Lee Kang-In: PSG’s Korean Playmaker

Talent development is a fascinating facet of football, one that feels a lot like a dice game with any possible outcomes regardless of the skillset and talent the player possesses. Many great talents have fallen by the wayside, not because they weren’t actually legitimately talented – even though some might reach that conclusion – but because of specific occurrences that changed their trajectories forever.


All it takes sometimes is one thing and everything else could fall apart. It could be a manager fighting a battle that has nothing to do with you, or an injury that derails you, or a poor performance on the worst possible day. It could be a wrong move or developing in a team not suited to your strengths.



This level of unpredictability and volatility makes predicting future outcomes for a player so much more difficult, and it may be folly to conclusively draw up a definite trajectory for any teenager, regardless of talent. One player who came very close to being part of this statistic is Lee Kang-In, multiple times in fact. Fortunately, one correct decision resolved it all, setting him back on the path to his true potential. 


Lee Kang-In joined Valencia as a 10-year-old and rose through the ranks rapidly alongside Ferran Torres and Hugo Guillamon, receiving plaudits and adulation for his precocious talent. As early as 14, he was seen as potentially a world-class player who would go on to do great things, and the weight of expectation continued to rise as he grew older.


By 17, he had started to train with the Valencia first team, even scoring in their traditional pre-season tournament, Trofeo Naranja, at Mestalla against Bayer Leverkusen. It was an unbelievable moment for the teenager, and the excitement of the fans was almost palpable. A star was born.


However, it wasn’t until the next season before he made his debut, aged 18. That same month, he came off the bench to deliver a game-changing cameo in Valencia’s Copa del Rey clash with Getafe, at Mestalla. Trailing 1-0 from the first leg, the team had gone behind early in the first half before Rodrigo provided some hope with an equaliser in the second half. But they still needed two goals to qualify.



Kang-in, who came on in the 71st minute for Cristiano Piccini, came to life in the 90th minute when his sublime long pass opened up the Getafe defence. Two touches later, Valencia had found a goal through Rodrigo. But he wasn’t done yet. A minute later, Valencia escaped conceding after Jorge Molina’s goal-bound shot struck teammate Hugo Duro, creating the infamous “Toco en Hugo Duro” (blocked by Duro) moment that Valencia fans still celebrate to this day.


In the counter-attack that followed, Kang-in received the ball, raced forward and played in Kevin Gameiro with another sublime pass to set up an assist for Rodrigo once again, sending the stadium into raptures. Those two goals took Valencia through, in a campaign that ultimately ended up with the club winning the Copa del Rey trophy.


Kang-in’s role in that turnaround was heralded, and fans were overjoyed that the kid was already starting to show his potential. The day after, he signed a new contract with the club, and everything looked to be going as planned. Months later, he played at the U-20 World Cup for Korea, perhaps the first time he had been profiled correctly, and he helped his country to the final, delivering 2 goals and 4 assists and winning the Golden Ball award as they finished runners-up.


He returned to Valencia excited for the next stage of his adventure, but this was where issues began. First, Marcelino wanted him to go on loan to get more game time, because he was not considered ready, especially for the demands of his system (on the defensive side). Valencia owner Peter Lim reportedly disagreed and wanted Kang-in to get more minutes in the team. Not long after, Marcelino was fired after reportedly angering Lim with things he said at a press conference.



It had been coming, as Lim’s relationship with Marcelino had deteriorated for months, especially because of the Copa Del Rey run – Lim had wanted full priority to be given to CL qualification in the league and was appalled Marcelino had kept playing key players in the competition which they eventually won.


According to reports, key figures in the dressing room – all of whom adored Marcelino — had some blame for the youngsters like Kang-in and Ferran Torres for his sacking. New manager Albert Celades then started to give Kang-in more game time, but that eventually dried up as results got worse and the pressure on him mounted.


It was similar to how Marcelino had also been navigating a difficult season in which Valencia were underperforming and did not fancy taking risks with less experienced players. He had given Kang-in only one appearance in three months – a 12-minute cameo – after the game-changing Copa performance, before Kang-in went to the U-20 World Cup. Like Marcelino, Celades himself was fired, but for poor results. 


The new season with Javi Gracia, in 2020/2021, looked like it would be the year of Kang-in, especially after he started the first game and delivered two assists. There had been a massive clearout of experienced players, including captain Dani Parejo, after Valencia failed to qualify for Europe.



This meant more chances for youngsters like Kang-in, exciting Yunus Musah and Jesus Vazquez. However, Gracia soon had a big disagreement with Lim over his willingness to not sanction transfers for players he wanted, and not even wanting to strengthen at all after the departures.


Reports claimed that Gracia wanted to leave less than 2 months into his tenure but was forced to stay because he would have had to pay a penalty of a few million Euros to get out of his contract. What followed was a demotivated coach with misplaced anger, and the biggest victim was Kang-in, Lim’s golden boy.


Kang-in started to get overlooked as Valencia struggled, despite the glaring need for a player of his skills and abilities on the pitch. He was taken in and out of the team at will, before Gracia just stopped playing him, massively hampering his development. The entire ordeal continued for most of the season before Gracia was shown the door, just before the season was over.


By this point, Kang-in had made up his mind; he would not be renewing his contract with the club. He still had a year left and wanted to run down his deal. The club were not pleased, so they showed him the door a year early, in order to bring in Brazilian Marcos Andre to take up Kang-in’s non-EU spot. Andre had been the priority for new manager Jose Bordalas, so the club backed him and terminated Kang-in’s contract. He signed with Mallorca right after. 



