How often is it that losing your fourth-most important player can constitute a crisis?
That’s the question facing Tottenham at the moment, as they look to stay within touching distance of the Premier League‘s top two – the gap is six points to leaders Liverpool and two to reigning champions Manchester City – and resume their title challenge with a home date against Manchester United this weekend, while losing arguably the league’s most in-form player at the moment.
Heung-min Son has been one of the players to watch ever since his superb solo goal put the bow on Tottenham’s dominant 3-1 win over Chelsea, and though his next six appearances yielded “only” two goals and an assist, his sizzling form during the festive fixture list helped Spurs stay in the title race.
The next block of six games saw Son deliver a stunning seven goals and five assists, form that coincided with Spurs winning five of six games – though the one loss to Wolves may have fatally damaged their title hopes.
That sort of hot run is always welcome at a team that is constantly in need of players to reduce the burden on Harry Kane, yet, surprisingly for a team whose lack of depth is cited as a reason they’ll struggle to keep ground with City and Liverpool, Tottenham are well-equipped to cope with the South Korean’s departure for the Asian Cup in the UAE.
🇰🇷 Son Heung-Min’s Form for @SpursOfficial:— SPORF (@Sporf) January 4, 2019
🏟 vs Arsenal
⚽ 1 Goal
🏟 vs Everton
⚽ 2 Goals
🎯 1 Assist
🏟 vs Bournemouth
⚽ 2 Goals
🏟 vs Wolves
🎯 1 Assist
🏟 vs Cardiff
⚽ 1 Goal
🎯 1 Assist
🏟 vs Tranmere
⚽ 1 Goal
🎯 2 Assists
🔥 Unstoppable. pic.twitter.com/wp7hHU2PQ7
Tottenham have Lucas Moura on the books, a player who earlier this season won the league’s player of the month award, and a respectable tally of eight goals so far this season that should go up as he gets more minutes in Son’s absence – though he’s an injury doubt for the United game. Erik Lamela’s return to fitness is also coming at the perfect time, and if he can hit top form, Spurs will feel a lot more confident about weathering the temporary departure of their Korean star.
But, most importantly, the reason Tottenham shouldn’t be worried is simple: this team has a clearly defined “big three” who are more important to the club’s form than any other player.
In Kane, Dele Alli, and Christian Eriksen, the north London club have three of the Premier League’s most outstanding players. Son has elevated himself to that bracket in recent weeks, and his goals will be missed, but Moura and Lamela have the talent to at least come close to duplicating his output as long as they can find their feet alongside Spurs’ three big stars.
This is not to understate Son’s importance. The 26-year-old’s recent surge has been vital simply because at times, Kane, Alli, and Eriksen can bear an overlarge share of the burden at Tottenham. Having a player who can take some of the attention away from them, and deliver goals and assists at the rate he has been doing makes everyone else’s jobs much easier – apart from Lamela’s and Moura’s, perhaps, as they now face the pressure of matching up to their team-mate’s standards.
Minutes/Goal or Assist— Premier League Stats (@PremierStats2) January 10, 2019
🥇80.6 - Heung-Min #Son
🥈87.5 - Sergio #Aguero
🥉88.6 - Eden #Hazard
4️⃣88.9 - Sané
5️⃣92.3 - Salah
6️⃣97.0 - Sterling
7️⃣101 - Lamela
8️⃣102 - Aubameyang
9️⃣102 - Rashford
🔟106 - Kane
(Minimum 4 goals+assists) pic.twitter.com/eU7PLSWn0y
But both have shown, in flashes, that they’re capable of it. And Tottenham don’t need those two to go on a tear for the entire rest of the season, because Son will be back by the beginning of February at the latest. Apart from this weekend’s clash against United, the only crunch game the former Bayer Leverkusen player will miss is the second leg of the League Cup semi-final against Chelsea, when Spurs will be defending a 1-0 lead.
League games against Fulham, Newcastle, and Watford – the latter two at home – are fixtures Spurs would be expected to win when all of the first-choice team is available barring one player, unless that player is Kane.
They may miss Son against a resurgent United on Sunday, but he wasn’t even in the squad when Spurs destroyed the Red Devils in August, a 3-0 win in which Moura scored twice. Tottenham have home advantage in this weekend’s return fixture, and every reason to go into that game with confidence, Son or no Son, even with United’s recent run of five straight wins since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over as manager.
