LONDON -- For everything he did over the seven seasons before this one, Heung-Min Son has emphatically earned the benefit of the doubt from Tottenham Hotspur. When a player has been as continually exceptional as the 30 year old, who only last season was the Premier League's Golden Boot winner, it is only natural to look for explanations, mitigating factors, something, anything that offers some assurance that in due time Son will be back to his best.
Maybe it is just that Tottenham's midfield lacks penetrative passing, that Harry Kane has stopped splitting his time between numbers 10 and nine or that the wing backs behind him aren't performing to the requisite standard to ask questions of the opposition defense. But to watch Son on Wednesday was to fear the worst from a Tottenham perspective, that the long heralded end of the Son and Kane era has actually already arrived. The signs are there that this may not be an extended wobble but the moment the age curve bends downwards.
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There's evidence of it wherever you look. Most notably the torrent of goals has slowed to a trickle, that hat trick against Leicester and a brace against Preston clear outliers in a barren year that has brought just nine goals. Assists, chances created, take-ons, duels, regains, passing accuracy, expected goals, touches in the box: pick a metric and the likelihood is it will show a significantly inferior version of Son than last year's player. The only place where a drop off is not to be found is in the frequency with which he shoots the ball and yet that only heightens the sense of a deep problem here.
Son was once the Premier League's xG buster, turning good shots into great ones thanks to his speed of thought and movement, shifting the ball from one foot to the other with no noticeable drop off in threat. But now, like the years after Russell Westbrook's MVP season, there was a sense of a player desperate to shoot himself out of his slump, convinced that if he can nail one jumper, bend it in the far corner just once then everything will come flooding back. Yet to watch him against Milan was to get the sense of a player who might not be able to do that anymore.
Twice he picked the ball up in the left channel, a lane opening up through which he could force a shooting opportunity. On both occasions he managed nothing more than to clatter the ball against a Milan defender. A corner ensued, taken short by Son and given back to him by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg as he punted the ball straight into touch. Once the second half came around, he cut out the middle man, punting his cross straight into the roof of Mike Maignan's net.
The certainty of old looked to be gone. When Pierre Kalulu bounced off him, the Son of old would have turned into the Milan third, found space for a shot and at the very least tested Maignan. He seemed to need more reminding of that than the 60,000 fans, who grumbled at the sight of yet another half opening where Tottenham insisted on slamming the door into their own foot.
Son was far from the sole problem as Tottenham's last pursuit of silverware ended in insipid fashion. A Rodrigo Bentancur-less midfield rarely takes two passes when it can take 10. Cristian Romero was teetering on a red card from the 17th minute onwards, it was baffling that Antonio Conte did not withdraw the Argentine after he avoided a second yellow for grappling with Brahim Diaz. Tottenham's defense could only get close enough to foul the Spaniard, Theo Hernandez and Rafael Leao. Had it not been for wayward finishing by the Rossoneri frontline this tie would have been dead even before Romero's marching orders for his seemingly inevitable second yellow in the 78th minute.
With the assertive Malick Thiaw and Fikayo Tomori offering no quarter to Harry Kane, there was nowhere for the shots to come from. Not until a flicked header by the England captain in stoppage time did Mike Maignan look meaningfully tested. And of course it is so much easier to throw bodies at Kane when you do not have to fear the damage that Son might cause as he emerges from out of frame.
Flickering, feint hopes of silverware in this part of north London are now extinguished for another season. There is still a battle for fourth place, one that looks like being quite the slog if this performance is anything approaching the norm. Conte, back in the dugout after sufficiently recovering from gallbladder surgery, shows little desire for another season of Tottenham. Increasingly Tottenham fans are just as ambivalent over him.
A fresh start will be required. In such circumstances there would be no better option to supercharge a Napoli-style reload than to cash in the Son chips. For so long Spurs' great insurance policy was the knowledge that one of their two superstar forwards could be sold for enough money that, if they got their recruitment right, three or four good starters could take their place. It was frankly baffling that amid the annual questions over Kane's future no one ever unleashed a charm offensive to secure Son, one of world football's most marketable stars and a malleable attacker who could shine with as much or as little of the ball as his team needed.
Now, however, he is a 30 year old on around £200,000 a week until 2025 who is showing the sort of trajectory one would expect from a post prime player. Simply getting those players off Premier League wage books tends to be an almighty challenge, let alone getting hard cash for them.
Perhaps this is all premature, maybe next season a united Tottenham led by a manager who does not seem to feel he is doing the club a favor will help Son rediscover the force that so terrifies Premier League defenders. So profound has been his slump this season, Spurs likely have no choice but to find out.