At the time, signing with Mallorca looked like a poor decision indicative of a potential decline. First, it was a move to a worse side – a newly promoted team. Furthermore, Luis Garcia’s tactics were hardly favourable for a ball-dominant player like Kang-in; it looked like his development would be further hindered.


This did not prove to be unfounded as Mallorca laboured through the season and Kang-in’s development stalled further. It didn’t help that he seemed to lose the trust of his manager, when the pressure started to mount. It was a recurring theme in his career till that point – managers simply opted for more experienced players who gave more defensively, whenever pressure started to mount.


It did not matter to them that the boy seemed to have solutions that could help in attack. The arrival of Javier Aguirre in the final months of the season would ultimately change Kang-in’s fortunes, even though it wasn’t immediate. In fact, it appeared Aguirre did not fancy the player much. But once the new season came, everything changed.


Aguirre’s system gave Kang-in the freedom to exert more influence over games, operating in the half spaces and centrally, where he is most devastating. That influence propelled Mallorca forward, and his understanding with forward Vedat Muriqi bore fruit.



By the end of the season, he was fourth in Europe’s top 5 leagues for dribbles, with 90 dribbles completed, only behind Vinicius Junior (112), Lionel Messi (102) and Jeremy Doku (96). His ability to dribble, especially in crowded areas, was a valuable asset for his team whenever they needed to break through packed defences or play out of pressure or retain possession.


It helped them come back from games, keep leads and survive onslaughts by opposition teams. This helped them finish in the top half (9th) for the first time in 11 years. Naturally, clubs around Europe took notice. It was clear that it was finally time for him to make a move to an elite club.


In stepped PSG, led by Luis Campos, to sign the player as Luis Enrique looked to build a new core following the departures of Marco Verratti, Neymar and Messi. Kang-in’s skillset fit nicely with some of the things these three players offered PSG – Verratti’s ball retention, Neymar’s ability to play through the lines and open up the game, and Messi’s close control, dribbling against low blocks and impact in the half-spaces.


Kang-in’s first season at PSG has been stop-start, due to him playing in the Asian Games and the Asian Cup for his country. That meant that he barely had continuity and missed a good chunk of the season away on international duty. He also had some injuries, in addition.



Regardless, he showed what he is capable of, as well as his versatility, slotting into multiple roles where necessary. That said, it still seems like he is a victim of a stereotype which makes it easy to mis-profile him. At times, Enrique has gotten it right, but mostly, he hasn’t.


Kang-in is a great crosser of the ball and a dead ball specialist; skills he possesses while being a great dribbler with quick feet. On top of this, he has excellent shooting ability, with a shooting style similar to the Messis and Robbens, and pretty much every left footer who likes to cut in and shoot at the far post.


This is why it is so easy to throw him into wide positions, either on the left where his crossing ability comes to the fore or on the right where he can dribble, cut in and shoot like the right wingers of recent times. But Kang-in isn’t a winger, and playing him as one is quite limiting to his potential.


He is, in fact, a CM who can operate between the lines and in the half-spaces, a player who can receive any kind of pass in crowded areas and not be at risk of losing it with his first touch. His associative capabilities make it perfect for him to operate centrally, playing closer to his teammates to make association possible and penetrate defences smartly.



The Korean is far more David Silva than Arjen Robben, and he lacks the kind of acceleration that makes a winger lethal. Out wide, despite his dynamism, he is somewhat as predictable as right-wing Juan Mata, who often suffered from being thrown out to the right wing. Mata played on the left and centrally for Valencia, and never as a pure winger, although Spain under Vicente Del Bosque couldn’t resist using him in that role.


Mata, at his best, was an associative player who thrived playing closer to his teammates centrally, using his close control and vision to unlock defences. Kang-in has a bit of Mata in him, but a lot more of David Silva, who also played for Valencia and was one of his idols growing up.


During the U-20 World Cup in 2019, he was used in the Silva role for a Korean side playing with their backs against the wall. This experience also defied the talk of him being a liability with a team who don’t have the ball. Out of possession, he was disciplined and excellent, and he maximised Korea’s use of the ball whenever they got it.


That was the tournament that first showed the kind of player Kang-in truly is. With Korea nowadays, he is given freedom to roam centrally despite the right side being his starting position. At the Asian Cup, whenever he had the ball centrally, Korea looked far more dangerous. Whenever he was trapped outside, they lost a lot of their threat. 



So far, PSG have not scratched the surface of the possibilities with Kang-in. He has played far more as a player deputising for the wingers rather than exerting his influence in his natural CM role. With a big summer ahead following the departure of Kylian Mbappe, it remains to be seen whether Luis Enrique will give Kang-in games in the role that maximises his impact and influence, alongside the likes of Vitinha and Warren Zaire-Emery.


What could be unlocked if he is allowed greater freedom to run games centrally could be the difference between PSG struggling post-Mbappe or them remaining as competitive domestically and in Europe. After circumventing the earlier hurdles that made him a victim of internal battles involving coaches and Peter Lim at Valencia, the next potential pitfall before Kang-in is being mis-profiled to the point of losing efficiency on the pitch.


In both cases, a lot has been out his hands. Perhaps he needs to force the issue by ensuring the contrast is far more obvious whenever he is deployed centrally. The hope is that his coaches finally get it right and stop throwing him into different roles around the pitch so that he can fully establish himself where he plays most optimally. The 2024/2025 season will tell a lot about the next stage of Kang-in’s trajectory. 


By: Astorre S. Cerebróne / @Cerebrone

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Pressinphoto / Icon Sport