Defensive midfielders are often the unsung heroes of all successful teams. Meet Korea’s three defensive midfielders who will be making the trip to Rio in the 2016 Rio Olympics – Gwangju’s Lee Chandong, FC Seoul’s Park Yongwoo and Jeju United’s Lee Changmin.
Part 5: Attacking Midfielders
Part 6: Forwards
Name: Park Yongwoo (박용우)
Jersey Number: #14
Club: FC Seoul (Korea)
Position: DM, CB
Park Yongwoo was pretty much thought of the second choice defensive midfielder behind Lee Chandong for most of the U23 team friendlies and qualifying matches. The former Dankook University player, starting in the first team despite very few players of his age being able to displace more older players from the starting lineup, was signed by FC Seoul in the winter of 2015 and made his debut in April of that year. His relative consistency for his age led to him starting 23 matches in his debut season. He impressed particularly in the Asian Champions League, which led to him being dubbed in the media as the “new Ki Sungyueng”.
Lee Chandong’s injury ahead of the AFC U-23 Championship vaulted Park back into the limelight as he now suddenly became a guaranteed starter for Shin Taeyong’s team. In that tournament, Park had to be the base for numerous formations including the 4-4-2 diamond where he seemed least competent. However, in pretty much any other formation, Park was a very reasonable base for Korea’s “storm the box” flowing brand of football. Playing in front of the defense, Park has passing ability, long passes and shorter balls alike – he’s best when keeping the ball on the ground. He’s decent at winning back the ball and puts pressure adequately on opponents.
Another advantage that Park boasts is his versatility. He can play pretty much any central role on the pitch, having played as a centreback in a three back system, and in more attacking roles with his University side.
Although it could be difficult to draw a distinction between Park and Lee because they play similar positions and similar roles, teammate and potential captain Song Juhun draws this distinction: “Lee Chandong is the kind who plays in front of the defense and protects it, whereas Park Yongwoo’s strength is passing. Their importance to the team is thus very different”.
I’ll break down Park’s chances of starting in Rio below.
Name: Lee Chandong (이찬동)
Club: Gwangju FC (Korea)
Dubbed in the nickname-obsessed media as the “Korean Gattuso”, Lee Chandong was for quite a while the starting defensive mid in Shin Taeyong’s Olympic side. Considered to be irreplaceable as the link between the defense and attacking players, his pre-qualification injury was considered to be one that could seriously damage the team’s Olympic qualification chances.
Lee made his professional debut for Gwangju in 2014 after being drafted in the 2nd round by the then-Challenge club. With 6381 professional minutes, Lee has logged more pro minutes on the pitch for the citizen club then any other of his U-23 teammates. He was a regular starter and key player for the club’s last-minute promotion to the K League Classic. Although he was called up to the East Asian Cup side, he didn’t feature and hasn’t been recalled to the national team sense, though he is certainly on Stielike’s radar.
Lee is this squad’s no nonsense midfielder. He isn’t blessed with flair or creativity or technique, and his passing range isn’t as broad as the other defensive midfielders. Rather, Lee is a ball-winning, physical kind of player. He is a work horse and uses that to his advantage. However, post-injury, his form seems to have dropped despite featuring regularly for Gwangju.
Although the media are over eager to dub him as the next “Gattuso”, I think it would be more apt to call him the next “Park Jongwoo”. Though his nationalist political sign-wielding credentials are yet to be assessed.
Name: Lee Changmin (이창민)
Club: Jeju United (Korea)
Lee Changmin’s road to professional football has been a bit strange. After just two years at Chungang University, he opted to move to Bucheon FC. Bizarrely, he couldn’t find a place in the starting lineup there, being sent on loan in 2014 to Gyeongnam FC and then in 2015 to Jeonnam Dragons.
Unfortunately, his full-time transfer to Jeju United has seen him become the defensive midfielder with the least starting time among the three, with only 516 minutes this season, struggling to displace more established players in his role such as the irreplaceable Song Jinhyung.
Despite this, to Shin Taeyong, Lee Changmin is an “irreplaceable player”. “It would have been impossible to go to Rio without (Lee) Changmin”. This is perhaps because Lee doesn’t really have a direct competitor in the starting lineup and never came under much pressure from players similar to his role.
He’s the deep lying playmaker of this squad. He has an acceptable passing range, is fairly quick on his feet, has good technique and technical ability. Defensively, he can pitch in with a very competent slide tackle. He also some of the team’s set pieces. This being said, his lack of playing time means that he may be far more rusty than what would be hoped and will be something to observe closely in the preparation matches.
So who starts?
It all depends on the formation. Park Yongwoo has been shown to struggle with the pressure required in the 4-4-2 diamond formation, and if Shin decides to employ it, it will have to be Lee Chandong starting in that role in order to cope better with the physicality required. In a 4-2-3-1 set out to defend, the strength of Lee Chandong and deeper play of Park Yongwoo will be prioritized. It’s easy to see that kind of shape being employed against Germany. Against Mexico, however, Lee Changmin will definitely start, no matter the shape, to catalyze the box-crashing style this team leads.
I have little doubt that for this generation of players, Shin Taeyong took the right trio. But it is a real pity that he didn’t give younger players such as Han Chanhee, Paik Seungho or Hwang Inbeom a shot to push Lee Changmin further when it comes to the passing role. It remains to be seen if the defensive midfield can provide the base required to keep potent attacks at bay and launch the KNT to an Olympic medal.