Son Heung-min’s mastery of the dark arts adds to his growing Tottenham legend

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Son’s goals have helped fire Spurs to the brink of the top four but he can also offer a different edge   (Getty Images)
Son’s goals have helped fire Spurs to the brink of the top four but he can also offer a different edge (Getty Images)

It’s not often Son Heung-min lets the veil slip. But as he walked off on 72 minutes, the usual doe-eyed smile was missing. In its place, an adolescent grimace that had mutated into a resentful snarl by the time he took his spot on the bench.

He was consoled by a member of the Tottenham support staff, then embraced by Antonio Conte, the one who made the call to substitute him, once the game had come to an end. To look at Son’s demeanour, you wouldn’t know that Spurs had thumped Arsenal 3-0 in the North London derby to keep their Champions League hopes alive into final two games of the season, or that Son had been so integral to the rout.

The anger - which Son sold as “disappointment” - was based on his own, personal exploits. His strike at the start of the second half took him to 21 Premier League goals, one behind Mohamed Salah. Having missed a chance that would have drawn him level, he probably anticipated another opportunity to make amends as 10-man Arsenal withered. Instead, he was forced to sit out the last 20.

Through any lens, it reeked of selfishness, but the kind that drives the very best players, of which the South Korean is one. A character trait that fuels everything about him, from the scoring and assists output to the runs made with and without the ball. All of which contribute to Spurs’ best work.

There has been a sense for some time among some in the league - fans, players and managers - that Son is one of the more covert “villains”. A babyface s***house who has quite an admirable grasp on the dark arts of forward play. Someone who can push the limits of gamesmanship without ever really getting his comeuppance. Ergo, the kind of player all Premier League sides crave.

He played that part to a tee on Thursday evening at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The penalty he won was more down to Cedric Soares’ insolence. But the sending off of Rob Holding was the culmination of some intense niggle between the two in the space of 33 minutes. Then, unperturbed by the torrents of abuse from the Arsenal fans surrounding him, he put in a perfect corner that was flicked on by Rodrigo Bentancur for Harry Kane to bravely nod in his second at the far post. Son’s smart finish at the start of the second half, jabbing through a mass of red shirts with the outside of his foot into the far corner, was the cherry on top of the cake or s*** sandwich, depending on where your allegiances lie.

Son won his early battle with Holding and it left Arsenal with no way back (Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
Son won his early battle with Holding and it left Arsenal with no way back (Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

The battle with Holding, though, was a testament to not just Son’s pluck but the difference in experience between the two protagonists and teams. Holding had a clear remit to unsettle Son, but found himself twisted every which way as, first, Son blitzed past him during a promising opening period for Arsenal, then rolled him a couple of times. The second of which led to a wrestle on the floor that saw a clear elbow from Son to the jaw of Holding.

There was no need to pontificate on a hypothetical of what might have happened if the roles had reversed. A similar incident when both were on their feet with the roles reversed, albeit a firmer forearm to the face from Holding, brought the Arsenal man a second yellow card. All four of the fouls committed by the centre-back had been on Son – in a way, you could argue he did what was asked of him. Just not very smartly.

Son was ‘disappointed but not angry’ to be brought off early (Getty Images)
Son was ‘disappointed but not angry’ to be brought off early (Getty Images)

Indeed, had Holding sold his elbow a little better, perhaps Son might have not been on the park. Instead, referee Paul Tierney continued on, oblivious but logging this was a clash to keep tabs on while a clip of the incident did the rounds on social media.

It said as much about Son’s inner steel as Holding’s naivety, and more broadly of the greater professional maturity Spurs possess in their squad and on the night. And it was compounded by Conte’s devastatingly patronising assertion that Mikel Arteta, for all his potential as a manager, should complain a little less.

Granted, it is a superiority not reflected in the league table at this moment. Arsenal still have the fourth spot by a point and, thus, remain in charge of their destiny. But with the tougher of the two games both have left to play, it could well be a deciding factor come the end of the season.

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