When Kwon Chang-Hoon limped off the pitch after rupturing his ACL, every beating heart in South Korea’s fanbase stood still. The Dijon midfielder had an immaculate start to life in Europe; in his first full season at Dijon, he netted 11 goals in 34 performances, becoming one of the biggest revelations in the Ligue 1 season, and making the €1.5million Dijon paid Suwon Bluewings for his signature look like an absolute bargain. And yet, on the final game of Dijon’s season, a cruel injury ended Kwon’s World Cup hopes, and put a warning sign on South Korea’s as well.
Had Kwon not ruptured his ACL, I’d be writing about him instead. However, after a slew of injuries, including Kwon, Kim Jin-Su, Kim Min-Jae and Lee Keun-ho, my attention turns to Lee Jae Sung, who will be looking to earn a move for Europe and replicate Kwon’s debut season success.
At 25 years of age, a move to Europe is long overdue for Lee, who has already earned his military exemption. Many had expected Lee and Kwon to form a dynamic duo on the wings, but an untimely injury puts those hopes to bed.
An all-round midfielder, Lee has used his solid tackling and skillful passing to his advantage when playing as a defensive midfielder. It seems as though he will be used as a left-sided midfielder in Shin Tae-yong’s system, but should Shin switch to a 3-4-1-2 or a 3-4-3, he could find himself further forward, as the coach will be aiming to utilize Lee’s creativity up front.
From leading Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors to the AFC Champions League title in 2016, to winning the Korean League MVP for his role in Jeonbuk’s 2017 title win, Lee has enough plaudits to merit a transfer to a top 5 league this summer. However, the Korean has stressed the need for patience, as he continues to hone out flaws in his game.
“In order to become a bigger player, I think I need to have a delicate touch in attack and have good finishes,” Lee said in November.
Indeed, a lack of finishing touch seems to be the only thing holding Lee back from true stardom.
“He’s one of those players who does a lot of everything except scoring,” said Korean football expert Steve Han. “That’s not to say that his terrible inside the box, but it’s just that his focus is on other areas of the game.”
In addition, his versatility has also hindered him from making a big move. The fact that he covers so many positions has meant Lee has never quite found a singular position to hone his skills and define his template under.
With Lee (25), Kwon (23), Son Heung-Min (25), and Hwang-hee Chan (22), South Korea have the potential to build a superb front four that could go down in national lore. While after two losses, South Korea are officially eliminated from the World Cup, they can still look to improve as the likes of Kim Jin-Su and Kim Min Jae regain fitness and enter their primes.
As August’s Asian Games and January’s Asian Cup looms in the distance, the onus is on the Korean team to bring home at least one trophy, not only to bring home glory for their fans, but so that Son can avoid mandatory military service. They haven’t reached their prime just yet, but they’ll have to gel earlier than expected in order to successfully manage a Herculean task on their shoulders.
By: Zach Lowy