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February 1, 2019

Son Heung-min Is a Star

By Mike Goodman

Son Heung-min is a superstar and it’s about time somebody noticed. On a minute for minute basis he’s been the most productive attacking player in the Premier League this season. He’s comfortable starting in wide positions, or operating as a central attacker with space to roam. Last season he played an important part as a facilitator for an all-time great season for Harry Kane. This year, Kane is doing more of the facilitating and it’s Son who’s reaping the rewards.

Strip out penalties and on a minute for minute basis, nobody is scoring more than Son this year in the Premier League (among players with more than 600 minutes). He has 0.65 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes. That’s on par with Sergio Aguero and ahead of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mohamed Salah. Among the leagues 20 most frequent goals scorers by per 90, only Raheem Sterling is averaging more assists than Son’s 0.36. Put it together and Son is the only player in England whose goal scoring contribution (combined non-penalty goals and assists per 90) is over one. Pretty good.

There’s some air in those numbers. His expected goal rate is “only” 0.37 per 90, that’s 12th in the Premier League. And his xG assisted rate of 0.15 does suggest that he’s been fairly lucky when it comes to his teammates putting the ball in the net when he passes it to them. So, it is true that he’s probably not the best attacker in the Premier League as his production to date indicates. He’s merely one of the best.

One of the most amazing aspects of Son’s game is that he’s putting up massive production numbers while touching the ball in the penalty area fairly infrequently. He only has 8.22 touches in the box per 90 minutes. Of the 30 players in the Premier League averaging above 0.30 xG per 90 that’s the third lowest total. Only Riyah Mahrez and Xherdan Shaqiri touch the ball in the box less. Given that, it might be tempting to dismiss Son as a player who just jacks a lot of poor shots from deep, and then lucks into some goals. But that’s not fair either. He’s averaging 0.11 xG per shot, which is roughly average for a high volume shooter. Son’s 3.39 shots per 90 are the second most in England, and of the 20 most frequent shooters, seven have a better xG per 90 total than him.

What Son has done, playing with Harry Kane, is take a roll that might have been thankless and turn it into an extremely productive one. Kane takes up the best central positions in the penalty box, and he’s excellent at it. Other attackers operating around a central striker are often left with mostly very low value scoring chances. Typically they can either feed the big man, or cut inside and take hopeful shots from distance. Son manages to both create a lot of these kinds of chances for himself, and upgrade their quality from hopeful potshots to above average goal scoring opportunities.

In addition to Son’s scoring ability around the box, there’s also his ability to unsettle defenses with the ball at his feet. He’s completing two successful dribbles per match. There are vanishingly few players who create with the ball at their feet, and also manage to take a bunch of pretty good shots. Usually a player’s dribbling either happens far away from goal, indicating a player that won’t be getting into the box frequently, or results in bad shots for themselves or others. Beating players off the dribble is increasingly a skill deployed in build-up, rather than one in the final third.

Son is one of only eight Premier League players who completes two dribbles per game, takes two shots and also manages to keep his xG per shot over 0.10. The others are Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, Sadio Mane, Pedro, Josh King, and West Ham’s wingers, Felipe Anderson and Michail Antonio. It’s an idiosyncratic list. And finally, Son is also careful with the ball. Despite being an attacker with lots of responsibilities he doesn’t turn it over much. He’s one of only twelve Premier League players that completes two dribbles per game while turning the ball over less than four times. He’s simply the complete package.

What makes Son so attractive as a player is that he’s a little bit better at a lot of things than players who occupy a similar role. He gets a lot of shots, especially for somebody who isn’t the focal point of the attack and those shots are somewhat better on average than most attacking wingers. He does a lot of dribbling but manages not to be wasteful. This year all of that has resulted in a tremendous goal and assist return. But, even if the goals and assists drop back to a level supported by the underlying numbers, that still makes Son one of the best inside forwards in the Premier League. He should get treated that way.

Article by Mike Goodman