It’s finally happened. The K League’s unquestionable best player, Lee Jae-sung, has at last moved to Europe. But his destination is a mysterious one; especially after years of speculation that Lee was destined for a grander stage. Let’s reflect on what Lee Jae-sung accomplished in Korea, speak to a Holstein Kiel expert to understand where exactly he’s moved to, and try to make sense of his move to the German second division.
- 25 years old
- 38 national team caps, began international career in 2015, key player moving forward
- Accepted into the prestigious Korea University program in 2011, then played at Jeonbuk Hyundai (2014-2018, 137 apps), Holstein Kiel (2018-)
- 2015 K League Young Player of the Year, 2017 K League MVP, 3-time Best XI honours
- Exempt from military service (2014 Asian Games gold medalist)
- Market value around 2 million euros (according to Transfermarkt)
What We Know
- He’ll be called Lee Jae-song, and not Lee Jae-sung
- 3-year deal
- Holstein Kiel forked over a transfer fee of 1.5 million euros, a club record
- Reportedly had interest from German and English teams in years prior, but after the World Cup only Midtjylland, Guingamp and Fulham remained (and a work permit concern prevented any move to the EPL)
- Agents in Asia, especially in China, had been working hard to get his signature
- Jeonbuk made a major sacrifice in letting Lee go on the cheap; youth defender Kwon Kyung-won, for example, left to Guangzhou Evergrande from Al-Ain in 2016 on a transfer fee of nearly 10 million euro, Kwon Chang-hoon went to Dijon from Suwon Samsung in 2017 on a transfer fee of nearly 3 million euro, etc.
- Lee wanted to test himself in Europe and chose a club that would give him instant playing time
What are Holstein Kiel getting?
They’re getting at the present moment a very fatigued player. Per Steve Han of Goal.com Korea, Lee Jae-sung played 3335 minutes for Jeonbuk between July 2017 and June 2018, the second most in that time frame on the Korean national team (only behind Son Heung-min). He also played all 90 minutes of all of Korea’s three World Cup matches, including playing a part in all three friendlies prior to that. Most of Lee’s observers know he wasn’t his usual self at the World Cup, appearing slightly more sluggish and sloppy in his play than usual. It was his inability to go beyond decent (because he remained one of the highlights of a poor national team) in this dress rehearsal that dispelled some European clubs from making him an offer.
Jeonbuk may limit Lee Jae-sung’s playing time for the remainder of the summer as the midfielder is suffering from an apparent “burnout,” according to Jeonbuk manager Choi Kang-hee. Over the last 12 months, Son Heung-min is the only Korean player who played more minutes than Lee.
— Steve Han • 한만성 (@RealSteveScores) July 7, 2018
Other minor issues remain in his game that don’t make him a perfect player: his lack of imposing physicality or extremely compelling long-distance shooting ability means that he can at times become a little invisible when playing centrally. He’s not an attacking midfielder in the traditional sense. His offensive output (in terms of pure statistics) could also be better. Lee only scored 3 goals in 32 appearances in 2016 and 8 in 2017. Now there are various factors that mitigate that number, but attacking players ultimately get evaluated on goals and assists.
For followers of the K League, none of this is new, but those who follow the Korean domestic scene less may need more of an introduction. Lee Jae-sung’s skill-set and talent is something no Korean player can boast – period. His willingness to play eye-catching one-two passes is by far his most noted quality. In that respect, it takes an intelligent teammate – and an effective system – to get Lee to play at his best, allowing him to be both a cog in the team’s fluidity (popping up everywhere and connecting play) and a threat offensively. His ability to take a team from casual passing to a high-energy sequence make him a player that must be closely watched by opposition defenders at all times.
Take a look at this little chart of his efforts against Germany at the 2018 World Cup, where Lee exploited Hector, attempting 7 take-ons and succeeding in a game-best 4 take-ons.
His versatility has also made him a worthwhile asset. In his time at Jeonbuk, Lee has popped up on every side of the midfield. When deployed centrally, he isn’t an attacking midfielder in the traditional “#10” sense, but instead is a quick passing option who can play others into space. Lee is often deployed on the wing as well. Offensively, he combined all of his skills above and doubles their danger through half-spaces and in the channels. In a 2015 entry for his South Korea Soccer blog, former Tavern contributor Jae Chee compared Lee to a “poor man’s Isco”, and in certain respects that still holds true.
Defensively, he shores up one side of the defense thanks to his quickness and dynamism. This, combined with effortless stamina, make him an effective workhorse. He’s unafraid to get stuck in, recover the ball to drive it forwards, or release pressure with a smart passing sequence. In the World Cup, Shin Tae-yong played Lee in three different midfield positions (though the positioning was similar in the Sweden and Germany matches, the responsibilities were different), and his defensive contributions were more than acceptable, averaging 6 interceptions/tackles per game and around 7 ball recoveries on average against Mexico and Germany.
From a Holstein Kiel point of view…
We spoke to Jonny Walsh, a 2.Bundesliga expert, to get a better read on Holstein Kiel.
Jonny covers all aspects of the German second division. He also has a keen interest in Northern Irish football, co-hosting a radio show on the Danske Bank Premiership. Jonny also commentates for the blind and partially sighted at Northern Ireland home games. Check out the 2.Bundesliga Podcast on iTunes and his Twitter feed @jonathanwalsh_
Who are Holstein Kiel? In all seriousness, could you give us a quick rundown on their recent history & anything we should know about the club (rivalries, ownership, financial situation, anything to teach us more about Lee’s new team!)?
