The FA Cup can give teams in the Premier League chance to rest their entire first team after a punishing Christmas schedule. Unless they are Tottenham Hotspur.
Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino has often been reluctant to leave out his bigger names, seemingly valuing the positives of momentum more than the negatives of burnout, and so it proved in the FA Cup win at Tranmere.
Dele Alli and Davinson Sánchez were among the starters at Prenton Park, while there was even time for Harry Kane to come off the bench to score, but the real difference between the two sides was the presence of Son Heung-min.
The South Korea forward has already missed a handful of matches this season to help lead his country to glory at the Asian Games, and will be absent once more when he links up with his compatriots for the Asian Cup in the UAE.
That will have made it easier for Pochettino to give him minutes on Merseyside, while the coach claims his squad is strong enough to cope without Son in the coming weeks. However, that’s not to play down his impact.
“He’s an unbelievable player with both feet, he’s got a great eye for goal and can produce magic out of nothing,” Pochettino said, and there was one particular moment at Tranmere which he may have had in mind when uttering these words.
There will be some of you out there trying to play down Son’s skill by claiming “it’s only Tranmere”, or words to that effect. If you’re doing this then you’re missing the point.
A cup tie against lower-league opposition is precisely the time to translate your most ostentatious skills into the real world.
The only people who don’t want to see Premier League players showboating against Tranmere Rovers are Tranmere fans, Alan Brazil and your dad, and this is the holy trinity you need to keep in mind when witnessing the former Bayer Leverkusen striker turning past Liam Ridehalgh as if he wasn’t there.
I actually pity those that don't get to experience the pure joy of having Son Heung-min play for their football club.
— #CowlinDidGatwick (@bankruptspurs) January 4, 2019
Son had already laid on a goal for Fernando Llorente, a mere seven minutes before he collected a hopeful through-ball from the Spaniard and got his bearings with Ridehalgh and Emmanuel Monthé approaching. By the time he has taken a touch, the two defenders have been left back in 2018.
The presence of mind required to identify the space and spin into it is only half the task, though admittedly it is a half which few could master. The second half – having the ability to pull off the move – well, few could master that part either.
It’s a case of recognising which responsibilities to pass onto others, and which to take on by yourself, like a great actor knowing the best time to step behind the camera and direct himself.
There is no trick of the light here; no ‘How did he do that?’ in the way we have seen for so many goals before.
Instead, all the ingredients are out there on the counter, and Son is the chef jumping through six stages of the recipe at once, powered by confidence in his own abilities.
You have all the materials he has, but when you try to replicate the dish yourself you are left with a half-formed mess which only vaguely resembles something of the same genre.
Son Heung-min's last six games:
The most in-form player in Europe. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/cAeCkm5a9R
— Tottenham News (@Spurs_fl) January 4, 2019
It’s hardly the first piece of brilliance this season from Son, who has broken out as one of the stars of the Premier League over the last 18 months.
Indeed, after following his sumptuous turn with a lay-off for Serge Aurier to score his second of the evening, the 26-year-old got on the scoresheet himself barely a minute later.
His turn for the previous goal played no small part in clearing the way for him to find the net on his own, calmly driving at a Tranmere back-line far too terrified of what he might do to stop him from simply carrying on with what he was doing.
When you’ve been hit once, you’re hardly going to respond to noticing a target on your chest by gambling on being able to dodge its reach.
Instead, you’ll likely wait it out and hope its focus lists elsewhere before the trigger is pulled. Which is all well and good if the trigger-man has kept his distance, but not if he is near enough to hear your heartbeat and toy with you every few seconds to make you afraid to even twitch.
When you look at Son’s display against Tranmere, and then recall his outrageous nutmeg on Chile’s Diego Valdés back in September, you see a man who will turn on the style whenever he wants, regardless of whether the opposition seems to warrant a step up in quality.
It’s a permanent display of mockery-as-professionalism; a yearning to embarrass those around him for deigning to consider he might not choose the most visually satisfying option over anything with a hint of going-through-the-motions drabness.
Tottenham might have the players to make up for Son’s goals and assists while he is away, but a bigger question surrounds whether they’ll be able to replace his sense of fun.
By Tom Victor