The AFC U-16 Championship is done with, and South Korea isn’t the champion. No, the title headed north over the 38th parallel to Pyongyang as the North Korean team beat South Korea 2-1 in the final. Despite the loss, South Korea’s Lee Seung-woo finished the tournament as top scorer and was named tournament MVP. The honor is deserved, Lee Seung-woo scored 5 goals and had 4 assists in five matches. Such performances led many to suggest that Lee Seung-woo should be advanced to an older age group such as the U-20 or U-23 side. But is that a good idea?
Lee Seung-woo File
Age: 16 (1/6/98)
Position: Center forward
Club: FC Barcelona (Juvenil A)
National Team: South Korea (U-16)
- Ball control
The U-16 tournament was the first time I’ve really watched Lee Seung-woo play (full matches), and the first time I’ve ever watched him perform over a series of games. Prior to this event, I’d only seen the highlights of his Barca youth games here and there. It was enough for me to see that Lee Seung-woo certainly had raw talent and ability, but I remained a bit skeptical about some of the tags and hype that was building around him. Another way of saying that is, I was cautiously optimistic he would become something similar to what people were saying he would.
First off, my general thoughts and impressions of Lee Seung-woo since I haven’t really shared them before.
I was impressed with Lee Seung-woo. His balance, finishing, and dribbling abilities were everything that people have said about him. For a 16 year old it was fantastic, and I would certainly posit that his technical ability surpasses many on the senior squad. His passing was good, but I think comparisons with Messi in that regard are wide of the mark. His four assist tally is a bit glossy in my opinion. Syria’s defending and keeping were dreadful in that one.
I suppose the thing that stood out to me the most, and contrasts with his “Little Messi” tag is his personality and attitude. While Messi is known for his quiet demeanor on and off the pitch, Lee Seung-woo seems like the type (at least for now) that isn’t afraid to say what he thinks. His comments on Japan prior to the match serve as one example of this. Can you imagine Messi saying something similar about Brazil? Probably not. I also think of the final against North Korea. South Korea had a fast break going, Lee Seung-woo passed to Kim Jung-min (I think), and Kim shot from a difficult (but not impossible) angle. Lee was furious. He threw his arms out and pointed at the spot in front of him and gave Kim a look. Why didn’t you pass it back to me? I remember Lee Seung-woo being on the end of a number of hefty challenges and him shooting a number of looks at the referee, looking for a foul, a booking. Why this is relevant (in my opinion of course) will be discussed later.
So, let’s bring this all into focus. Should Lee Seung-woo be advanced quicker through the ranks? Is there any point in Lee spending next season with the U-17 team, and then the U-20, U-23, and then finally in five or six years joining the senior squad?
Let’s start with reasons why he should be moved quicker. The first, and most important reason, is his ability. He’s good enough. I would say he’s certainly better than Kim Shin-wook and Lee Dong-gook. He’s got pace, technique, dribbling, power, and finishing ability. What’s not to love? Additionally, his natural game seems to suit the way Korea plays. He can stretch defenses with his running and can drop deeper into midfield and help the buildup. He could be a nightmare for opposition defenders and coaches. Push your defenders up high to close the space down and Lee Seung-woo can beat them with skill or pass into the space for players like Son Heung-min to run into. Drop deep to keep the pacey players in front of the defense, and Lee can keep them dropping deeper and deeper until he’s within shooting range. A player who can keep defenders guessing is something the team really needs.
Another reason is simple logic. Is there any benefit for him to play with the U18 team or U23 team? Son Heung-min rarely featured for Korea at the youth levels, and basically stopped after the U18(?) level. It doesn’t seem to have harmed him too much. Lee Seung-woo is arguably even more talented than Son is, so shouldn’t Lee move at least as quickly as Son did (Son debuted with the senior side at 18) if not faster? You could argue that Lee Seung-woo would benefit from the gradual increase in physicality and skill, but once you hit the U20/U23 level there doesn’t seem to be that great a difference.
Finally, the team needs a center forward. Kim Shin-wook and Lee Dong-gook at serviceable immediate options, but neither are really long-term considerations. Park Chu-young is done. His inability to sign with another European team, and his unwillingness to consider other options at home or in smaller leagues tells me his heart and mind are not in the right place. Kim Seung-dae looked an interesting option, but he seems set to become a midfielder. Ji Dong-won is constantly injured and seems to have moved permanently into the midfield. Starting to integrate Lee Seung-woo now gives the team a long-term option who can form playing relations with the core vets (Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Chung-yong) as well as the younger attackers coming in (Son Heung-min).