Kiel got into 2. Bundesliga for the first time in over a generation last season, and then blitzed the table before finally finishing third and losing the play-off. They themselves had been on the wrong end of a play-off defeat to 1860 München just a few years prior, but under Markus Anfang they have hit new heights. That was until he left to head to 1. FC Köln, as he bids to lead them back to Bundesliga. Kiel have been made to reconstruct part of their stadium due to DFL rules, which means their usual away end will be out of action until that is rebuilt. The Storks, as they are known, have rivalries with FC St. Pauli and Hamburger SV. Given that HSV have been relegated to 2. Bundesliga for the first time ever, it should make for an interesting couple of games in the north. Lee will be tasked with replacing (arguably) the best player in 2. Bundesliga in Dominick Drexler, who joined Anfang and Rafael Czichos in joining Köln. If he can do this, it’s fair to say he’s worked wonders given the entire circumstances with the number of players that have left.
Who are the team’s star players?
Sadly, most have left. Drexler and Czichos have both headed south to Köln while Marvin Ducksch has signed for Fortuna Düsseldorf. This only further serves to shift the focus onto Lee and how quickly he can get to work. The only positive is that those around him, namely David Kinsombi, have stuck around. It is the striking department and replacing the goals and assists, as well as the partnership, that Drexler and Ducksch managed that will be the toughest ask. Alongside Kinsombi, they have Dominik Schmidt who was just as solid as Czichos last term. That leaves a slot open where Hauke Wahl, after a few seasons away, looks likely to partner him on his return to the Storks. Kingsley Schindler is the most exciting attacker to have remained at the club, having starred and been courted by HSV during the summer break. Kiel have done superbly well to hold onto him and will be key in any attempt to repeat previous successes.
Can they team replicate their 3rd place finish from last year, or was that just an anomaly? What should we expect from them this season?
It would be incredible, to the point of unbelievable, if Kiel managed to replicate their third-place finish. Their efforts last year shocked everyone once more but, dealing with the squad turnover and losing three key members of their spine, is a lot to come back on. An awful lot of pundits feel like they are destined for the drop, yet there is reason to be hopeful. The manager is experienced in dealing with young players and he should be a good fit for their squad. They should be capable of finishing above a handful of teams in the league if they do click, and their defence is largely unchanged if not stronger which will bode well.
Holstein Kiel have a new manager – Tim Walter. How do you think he’ll integrate Lee Jae-sung into the side (how will Holstein play, and where does Lee fit in all of it)?
Walter’s proven himself to be excellent at working with young players and, to be honest, Kiel signing Lee is an incredible piece of business. He will be key to how they perform this season, and should he fill Dominick Drexler’s shoes, then he has the opportunity to put himself in the same shop window as Drexler. They should, hopefully, stick to a similar attacking philosophy that Anfang opted for and play to their attacking strengths. Whether or not Lee and Benjamin Girth can forge a partnership with less than a week until the opening matchday remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it’s a very exciting move for both club and player; not least given the successful springboard which 2. Bundesliga has proven itself to be.
Was this the right move?
Not at all… but also yes. Lee Jae-sung’s exploits are well documented; he was an integral piece of Jeonbuk’s three dominant domestic league wins in the past four years, as well as their competitiveness in the Asian Champions League (and the 2016 ACL victory). In the national team, though he’s never become the side’s focal point per se, he’s proven to be an indispensable player who has offered something drastically different and refreshing from the stale possession football Korea has played for years. He’s not the best Asian midfielder in Asia for no reason.
In that respect, given the years of rumours and speculation and wondering when he’d finally make a move to Europe, it’s abjectly disappointing to see that he’s ended up at a 2.Bundesliga side without any guarantee or even probability of achieving promotion. In hindsight, perhaps he should have pushed for a move sooner, before the World Cup, where he was fatigued and a shadow of his real self; all observers of the Korean league are well aware that Lee has the ability to compete and excel at a higher level. If Koo Ja-cheol and Ji Dong-won can play for Augsburg, Lee Jae-sung certainly can play and succeed at that level as well.
So on that basis, this is a horrible move. Jeonbuk get shortchanged, Lee joins a weak club and the K League’s greatest asset of its time goes on the cheap to a club nobody had ever heard of before.
However, things must be looked at in context. It is very possible Lee Jae-sung even took a pay cut to join Holstein Kiel, and he has repeatedly turned down far more lucrative offers in China or the Middle East that could have doubled his salary and paid Jeonbuk enough cash to buy two players of his quality. The 25 year-old’s ideal window for moving to Europe and testing himself was closing.
Holstein Kiel, as we now learn, sold a lot of their assets last season to bigger German clubs — including their very own manager. With no disrespect to the club, the best thing now for Lee Jae-sung is to play every game to prove a point: the European scouts who dismissed him after an average World Cup were wrong. If Lee can impose himself on the German second tier in this next season, as we know he is capable of when at his very best, he will hope to attract the attention he deserves in top tiers across Europe.
Verdict: Purely on the basis of getting access to the European market, it’s an okay move. Only time will tell if this was the right step in the career of Lee Jae-sung (or song!).