LONDON — Son Heung-Min wreaked havoc together with Harry Kane on Premier League defences for years, but in James Maddison he appears to found a new partner-in-crime at the heart of Ange Postecoglou’s rebuild. Postecoglou challenged this Spurs team to commit to his more expansive style in the most testing of circumstances and Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Arsenal offers an exciting vision of what could be possible despite Kane’s departure.
Kane and Son combined for a record-high 55 Premier League goals prior to the England captain’s departure to Bayern Munich. His exit threatened to cast a long shadow over the team he left behind, none more so than in this fixture: Kane is the all-time top goal scorer in north London derbies, netting 14 times in 19 games.
Yet there was a refreshing and encouraging fluidity here with Maddison and Son central to the visitors’ best attacking moments, the former assisting the latter for both equalising strikes after Cristian Romero‘s own goal had given Arsenal a lead they later restored through Bukayo Saka‘s 54th-minute penalty. Maddison and Son have now contributed seven goals and four assists between them but this was the first game in which the pair have combined to find the net. It is also the manifestation of Son’s increased responsibility, taking over the captaincy from Hugo Lloris.
“If you’ve got good players out there, they are going to find an understanding for sure,” Postecoglou said. “Sonny and Madders are on the same wavelength at times in terms of the way they see the game, which helps. The pleasing thing for me is we’ve scored a lot of goals this year and they’ve been fairly spread out. There’s a couple of games where Sonny’s got multiple goals.
“Today I thought we were a goal threat from different areas as well. Brennan was really unlucky not to get a goal. We need to keep doing it.
“Sonny has been outstanding as a leader and as a player. We have put him in that nine position now and he just works so hard. He is so team-first orientated, it is just incredible. His first thought is what is best for the team and when he puts himself in those positions then has the quality to finish. I thought Madders was outstanding with both assist and Sonny was there to finish them off. [I’m] pleased for him because he’s really invested in what we’re doing,” added Postecoglou.
Son started through the middle with Brennan Johnson making his full debut off the left. The South Korean is both experienced and adept at leading the line and the contrast with Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah was marked here. While Nketiah — and Gabriel Jesus both spurned opportunities either side of Romero’s own goal, Son took the first chance which came his way with a deft finish in off the post after clever work from Maddison.
After Saka converted a penalty awarded for handball by Romero — a decision on VAR review which prompted Postecoglou to admit he had no idea what the law is — Maddison and Son combined again, profiting from a dreadful error by Jorginho to equalise barely a minute later. It was Son’s 150th Tottenham goal. The contrast in midfield grew as this game wore on. It is credit to the impact Declan Rice has made since his £105m move from West Ham that Arsenal were palpably worse after he was forced off at the break with what Arteta described as “discomfort in his back.”
With Thomas Partey sidelined due to a groin problem, Jorginho was forced into action at the base of Arsenal’s midfield, and the pace of this game was too much for the 31-year-old, whose value is best seen in matches where Arsenal dominate possession and require the Italian’s guile to break teams down.
Instead, it was Yves Bissouma who came to the fore. Ably assisted by Pape Matar Sarr, Bissouma brought a remarkable level of composure to Tottenham’s midfield. In an often frenetic affair, Bissouma still completed 48 of his 51 passes and helped stifle an Arsenal side so used to overwhelming opponents on their own pitch.
This is another measure of Postecoglou’s impact. In this fixture last season, Spurs had 35 per cent of the ball and completed 240 passes. Here, they had 53% possession and competed 373 passes. Eight of the starting lineup had never played in a North London derby at Emirates Stadium.
“What’s pleased me most and it’s player driven is that they’ve created a really good environment for themselves in there where they push each other every day,” Postecoglou said. “They’re willing to follow, in terms of becoming the team we want to become, follow what we’re trying to provide for them in terms of information and structure. When you get that kind of belief from the players’ group, I think that accelerates growth. We’ve still got a long way to go and from that point of view, the start is still the start for me, but just really proud of the way the players have embraced the fact that we’re going to be this kind of football team.”
Perhaps Arsenal’s midweek exertions were also a factor. They appeared decidedly leggy towards the end and several players fell to the ground in a heap at the final whistle, concluding a week in which they won at Everton before beating PSV Eindhoven in their first Champions League game for six years. Navigating the extra demands of Europe’s premier club competition is an additional hurdle for the Gunners to overcome in their title challenge even if Arteta explained the drop as a consequence of this game’s intensity.
“There were moments where we played super hyped and these derbies and atmospheres take you there and you cannot play at the same pace when you don’t have the ball and when you get the ball back,” said Arteta. “We lacked that composure to be much more dangerous because we could have been.”
Postecoglou’s approach made this the frantic fare it proved. It felt somewhat premature of chairman Daniel Levy to declare earlier this week that “We’ve got our Tottenham back,” but the mark Postecoglou is making on this Spurs side is hugely encouraging.