Three games into the season, Tottenham Hotspur have got off to a good start, taking seven of a possible nine points. The only points dropped were against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, a game they have struggled in over the years. And while Spurs are happy with their points return so far, it’s fair to say they’ve looked a bit slow to start the 2022-23 season.
Against Southampton, Spurs started the gates slowly but looked the fittest as the game progressed. Goalscoring opportunities were plentiful in the second half en route to a convincing 4-1 win. Against Chelsea, Spurs really struggled to get things going after a decent opening few minutes. They still managed to draw with two controversial goals. Against Wolves, Spurs were extremely lethargic in the first half, but none of Wolves’ goal chances were convincing. A set piece routine led to Harry Kane scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win.
Looking at how Spurs finished last season, there has perhaps not been a more in-form team in all of England. They were very shrewd defensively and looked likely to create open opposition via their patterns of play and dynamic style of play. Due to the way they finished last season, it should have come as no surprise that Antonio Conte went with the same starting XI on Matchday 1 despite all the additions made during the off-season. Spurs’ slow start to the season has led to many conversations about whether Conte should make any changes. The two most talked about players have been two stalwarts of the starting XI in recent seasons – dating back to the days of José Mourinho – in Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Heung-min Son.
Son’s abandonment at the start of the season was more visible due to the quality he showed last season and in recent seasons with his ability to partner Kane in attack. Son’s decision-making was poor, especially against Chelsea. His inconsistent first touch led to a turnover and Chelsea’s first big goalscoring opportunity. We, and others, have said before that Son is a hot and cold player. When fit, he is a player who can open up defenses with his ability to run behind, while also providing elite finishing abilities. However, when Son is in a rut like he is now, he’s not someone who can level up in other aspects of his game to make an impact. On the other hand, if Kane is in a finishing drought, he can still tie the game down by dropping into midfield and providing passes in dangerous areas. If Son is limited in attack and doesn’t reach the end of the goals, he struggles to make his presence felt.
All players react differently to decisions and for Son, who has been a starting player for Spurs for so long, many may wonder if it’s time to insert Richarlison, Spurs’ £50million summer signing. , in the starting lineup on Son as the South Korean looks to find his footing. I felt the need to write this article because this conversation is starting to catch on in Spurs fan communities and to be completely honest, I think it’s silly.
It helps to take a step back and understand what Conte is asking Son when Conte deploys his preferred 3-4-3 form on his side. Since Conte’s Spurs really got going and the draft took off, Son has been the first-choice option – unsurprisingly – in the attacking position on the left side of the front three. In this position, he’s basically being asked to play in a dual number ten role alongside a right-sided striker (primarily Dejan Kulusevski). In this position, Son is asked to play a role where he receives the ball several times with his back to goal. And because Conte’s number ten’s are ball-progressors and often decision-makers, he can make certain combinations with the winger next to him, with Kane in midfield, or even in the half-spaces with the duo of central midfielder who generally recycles and carries possession.
This role was a bit alien to Son at first, as his best traits are of course his ability to run over defenders and run behind, especially against more aggressive defenders. As Son got used to the role and Spurs became familiar with the tactics behind the system, Son’s form improved immensely.
This season, it’s looking more and more like when Son struggled to adjust to the role. Although the sample size is quite small, I think it’s a fair criticism that Spurs are still putting themselves in top form in games. Clearly, Conte and his team have gotten the group into shape in the offseason, highlighted by the work of Gian Piero Ventrone, but they are clearly still getting their feet wet against the competition. I’ve spoken here before about how Spurs showed a penchant in Conte’s time for winning games due to their intensive and dynamic nature. I would also say that Son’s form is becoming more and more apparent because of the team and how they’re still putting it together. Due to his game and the way he plays, it’s a fair argument to say that Son’s struggles have been accentuated by the club’s current form; they just haven’t turned it all on yet.
There’s no denying how important Richarlison can be to Spurs this season and in the future. Richarlison is an intense player who offers versatility and a non-stop drive, something Conte loves alongside him. It will provide Spurs with the opportunity to rotate often, which will be increasingly important as the season progresses and the various competitions begin to intersect and overlap. There will be plenty of times when Richarlison should and deserve to start, but it would just be a mistake for him to start Son again, no matter how bad the latter is.
When we assess the two as starters and substitutes, Son is not only more familiar with Conte and the team as a whole, but he offers the game-changing ability to do the hardest thing possible in sport by getting the ball in. the net. Richarlison is a perfect substitute for Spurs as he can make an impact when Spurs are ahead or when they are behind. Against Chelsea, Richarlison entered the game and Spurs changed their form to a super attacking 4-2-4 form, which saw Richarlison play against Kane in a striker partnership. The change led to two goals and Spurs got something out of the game despite the odds being against them. Against Wolves, Richarlison brought fresh legs and his excellent drive into a game at a time when Spurs were trying to see out the game, and also put himself in dangerous opportunities against a tired Wolverhampton defence.
It would be a bad move to take minutes from Son due to his goalscoring ability. Conversely, you would take away the energy that Richarlison can provide when entering games, giving him a spell longer than just a substitute. So while Son may be in bad shape at the moment, the argument for inserting Richarlison on him would be limited to him being done to get Son an uplift. The addition of Richarlison gives Spurs some extra attacking firepower that they have been missing for years. He gives them a proven commodity and a real impact player they can turn to off the bench.
Richarlison will have plenty of opportunities to start and be an important player for Conte and Spurs. But despite Son’s shaky start to the season, Spurs shouldn’t be worried about a three-game size sample. The proof is already there that Son can turn the tide given how he finished last season and what he can look like when Conte’s Spurs are running at an effective clip. In time, performance and form will come.
Sunday’s game against Nottingham Forest provides the perfect opportunity for the team. Forest are hugely intriguing this season due to the large number of players brought into the squad this summer. However, they are still a team that needs time to gel under manager Steve Cooper. Spurs are heavy favorites for Sunday – perhaps we’ll see Son open his account with a few goals alongside the productive performance we know he can deliver.
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