It was announced earlier this week that Korean national team captain Ki Sung-yueng has signed for Newcastle United, after his time at Swansea City ended, his contract expired and the team was relegated. This post will take a look at what Newcastle United are getting, how he will fit into Rafa Benitez’s system & whether or not this was the right move for him at this point of his career.
- 29 years old
- Korean national team captain, capped at 19, 104 caps
- FC Seoul (2006-2009, 64 apps), Celtic (2009-2012, 66 apps), Swansea City (2012-2018, 139 apps), Sunderland (2013-2014, loan, 27 apps)
- Broke Swansea City’s record transfer fee in 2012 (£6 million)
- Market value around 7 million euros, peaked at 10 million euros around 2015 (according to Transfermarkt)
What We Know
- 2-year deal
- Signed on a free (chose not to renew his contract with Swansea after relegation)
- Had interest from clubs including AC Milan, Everton and West Ham United
- Previously had lucrative offers and interest from Chinese clubs, but turned them down
- The deal was completed in less than 48 hours, with talks beginning on the day of Korea’s win over Germany
What are Newcastle getting?
Ki Sung-yueng is getting on in terms of age. He has hinted before a desire to take an early retirement, and that has especially resurfaced in light of speculation that he’s set to hand over the captaincy of the Korean national team. And it’s not a secret that Ki was rather inconsistent last year, predictably struggling on a team of devoid of sufficient quality to avoid relegation. So in that respect, it’s hard to judge what kind of Ki we’ll see, and if he’s actually fallen off of the pace in the past year, or if he’s just been playing for a dwindling club.
Because of those age considerations, Ki certainly is showing the predictable limitations in terms of box-to-box ability, and was used in more of defensive/protective role in the past couple years at Liberty Stadium. This isn’t his best role, as Ki isn’t the most hard-working or effective of defenders. In the national team, he has always required a partner to assist him with defensive cover, and this is equally advisable (and probable) at Newcastle. His tackling ability is highlighted by WhoScored as a weakness, while the numbers show that Ki is average or not great in the air for an EPL defensive midfield player. Though he’s usually around 40-50% in the air, last season he had the worst success rate in aerial duels across central midfielders in England last year (albeit a limited sample size).
Ki has simply consistently remained a good passer of the ball – it’s as simple as that. The strength in his game lies in that he has, in every season he’s played in Europe, been one of the top 7 midfielders when it comes to passing completion. Indeed, his 88% completion rate last season was the worst of his career. That number usually hovers around 90%, having twice had the best completion rate of any EPL player in a given season. Ki also has some of the best stats in ball retention in the league. Obviously, most of those passes are at the base of midfield: recycling possession, shuffling out wide to easier options and not being extremely adventurous or incisive. Still, between 60-75% of his passing is forwards, and he does consistently attempt longer passes in every game (his trademark arrowing diagonal balls). seems to retained a lot of that technique and vision over the years (though it has maybe slightly dropped off).
In terms of off-the-pitch qualities, though it’s unclear how much of a “leader” Ki can be in an English locker room, it’s very clear at least that the Ki Sung-yueng making monkey gestures to provoke Japanese supporters, or the one blasting the national team manager on Facebook is no longer. His maturity and professionalism have really come into light, especially after this stint as national team captain. Ki also brings with him over 160 games’ experience in the English Premier League, playing for clubs that have at times punched above their weight, but also have seen their quality (or lack thereof) drag them into scrappy relegation battles. In the past season, despite all of their travails, Swansea simply did better in the games in which Ki played – averaging 0.96 points when he played, but 0.68 when he take part in a match.
From a Newcastle point of view…
We spoke to Mark Henderson, an Asian football expert who runs the View From the Tofu Bowl website on Asian football. He is also an avid supporter of Newcastle United. Follow him on Twitter @FromTheTofuBowl and the website @TheTofuBowl!
Q: A lot has been made about Ki Sung-yueng partnering up once again with Jonjo Shelvey in midfield and re-igniting their connection from Swansea. However, on the pitch do you expect this partnership to play out; in other words, will Ki be a regular starter for Benitez, or a rotation player? Does Merino’s departure change anything in that regard for Ki?
A: I think Ki having played with Jonjo may have influenced his signing a bit, but Ki does seem to be a direct replacement for Merino. I don’t think Ki will come in and be an instant first team starter because of Mo Diame playing like an absolute wrecking ball. Mo Diame has been a Jekyll and Hyde player since he joined Newcastle, when he first joined he seemed lazy, slow and a very poor signing so when he was playing like this Merino was in the first team, but at some point in the season a new Mo Diame showed up and has been absolutely amazing; he very rightly kept Merino out of the team and Merino seems to have spat his dummy out and asked to leave or forced his way out because of it. As for Ki starting in the first team, that will all depend if new Mo Diame or old Mo Diame turns up for the new season because Jonjo and Mo have formed an excellent midfield partnership too.