Conversion Rate— Premier League Stats (@PremierStats2) January 7, 2019
🥇50.0% - Mesut #Özil
🥈38.1% - Anthony #Martial
🥉32.0% - Glenn #Murray
4️⃣30.0% - Schlupp
5️⃣26.1% - Lucas Moura
6️⃣25.9% - Aubameyang
7️⃣25.8% - Lukaku
8️⃣25.0% - Sterling
9️⃣25.0% - Shaqiri
🔟25.0% - Milner pic.twitter.com/EfaQKvc9Y0
For a team that usually would be justified going into a mini-panic over losing an important player, Spurs are surprisingly well-equipped this time around. Meanwhile, Son can go, hopefully for him win the Asian Cup with South Korea, and return even more buoyant and happy.
Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola praised Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s “incredible” start to life as interim boss at Manchester United.
Solskjaer has won his first five games since replacing Jose Mourinho in December – equalling Matt Busby’s record in a 2-0 FA Cup victory against Reading last week.
And the 45-year-old Norwegian could surpass Busby’s record with victory against Tottenham in the Premier League on Sunday.
“His start is much better than mine, I lost my first game and drew the second [after being appointed in 2016],” said Guardiola.
“He won all the games. He is a young manager, getting incredible results. I saw a few minutes of games they played and they played good.
“But it is not my business to talk about other opponents, we have a tough game around the corner against Wolves.
“It will be a tough game. We have one day off and then prepare for the game.”
Even by the standards of a club where the strategies for transfers and youth development are under constant scrutiny, it’s been an especially interesting week for Chelsea.
They signed 20-year-old Christian Pulisic for £58million, with the American set to join from Borussia Dortmund in the summer. Since then, academy product Callum Hudson-Odoi has put in two starring performances in cup games even as Bayern Munich have stepped up their pursuit of the young Englishman.
It seems that the Bundesliga giants are willing to meet Chelsea’s £35million asking price for the 18-year-old, which, firstly, speaks to Hudson-Odoi’s talent and potential, but, equally, raises the age-old question regarding Chelsea’s transfer policy. Are they yet again prioritising making a big splash in the transfer market over using their resources to develop the players they already have?
Manager Maurizio Sarri has publicly said that Hudson-Odoi should turn down the option of moving to Germany and fight for his place at the London club. Yet the same man has given the youngster only a handful of appearances this season, despite Hudson-Odoi being the star of Chelsea’s preseason and looking like he was ready to make the step up.
And this was the perfect season to give a young player that chance – an opportunity that is rare at Chelsea to begin with.
Expectations were low with Sarri coming in during the summer. There is always the pressure to win trophies at Stamford Bridge, but Sarri will be forgiven, just about, if he comes up empty this season, even considering the transfer outlay last summer – a world-record fee for a goalkeeper to land Kepa Arrizabalaga, getting Mateo Kovacic on a season-long loan in the deal that sent Thibaut Courtois to Real Madrid, and bringing in Jorginho alongside Sarri from Napoli.
The club were no doubt aware that catching up to last season’s Manchester City would be a tall ask. Liverpool have done it, but with the benefit of a team that reached last season’s Champions League final adding key pieces to strengthen the squad.
Yet before this weekend, Hudson-Odoi had added just two starts to the one he made in the Community Shield against City, and both had come in the Europa League after Chelsea had already qualified for the knockout stages.
He’s made just one Premier League appearance, despite the inconsistency of Pedro and the sharp dip in form of Willian. And just days after that league debut, he got the news that Pulisic would be arriving in the summer and would presumably be an unquestioned starter, given the transfer fee.
There is of course the possibility that the two players play together, especially if Eden Hazard leaves this summer. Willian’s Chelsea career is surely coming to an end and even if it’s not, Hudson-Odoi would deserve to jump ahead of him in the pecking order on potential alone.
The way he’s played in Chelsea’s last two games, the FA Cup win over Nottingham Forest and then the narrow loss to Tottenham in the away leg of the League Cup semi-final, shows that he’s got the talent to be playing more.
So given the way this season has panned out, why wouldn’t the London native be looking at his options?
Bayern are in the middle of a youth revolution. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery are leaving at the end of the season. Meanwhile, 23-year-olds Serge Gnabry and Leon Goretzka and 21-year-old Renato Sanches are all recent young signings (or returnees, in Sanches’ case, after his doomed loan spell at Swansea) who are now getting extended minutes in the first team. The 18-year-old Alphonso Davies has joined from the MLS this month, and 22-year-old Benjamin Pavard is on his way in the summer.
And of course, FC Hollywood remain the biggest team in Germany, even after a poor start to the season has seen them playing catch-up to Dortmund in the league table this season – a pursuit that may yet prove to be successful and end in a seventh straight league title. They face a tough draw in the Champions League – Liverpool – but they’ve been perennial quarter-finalists and semi-finalists this decade.
For Hudson-Odoi, it’s a no-brainer. And that simply shows how little has changed at Chelsea.