Last summer, when Korea manager Shin Tae-yong named his 23-man squad for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, there was a surprise member on that squad.
His name was Moon Seon-min and few people knew why he had been included in the squad. Moon had never been named to a Korean national team before this, but his form at Incheon United in the 2018 season had caught Shin’s eye. The jury is still out on Moon, but before we get to that, let’s go back to the beginning and remind you of Moon’s rise out of nowhere.
Moon’s Journey to the Top
Moon’s youth soccer career in South Korea seemingly ended when he graduated from Jang Hoon High School. At the age of 18, when most players are signing their first pro contract or beginning their college career, Moon was out of options. No K League clubs offered him a contract and there wasn’t an opportunity to join a college squad either.
Fortunately, this slump was where Moon’s legendary saga began. Just when he thought all hope was lost, he took a chance on himself and tried out for the Nike Academy. Incredibly, Moon and 7 other players were chosen as finalists out of 75,000 players from around the world. This prestigious honor of a contract at the Nike Academy was given because Moon had caught the eyes of legendary coaches Arsene Wenger and Guus Hiddink in the trials.
From that point on, Moon’s career began a meteoric rise. He moved to Östersunds FK, a team in the Swedish 3rd tier. From there he earned a step up to Djurgårdens IF Fotball, a top tier Swedish team. He didn’t quite hit the heights that he achieved with Östersunds and decided to move back home to Korea with Incheon United FC. A strong start to the 2018 season got him to the World Cup, quite an achievement for such an unheralded Korean prospect. After a critical role in Incheon staving off relegation, Moon moved up the K League ranks to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, one of the K League’s powerhouses.
What does he bring to the table?
Moon’s playing style can be summarized in one word- electric.
Originally picked by team Nike as a central midfielder, his role over time has evolved more towards winger/wing forward. Not only does Moon have pace, his touches and dribbling skills are off the charts on his best days. Particularly deadly is Moon’s favorite move- the shooting feint. His feints are deadly especially in enemy lines and in the box, giving him and his team numerous chances to score.
Although Moon is not the biggest of players (172 cm and 68 kg), he has perfected the use of his body. This strength can be attributed to his professional career in Sweden. The Swedish League, considered to have many of the tallest players in the world, puts a great demand on physicality; Moon, having had to play in that league, naturally mastered the way to use his body to the maximum power in order to win the ball in 50-50 situations. His physicality and boldness could be seen well in the K League when going against tall defenders or goalkeepers. For such a small forward, Moon surprisingly wins lots of 50-50 duels with center backs by using his strength to hold his position and shield the ball.
The Korean National Team favors the 4-4-2 formation and its many variations, which requires the wing players to actively participate in defense by moving up and down the line vigorously. This requires incredible stamina, which Moon showed during his 2018 World Cup match against Mexico by hustling back and forth between defense and offense for 70 minutes straight. He was seen defending well with Lee Yong and Ki Sung Yeung.
The 4-4-2 formation also depends on the creativity of the wing players because of its predictable pass routes and plays. Moon, who dribbles creatively and puts defenders in vulnerable positions, is helping in breaking the lines and creating defensive confusion.
Not every player is perfect, and Moon is no exception. His faults lie in his finishing skills and creating space. From watching his full games, I noticed that Moon is a master at getting inside the box, with his signature dribbling skills, but lacks the finishing needed to score more. He’ll create some wonderful goals by being clinical and bold with his shots and touches.
Unfortunately, he wastes a lot of chances by taking too many dribbles and being unable to get off powerful shots. Another fault of his- not being able to create space during tight situations- was a very hard one to catch. According to Moon, Coach Bento and him talked on the phone regarding the reasons why he wasn’t picked for the Asian Cup. To Bento, his one crucial flawwas that he is “afraid to create space during tight situations”. Modern teams nowadays should not expect to play in large spaces; they must be confident in extremely tight spaces- and Moon lacks this confidence. Heavy first touches will get him into crowded spaces and instead of unlocking the defense with an incisive pass, mostly he attempts to dribble out of trouble. In many cases, he loses the ball or opts for a more traditional and safer pass. At this point, he still lacks that creativity and decisiveness that Bento is looking for in his attacking wingers.
When we look at the current KNT player pool, I personally found a lot of similarity between Hwang Hee Chan and Moon Seon Min. Their dribbling skills and fast pace offers an offensive threat and their work rate on both ends of the pitch add to their value. Neither player will ever give up and is always ready to get stuck in. Coincidently, their weak spots are remarkably similar too, with Hwang also struggling with finishing and creating out of tight spaces. Still, Hwang has a clear advantage over Moon in that he is stronger, faster, and more experienced against top players in Europe. If Moon wants to be selected again for the A team, he will need to hone his playing style and offer a distinctive set of skills that Hwang cannot offer.
Moon is just 27, about to hit the peak of his playing career. By the time the 2022 World Cup rolls around in Qatar, Moon will be 30, that footballing golden age. Moon has beaten the odds to get to where he is now and if he keeps succeeding in the K League with Jeonbuk Hyundai, it will be no surprise if he is brought back to the A Team in the next few years.