Son Heung-Min's recent hot streak a welcome development for Tottenham
LONDON -- Stoke deserved no sympathy for their second half capitulation in Saturday's 5-1 defeat to Tottenham, but it was easy to feel sorry for Tom Edwards. The 18-year-old right-back has now featured twice in the Premier League and trails 12-3 on aggregate after making his debut in the 7-2 defeat at Manchester City in October. Then, Edwards was probably thankful to be hooked with an injury on 52 minutes following a nightmarish afternoon, and on Saturday he was replaced in the 70th minute after being tormented by Son Heung-Min.
Son blows hot and cold but, unfortunately for Edwards, he can sense weakness. One sniff of it can lead to a frenzy. His other standout performances have come in the Wembley wins against collapse-prone Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool, and he was similarly influential against Stoke. Spurs have struggled to break down the Premier League's lesser clubs at the national stadium and there was a bitty quality to their attacking before Son's fierce cross was turned by Ryan Shawcross into his own net.
Son should have had another assist before half-time but Harry Kane, who later scored twice, uncharacteristically fired wide when one-on-one with Jack Butland. It did not matter, as Son broke Stoke's resistance with a precise near-post finish at the start of the second half -- his fifth goal in his past sixth starts -- before assisting Spurs' final goal, scored by Christian Eriksen.
"I just enjoy the Premier League," Son said afterwards. "When I was younger, I watched so many games in the Premier League. I'm improving every day, whether it's the training sessions or in my eating -- everything. I train every day, work hard and I'm a really lucky person to have something I'm getting better at."
To a casual observer on Saturday, Son would have appeared to be one of the stars of the Premier League, but he is not even one of the stars of Tottenham's front line. Kane, Eriksen and Dele Alli are all guaranteed starters in every big game but Son has been in and out of the team since joining Spurs from Bayer Leverkusen for £22 million in 2015. He asked to leave the club after his first season, in which he started just 13 league games, and last season he scored 20 goals in all competitions, despite starting only 23 of 36 matches in the league.
After starring in the victories against Dortmund and Liverpool, he was left out of the XI against Real Madrid and Arsenal last month and, privately, he continues to be frustrated that he is not considered a mainstay. In South Korea -- where Son is one of the biggest celebrities -- Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino is an unpopular figure for his treatment of the forward.
To be fair to Pochettino, he has tried to accomodate Son even when it is impractical, using him as an auxiliary left wing-back, with disastrous consequences, in the FA Cup semifinal defeat to Chelsea last season and backup centre-forward. But the 25-year-old would probably not make Pochettino's best XI when everyone is fit and he knows he has to make a difference in every game or risk losing his place.
"You never know when your chance is coming," Son admitted on Saturday. "You always have to be ready and you have to always be there. Sometimes you're going to play 20 minutes or 10 minutes or it's going to be 90 minutes. When the chance is coming, you have to take it. I'm just thinking that whenever I'm on the pitch, I'm going to try to make something happen and help my teammates."
Son's status might be changing, though. Spurs' woes against defensive teams at Wembley were made to look like a thing of the past against Stoke, as they scored as many times as in the six games against Chelsea, Burnley, Swansea, Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and West Brom at their temporary home. There is no-one at Spurs who has used Wembley's big pitch to their advantage as much as Son and, just as against West Brom, he was joyously unpredictable, occasionally bursting past Edwards to the byline or surging inside purposefully, in a manner not dissimilar to Arjen Robben.
"I do enjoy Wembley because so many fans are coming to every game to support us," Son said. "When you love football, you like playing in every stadium and I like to work hard."
The key to Spurs' season will repeating their performance against Stoke in their other less glamourous home fixtures -- starting with Brighton's visit on Wednesday -- and continuing their enterprising run in the Champions League against Juventus in the round-of-16. They were happy to let Dortmund and Real Madrid have the ball before hitting them on the counter-attack, and they will have to do the same against the Italian champions, particularly at Wembley.
Son's pace, directness and unpredictability make him key to both approaches and, for now, he is just as important as anyone else at Tottenham.
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.