Son Heung-Min, the Dirk Kuyt of Spurs, can shine in Harry Kane's absence
Remember what Pep Guardiola said about Tottenham in December: "That Harry Kane team." It was a quip, to be sure, but it also spoke to an obvious truth: Spurs heavily depend on Kane, who has scored 24 goals (tied for first, with Mohamed Salah) in the Premier League this season. So you can imagine the panic that struck Spurs supporters at the weekend when Kane suffered ankle ligament damage, an injury that will see the star striker out of action until at least next month.
But another player appears ready for the spotlight in Kane's absence: Son Heung-Min. The South Korea international often has been regarded as part of Tottenham's supporting cast, with Kane and Dele Alli taking the majority of the plaudits. Yet the 25-year-old has played an increasingly important role for manager Mauricio Pochettino.
Son's unselfishness and lack of ego have made him a key component in the side, given his willingness to subvert his own game for the good of the team. Pochettino has used Son in a number of roles, and the versatile player has risen to the challenge.
Early in his career, while a teenager at Hamburg, Son articulated his approach clearly. "I don't care where I play," he said. "The main thing is I'm in the game. I don't have a favourite position." That attitude has served him well in north London. Whether he has been asked to operate from the wing-back position or as an out-and-out striker, Son's contribution has been impressive.
Pochettino knows that he can assign a role to Son and it will be carried out, even if the task requires thankless running and offers little glamour. In last month's north London derby, for example, Son was given the job of targeting Hector Bellerin. The Arsenal right-back provides width and thrust for Arsene Wenger's team and attempts to get forward at every opportunity. If left unattended, Bellerin gives his fellow defenders an outlet ball, and as a result, the Spain defender often is the source of his side's attacks.
Son camped out close to Bellerin, ensuring that the Arsenal man became preoccupied with his defensive duties rather than looking to get up the field and join the attack. Spurs dominated the game, winning 1-0, and Son's work bottling up Bellerin was an integral part of Pochettino's tactical master plan.
The Tottenham man is more than a role player. He is quick, he has an excellent touch and his intelligent use of space makes him a threat to any defence. Perhaps the one thing he is missing that would elevate him into the top echelon of players is the ability to dribble past an opponent.
Often, as against Bellerin last month, quality defenders are not fooled by Son's feints and movements when standing over the ball. Alli can burst past rivals using sheer physicality. Kane has the unquantifiable change of direction that all great strikers possess. Christian Eriksen has a little shimmy that can wrong-foot opponents.
Son? He's not the sort of winger who will blow past people with pace or send a defender the wrong way with the drop of a shoulder. What he does have is enviable football intelligence.
He's also the first line of Pochettino's defence, as impressive off the ball as he is in possession. Tottenham's pressing game is less ferocious than Manchester City's, but Son is an excellent exponent of situational pressing. He knows when to close down ball carriers but also has the knack of using space to deny opponents their simplest passing opportunities. The way he operates allows teammates to concentrate on their own roles. While this sort of unselfishness can go unnoticed, it is appreciated by the players around him.
Players like Son make life easy for their colleagues and difficult for rival teams. Dirk Kuyt made a career at Liverpool by operating in a similar manner to the Tottenham forward; Leighton Baines, the Everton full-back, called the Dutch international "The nightmare," because playing against him was an arduous, unpleasant task.
Son could take up that nickname too. Even on days when the Spurs forward does not get a sniff of goal and appears to be having little impact on a game, he is invariably making life miserable for the players lined up against him.
The next few weeks until Kane's return will present a different sort of test for Son, as scoring goals might be a problem for Tottenham. Although Son has scored 12 Premier League goals so far -- a fine haul for a second striker or winger -- the onus will be on him to fill the void left by his injured teammate.
Operating alongside Fernando Llorente might suit him. His clever running will allow him to feed off the Spanish striker, but if Spurs are to continue their momentum, a number of players need to increase their output in front of goal.
Son should be able to handle the pressure. Though so much of his impact on games has gone unsung, the next month or so gives him the chance to underline his excellence.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.