We stay voyage up to South Wales to check in on midfield talisman Ki Sung-yueng’s largely hapless year at Swansea.
Earlier in the series: KPA 2016/17 Season Report Card: Son Heung-min
Last year was a rather underwhelming season for Ki Sung-yueng. Both Swansea and Ki regressed after two good seasons (2013/14 & 2014/15) and Ki had real competition for his place in the starting line-up, with players like Jack Cork, Leroy Fer rising to the fore to challenge Ki.
Ki himself had a busy summer, as he had to serve his mandatory reduced military service (4 weeks instead of the usual 2 years) after the Spain and Czech Republic friendlies.
“The training was not hard but mentally it was a little bit tough because I needed to stay there for four weeks.”
Probably a fairly revealing thing about Ki’s character – he’s a great athlete, as you’d expect from an EPL player, but mentally febrile. In any case, whether or not that military service affected his form for the rest of the year, Ki just wasn’t the same from the get-go.
This year was no better for Ki, who continued his downward decline under three different bench bosses. Under Guidolin, Ki made just one start. He struggled early for match fitness after said military practice and began the year with a couple appearances in a more advanced position. Guidolin attempted to play Ki as a sort of “10”, replacing Sigurdsson. This was not dissimilar to Ki’s more advanced role in many KNT games – but it just didn’t work.
So back into the midfield he went, where Ki suffered from Guidolin not knowing what his ideal midfield shape was and spending time in the doghouse after a public bust-up with the boss. Ki’s refusal to shake his manager’s hand after being pulled on 18 September at Southampton killed Ki’s two-game consecutive start streak.
But Bob Bradley would save the day right? Surely.
Some slightly optimistic readers were hopeful that the American boss would use Ki in a similar role to the way Toronto FC uses his son Michael Bradley, in much more of a box-to-box, do-everything role. Though Ki never really got to play that way under Bradley, it’s fairly obvious that at this point in his career, which seems to be on a slow decline, the South Korean just doesn’t have the speed or the acumen to live a bit more on the dangerous side.
That said, Ki did show his ability to play several roles in his first start under Bradley, on 22 October, where, if we’re going off of Korean Footballers Abroad’s analysis: “He started off as the deeper of the two DMs like his first year at Swansea, then moved at HT to a more of an even one like with Monk, and then pushed up for the final stretch.”
But any mild success he had under Bradley (albeit defensive flaws) quickly petered away as Ki broke his toe and spent over a month out of the starting lineup, only returning in the Christmastime chaos, after which it was Paul Clement in the manager’s chair.
Along the way, China came calling, and Ki must have been tempted by the dollar figure on the contract – but he resisted, saying, “so as long as I am captain of the Korean national team, I will never move to China”.
Ki made less appearances in the latter half of the season than in the first half. Two injuries – a minor calf strain and a more worrisome knee injury – kept Ki out of the lineup for a good part of Clement’s tenure until the Swans found themselves in a dirty relegation fight. Ki did play a role in said fight, but went a full 90 minutes only once and registered only one assist. His defensive work was often suspect, and his fitness levels were sub-par, but his safe passing and stability in that domain (90%+ pass completion rate again this year) kept him in the line-up for a good part of April and May.
Ki’s best moment of the year – a smart assist to Kyle Naughton (but wow what a finish).
The season ended on a fairly bright note, as Ki was part of a team that clawed back from the relegation fight yet again. He will live to play in the EPL for at least one more year.
There aren’t that many. It was yet another tough season for Ki, who was shuttled around and struggled to secure a starting position under three different managers. If there’s one highlight positive, it’s that he will still be there next season with a fair shout at a starting place. He just needs to show more gusto and energy.
That being said, finishing the year with an 89.5% pass completion rate shows he’s still got some of his usual calm and composure.
Injuries. It was a tough season for Ki, picking up several knocks and that major knee injury that killed any semblance of rhythm he had.
His offensive out-put wasn’t there, not like it was just a couple seasons back. His defensive positioning is the reason why managers hesitate so much to play him deeper, and yet he doesn’t have the energy that used to help compensate for his positional flaws. He may have made more interceptions and tackles this season than ever before, but a lot of that is just basic defending, because he’s doing more and more of that and less of the “take the game by the bull’s horns and dictate”. Ki hasn’t been doing that for the national team, and he hasn’t been doing that for Swansea.
More worryingly, his stamina is rather poor. He only played 7 full 90’s this year, where last season he played 13, the year before that, 26, the year before, 20, and the year before, 18. He’s fizzling out – these are statistics that look like a player at the end of his career, not the peak. He’s only 28.
But I feel like the most concerning thing of all is that Ki Sung-yueng, at times, just doesn’t seem to have much fun playing football anymore – not for the national team, not for Swansea.
Ki Sung-yueng will need to fight tooth and nail for a spot in the first side under Paul Clement next year. He faces stiff competition from Jack Cork, Leroy Fer and Leon Britton… and it remains to be seen if Clement introduces another central midfielder into the fray. Does he have what it takes? It’s hard to know. Next season will determine whether he can coolly control games like he did in 2014/15 – or if he’ll forever live in the shadow of that one glorious season.