But, there are some reasons for Lee Seung-woo not to jump up yet. At 16 is he ready? Is a 16 year old capable of handling the pressure, expectations, and physicality of the senior level? One of Lee Seung-woo’s Barca teammates, Alen Halilovic, made his debut with the Croatian senior side when he was 16. Recently Martin Odegaard of Norway made his senior debut at 15. Odegaard was even considered one of Norway’s best players in that match. Halilovic even made a short cameo appearance when Croatia played Korea last year. So, Lee’s age on it’s own should not preclude him from consideration. I do have concerns about Lee Seung-woo’s ability to handle the physicality (see the North Korea game), but they are not great enough for me to think he can’t deal with it. There are plenty of slight players playing and doing well at the senior level.
But, Lee Seung-woo will need to adjust his game to play at the higher level against bigger defenders who will regularly put him on the ground when they can (see Son Heung-min against Venezuela). This is partially when I spoke of his personality on the pitch earlier comes in. If Lee Seung-woo is going to be more Neymar/Ronaldo in how he deals with physical attention, i.e. fall to the ground in pain/agony and look for a foul/booking, then so be it. Set pieces and direct free kick opportunities are very valuable at the senior level, especially at bigger tournaments where teams usually tighten up on defense. But, Lee will also need to be a little more attentive to how referees are calling games. A foul is a foul, but sometimes Lee seemed to go down at the slightest contact. If it becomes obvious the ref isn’t giving those kind of fouls, he’ll need to adjust to that and stay up when he can.
The other part of his attitude that comes to mind is in regard to the senior-junior relationship (선배-후배). In Korea, it’s well-known that this relationship is very strong among athletes. That juniors are expected to be very deferential to their seniors. Lee Seung-woo was furious with Kim Jung-min when he didn’t get the pass he wanted. Would he act similarly if that player was say Lee Chung-yong or Koo Ja-cheol? Having spent his formative years overseas, and with a foreign head coach in Stielike, I don’t know how prevalent the senior-junior relationship will come across with the senior side, but I do wonder if Lee Seung-woo would just instinctively follow it. It’s difficult for me to imagine a 16 year old (even one with prodigal talent) scolding a player like Koo Ja-Cheol (who has captained the U23 and senior side) or Son Heung-min (who has scored at the World Cup and played in the Champions League). On that note, how would the senior players react to a young 16 year old coming into their ranks? I imagine they’d accept him, but also that they would make it very clear to him that he’s at the bottom of the totem pole, regardless of his ability.
On a similar note would Lee Seung-woo be as effective on the senior side as he is with the U16. It was very clear that the U16 team is based around Lee. Virtually every offensive move either went through him or (attempted) to end with him. When Lee was not involved in the game, the team became very sluggish in attack. While Lee is very talented, I don’t think Stielike would restructure the team’s strategies to make Lee the focal point ala Messi with Argentina or Ronaldo with Portugal. Will Lee be as effective when there is Son on the left, Koo (unfortunately) behind, and Ki pulling the strings from deep?
From a non-skill perspective there are also reasons for Lee to steadily go through the age groups. Next year there is a U-17 World Cup. Lee should certainly be a part of that team. Similarly in 2017 the U-20 World Cup will be held in Korea. A wonderful chance for Korean fans to see Lee Seung-woo in person, and for Lee to play in his home country. When Lee hits the U-23 group, there is the 2020 Olympics, a chance to get that prized military exemption (assuming it’s still there). In short, there is a very good reason for Lee Seung-woo to play with each age group regardless of whether he “needs” to grow within that group.
My solution is a hybrid of things. Continue to have Lee Seung-woo represent at the various age-group levels, but make sure that he is involved at higher levels once or twice a year. For instance, continue to call him up for the U-17 team in preparation for the U-17 World Cup next year, but also give him a call with the senior squad. If you want to be very daring, call him up for the Asian Cup. Let him travel with the squad, train, and experience what it’s like. Let him train with the U-20’s in preparation for the U-20 World Cup, but bring him in for pointless senior friendlies and early round qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup against the minnows. Have him participate with the U-23 team so he can get the military exemption, but by then he should be fairly well integrated with the senior set up like Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Chung-yong were by that age.
Lee Seung-woo has a considerable amount of ability and an incredibly high ceiling, and it’s important (especially given his club situation) that Korea is intelligent in how they handle him. You can’t burn him too early, but you can’t just sit on him either. It’s important that the KFA shows Lee that they recognize his performances and ability without jumping the gun. The best way to do that, in my opinion, is to slowly bring him in now. Call him up. He doesn’t need to start. He doesn’t even need to play. Just bring him in. Show him glimpses of the future. The adoring crowds, the media limelight. Show him what can be his if he keeps on growing and developing.