Tottenham eliminated from the Champions League: Heung-Min Son’s signs of decline were inevitable against AC Milan

LONDON — For everything he has done in the seven seasons leading up to this one, Heung-Min Son has categorically earned Tottenham Hotspur the benefit of the doubt. When a player has always been as outstanding as the 30-year-old, who only last season won the Premier League Golden Boot, it’s natural to look for explanations, mitigating factors, something, everything. which offers some assurance that in due course Son will be back to his best.

Maybe it’s just that the Tottenham midfielder lacks penetrating passes, Harry Kane has stopped splitting his time between numbers 10 and 9 or the full-backs behind him aren’t performing at the level required to lay down goals. questions to the opposing defence. But watching Son on Wednesday was to fear the worst from Tottenham’s perspective, that the long-heralded end of the Son and Kane era has in fact already arrived. The signs are there that this may not be an extended swing, but when the age curve bends down.

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There is evidence of it everywhere you look. Most notably, the torrent of goals slowed to a netting, that hat-trick against Leicester and a brace against clear outliers Preston in a barren year that brought just nine goals. Assists, chances created, catches, duels, digs, passing accuracy, expected goals, touches in the box: pick a metric and it’s likely to show a significantly lower version of Son than last year’s player . The only place a downfall isn’t is in how often he shoots the ball and yet that only heightens the feeling of a deep problem here.

Son was once the Premier League’s xG breaker, turning good shots into great ones with his speed of thought and movement, moving the ball from foot to foot with no noticeable drop in threat. But now, like the years after Russell Westbrook’s MVP season, there was the feeling of a player desperate to pull himself out of his slump, convinced that if he can nail a jumper, bend him into the far corner a only once, then everything will come flooding back. Still, to see him against Milan was to feel like a player who might not be able to do that anymore.

Twice he scooped the ball up the left channel, a lane opening up through which he could force a shooting opportunity. On both occasions he managed nothing more than snapping the ball against a Milan defender. A corner ensues, taken aback by Son and returned by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg as he sends the ball straight into touch. Once the second half came, he clipped the middle man, sending his cross straight into the roof of Mike Maignan’s net.

The certainty of yesteryear seemed to have disappeared. When Pierre Kalulu bounced off him, the old Son would have turned into a third Milanese, found space for a shot and, to say the least, tested Maignan. He seemed to need more of a reminder than the 60,000 fans, who grumbled at the sight of another opening half where Tottenham insisted on slamming the door in their own foot.

Son was far from the only problem as Tottenham’s latest silverware quest ended insipidly. A midfielder without Rodrigo Bentancur rarely takes two passes when he can take 10. Cristian Romero was teetering on a red card from the 17th minute on, it was baffling Antonio Conte didn’t pull the Argentine off after avoiding a second yellow to fight against Brahim Diaz. The Tottenham defense could only get close enough to foul the Spaniard, Theo Hernandez and Rafael Leao. If it hadn’t been for the capricious end of the Rossoneri front row, that tie would have been dead even before Romero’s marching orders for his seemingly inevitable second yellow in the 78th minute.

With the insurance of Malick Thiaw and Fikayo Tomori offering Harry Kane no quarter, there was nowhere for the shots to come from. It was only on a header from the England captain in stoppage time that Mike Maignan seemed to be significantly tested. And of course, it’s so much easier to throw bodies at Kane when you don’t have to worry about the damage Son might cause going out of frame.

The glittering, feigned hopes of silverware in this part of North London are now extinguished for another season. There is still a battle for fourth place, a battle that seems to be quite painful if this performance is anywhere near the norm. Conte, back in the dugout after recovering sufficiently from gallbladder surgery, shows little desire for another Tottenham season. Increasingly, Tottenham fans are equally ambivalent towards him.

A fresh start will be needed. Under such circumstances, there would be no better option to supercharge a Napoli-style reload than to cash in the Son tokens. For so long, Spurs’ big insurance policy was knowing that one of their two superstar strikers could be sold for enough money that, if they were successful in signing, three or four good starters could take their place. It was frankly baffling that amid annual questions about Kane’s future, no one had ever unleashed a charm offensive to secure Son, one of world football’s most marketable stars and a malleable striker who could shine. with as much or as little ball as his team needed. .

Now, however, he is 30 on around £200,000-a-week until 2025 and showing the kind of trajectory one would expect from a post-prime player. Just getting these players off the Premier League wage books tends to be an almighty challenge, let alone getting cash for them.

Maybe this is all premature, maybe next season a united Tottenham led by a manager who doesn’t seem to feel he’s doing the club a favor will help Son rediscover the strength that terrifies Premier defenders so much. League. So deep has his crisis been this season, Spurs probably have no choice but to find out.

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