Q: What skills does Ki bring to the side that Newcastle lacks (if any)?
A: Ki strikes me as someone who personifies a Benitez kind of player, from what I have seen from him in the Premier League in the past he strikes me as someone with decent work rate, good ball retention and passing ability. Benitez likes players who will run through brick walls and that has been what has helped us finish 10th last season when a lot of people expected us to really struggle with a lack of big spending on the team after promotion. The squad doesn’t have a lot of Premier League experience and on a free transfer Ki can bring a wealth of experience to the squad. The key things he brings to the squad are experience, good passing, hard work and teamwork.
Q: Why do you think Rafa Benitez made this signing, and do you agree or disagree with his decision?
A: It’s very well known that we have an owner who refuses to spend money, if this happened ten years ago before Mike Ashley took control of NUFC then I think people would be shocked and outraged, but over that time we have seen many hopeless players signed on the cheap or free and a lot of them we have got for free or on the cheap have been hopeless, but Ki looks different to that – prem experience, international captain, etc. For that reason most people, and me included, are happy enough with signing Ki for free because we know the type of players signed this way could be whole lot worse and we need to spend as much of our transfer budget on a striker, a number 10 and bringing Kennedy back on a permanent transfer.
Newcastle fans very rarely if ever disagree with Benitez, even if we think it is the wrong player to buy, or sell, Benitez knows best and has shown that the decisions he makes have on the whole been excellent for NUFC. Benitez will bring the best out of Ki make no doubt about it, and he could sign anybody he wants in most Newcastle fans eyes and still be loved.
Q: Ki also said that Newcastle are a “club with ambition”, using that as justification for passing over some other clubs, including apparently AC Milan. Does Benitez’s transfer activity so far indicate that? What’s the club’s realistic goal in the upcoming season, and was that just amiable words from Ki instead of truth?
A: Benitez definitely has big ambitions to take us far but everything hinges on Ashley. If Ashley doesn’t back Benitez like he wants and needs, then Benitez won’t sign his new contract. Benitez is currently the glue holding everything together, and if Benitez goes Newcastle will be in open revolt. It will be back to donkeys like Pardew and Joe Kinnear and if that happens the wheels will really fall of the clubs’ progress.
Benitez certainly has ambition, but can or will Ashley match is the big question that is asked every season. My own opinion is Ki is settled in the UK as he has played there for years now and likely didn’t want to relocate to Italy, also AC Milan isn’t really the club it used to be since Chinese owners bought it and has become something of a shambles too. Our goal should be to finish higher than last season’s 10th place finish and have a go at winning a cup. Everything Benitez wants to do is all on Ashley being willing to back him, and if he doesn’t back him then Benitez will leave as he has already said on numerous occasions. There will be plenty of clubs willing to offer Benitez what he wants.
Was this the right move?
You really can’t have complaints about this move at this point in his career. He obviously wasn’t going to play in the Championship, despite his loyalty to the Swans, so a “sideways” move to another mid-to-lower level Premier League makes sense. However, playing under Rafa Benitez, working together again with Jonjo Shelvey and seeing all of his boxes ticked – good atmosphere, storied club with ambition, and not too far away from London & his family – hopefully means that he’ll be a happy camper, smiling and enjoying playing football again (after a very stressful past year with the KNT and Swansea). It sounds a little simplistic, but it’s true.
If Ki was, say, 2-3 years younger, then you would scratch your head at turning down a move to AC Milan and trying your hand in a brand new league. However, at this point, with no guarantee of minutes and no guarantee to acclimatize well in a new country, Ki’s move seems entirely rational. In truth, a slightly younger, in-his-prime Ki had been linked to a big move – replacing Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, for example – and that’s a bit of a missed opportunity when we look back on his career.
But Ki is set to retire soon. He could just have easily gone to China to be paid handsomely and retire, but instead he’s chosen a new challenge in Europe. He seems to have even gone beyond fulfilling the promise to Korean fans last year, when rumours of him going to China surfaced: “I will never play in China so as long as I am captain of the Korean national team.”
Ki Sung-yueng’s longevity in Europe and consistency (if you ignore last season) over the past few years is not something done by very many Koreans. It’s a highly commendable feat, and a model for future Korean Players Abroad to aspire to. This is just the logical continuation of a distinguished EPL career.
Verdict: A fine move, under a fine manager, at a fine club, for a fine player. Kudos, Captain Ki.