Going golden: How Son Heung-min made it to 23 goals

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Going golden: How Son Heung-min made it to 23 goals

Scoring 23 goals in a single season made Son Heung-min the first Asian footballer ever to win the Golden Boot, a huge achievement for the 29-year-old that is so often overlooked when it comes to the Premier League's top awards. But dig a little deeper and Son's effort is even more impressive, defying the odds to score far more goals than was statistically expected of him.
Son and Mo Salah shared the Premier league Golden Boot award on Sunday with 23 goals each, with both players hammering in goals during the final 20 minutes of the 2021-22 season, only to end up tied when the final whistles blew.
On paper, Son and Salah's achievements are the same — the Golden Boot goes to the player that scores the most goals and they both did. As far as the history books are concerned, that's the end of the story.
Statistics, however, tell a very different story. Son and Salah both approached the Golden Boot award in very different ways, both in terms of how their seasons shaped up and how they scored their goals. They also faced very different expectations — while Salah was often seen as something of a shoo-in for the Golden Boot, the numbers didn't suggest that Son could be a contender until the final few weeks of the season.
According to statistics compiled by The Athletic's statistics agency, Salah actually underperformed on the season. The Liverpool forward was statistically expected to score 24.5 goals on the season — a statistic known as xG, or expected goals — but only managed to score 23. Break that down by game, or 90 minute periods, and Salah was expected to score 0.80 goals per 90 minutes, but only managed 0.75.
For Son the numbers go in the opposite direction. The Korean forward was projected to score 15.9 goals throughout the season, but significantly surpassed that with 23. Son was expected to score 0.47 goals per 90 minutes played, but actually scored 0.69.
How Son scored those goals is also remarkable. Although the Premier League doesn't differentiate between goals scored from active play and those scored from penalties, an accurate record of Son's achievements this season should.
Penalties tend to go in — analysts put the number at around 80 percent of the time — so designated penalty takers are almost guaranteed to score more goals, or at least have far more opportunity to score more goals, than players who don't tend to kick from the spot.
Salah is a penalty taker and Son is not, leaving the Spurs forward with significantly more work to do to score those 23 goals. Take out the penalties and Son actually tops the table, beating Salah by five goals.
A quick look at previous Golden Boot winners and it's obvious how important penalties are. Of the 16 players that have won the Golden Boot since 2010, Son is only the fourth to do so without any penalties.
The pair also approached the season in very different ways. 
While Salah started the season hot, scoring 10 goals in his first nine games, Son's success came at the end of the season. The Korean forward struck nine times in his last 10 games with six goals coming in the last five games to shoot up the scoring charts and draw level with a far more sluggish Salah.
The secret to that sudden success likely lies with two people — Antonio Conte and Dejan Kulusevski.
Antonio Conte [REUTERS/YONHAP]

Antonio Conte [REUTERS/YONHAP]

Conte's arrival with Spurs in November essentially forced the club to reinvent itself. It was a rocky road, with Spurs appearing to fall apart at the start of this year and Conte infamously confronting the team after a harrowing loss to Burnley in February and threatening to leave. 
But after weathering that storm, Spurs became far more productive and Son clearly benefited from the focus and drive of the new manager, scoring 14 of his 23 goals after that Burnley loss.
The arrival of Kulusevski on loan at the end of January also clearly benefited the Korean international. The pair struck a remarkably quick goal scoring partnership, with Kulusevski proving to be an exceptional playmaker.
The Swedish midfielder has picked up eight assists in the four months since he arrived in London, more than any other player in the Premier League. Five of those went to Son, the same number he received from Harry Kane throughout the season. 
As Kane and Son are already recognized as the greatest goal scoring partnership in Premier League history, the incredible success of the Kulusevski matchup could prove even more fruitful in the future.
That Son defied his xG numbers so emphatically could be a cause for concern. In theory it means he defied the odds and this year's number is a statistical anomaly — luck essentially. 
But Son's success and his fruitful partnerships with Kane and Kulusevski suggest maybe that won't be a problem. After all, Son's been here before — last season he defied the stats and surpassed his xG by more than any other player in the league. He's done it again this year, and doesn't look to be stopping any time soon.

BY JIM BULLEY [jim.bulley@joongang.co.kr]
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