Tottenham assistant coach Cristian Stellini believes Son Heung-min thrived on the extra responsibility he was given in Harry Kane’s absence on Saturday night as his second-half brace powered Spurs to a 3-0 FA Cup win at Preston.
Record-chasing Kane was kept in reserve on the bench after suffering with illness in the days since he moved level with Spurs great Jimmy Greaves on 266 goals for the club.
With Richarlison also missing out at Deepdale due to an adductor problem, it fell to Son to lead the line alongside Dejan Kulusevski and Ivan Perisic.
The Korean answered the call with two fine goals in the second half before the on-loan Arnaut Danjuma marked his debut with a late third off the bench.
Son has struggled for goals this season, certainly compared to the standards he set by netting 24 last term.
His brace here took him to eight for the season but he had only one since October coming into the night, and had only scored in three of his 30 appearances, five of his goals coming in two games.
“He’s a top player, he only has to wait for the right moment and to feel comfortable, to find the space to attack and to play one v one often,” Stellini said. “This evening it was a good game from him.
“I think you can feel (a response to Kane’s absence) from Sonny. Without Harry he was the most important striker for us and we play with (Ivan) Perisic not in his perfect position so for Sonny it was important to find a way to score and to let the team win.”
Antonio Conte, who sat his players down last week and demanded a change in mentality, made seven changes to face a side 26 places below them in the pyramid, but although they had to wait until the second half to break down Preston’s stubborn resistance they got the result they needed.
“We spoke a lot about changing the mentality, and what that means for us is it’s really important who didn’t play the last games, that we make changes and the result is the same,” Stellini added.
“For Antonio, it’s very important to have a squad and every player has to play to the same level and nothing changes if we make changes to the side. This is a good point to start from as we have a tough schedule with a lot of games to play.”
Preston, who have advanced to the fifth round of this competition only once in the last 14 years, battled bravely in a first half in which Spurs had 73 per cent possession of the ball but few clear chances to show for it.
But once Son had made the breakthrough five minutes into the second half there was only going to be one winner.
“I’m immensely proud,” manager Ryan Lowe said. “To keep Tottenham at bay as long as we did, lo and behold a world-class player has some world-class finishes, but we were fantastic in how we held them at bay with blocks to stop crosses, we were excellent.
“Obviously it’s unbelievable from Son. I thought with the second one we maybe could have dealt with it a little bit better but again it’s a world-class finish. The third one was maybe a soft one. In the build-up we probably should have had a foul.
“If there’s a disappointment, we could have done better with the ball but when you’re up against world-class players it’s difficult so I’m immensely proud of the group. It’s been a fantastic evening. We haven’t won but we gave a good account of ourselves.”