the fact that one of Europe’s most lethal forwards is utterly devoid of confidence and form.
Son has always been labelled a streaky player, tending to hit form in bursts, but in the past even his quietest performances were typically punctuated by telling contributions in the final third.
This season, however, Son has scored in just two games — a lightning hat-trick against Leicester from the bench and a double in the Champions League win over Eintracht Frankfurt — and has just two assists, one against Brighton in October and the other all the way back on the opening day of the campaign.
Not only is Son no longer contributing goals and assists, he is struggling to do the basics.
Not only is Son no longer contributing goals and assists, he is struggling to do the basics, underlined when he failed to trap a simple pass which rolled out of play towards the end of Sunday’s defeat. He was also frequently dispossessed and his decision-making and touch in the final third was off, illustrated by an overhit pass for strike partner Harry Kane.
Afterwards, Antonio Conte came as close as he ever has to criticising Son, saying he must “improve”, but ahead of tonight’s visit to south London, the head coach insisted he has “zero doubts” about the forward and backed him to transform his season with one goal.
“In his situation, you have to play, you have to be focused and know that there is one situation that can change it totally,” Conte said. “Football is like this. You hit the post and it goes in or it goes outside, it changes totally the mood, the perception of the performance of the players. For this reason he has to continue to be focused and to know he is an important player for us. We have zero doubts about Sonny.”
Son’s chances of finding form would improve if Spurs can rediscover some solidity, and the forward, who loves charging into space on the counter-attack, has not been helped by his side’s habit of falling behind in matches, often leaving Conte’s side having to break down compact defences, with limited space to operate.
Conte also believes Son is living with “really, really high expectations”, and the 30-year-old does appear to be feeling the pressure of his status as national icon in Korea and one of Tottenham’s leading lights.
His superb season last term was followed by Spurs’s summer tour of his homeland, where Son was both star attraction and ambassador, before a campaign punctuated by a World Cup in which he carried the hopes of a nation on his shoulders. He ultimately delivered, with a brilliant assist against Portugal, as Korea reached the knockouts, but the usually happy-go-lucky, smiling assassin has appeared uncharacteristically burdened since the start of the season.
In different circumstances, Conte would consider resting Son — and his only League goals this season came in the one game when he was dropped from the starting XI — but injuries to Richarlison and Dejan Kulusevski either side of the World Cup means he must start again at Selhurst Park tonight.
Son scored in the last meeting between the clubs, Spurs’s 3-0 home win in December 2021, with his eighth League goal of the season on the way to a total of 23.
Over the past three-and-a-half seasons, as Spurs have struggled to convince under four different managers, Son and Kane have continued to excel, to the point where it was easy to wonder if the pair were simply carrying an average team.
This term, perhaps the simplest explanation for Spurs’s drop off in performances is that one of their best players has suffered a catastrophic loss of form, and returning Son to a place of confidence could be the key to reversing the side’s fortunes.
“Sonny and Kane are the two most important players, with Hugo Lloris,” Conte said. “If we start to have doubts about them, then I think we are really in trouble.”