As part of the second installment of the Summer 2019 Tavern Transfer Roundup, David and Joon will be covering transfer rumors for Korea’s hottest up-and-comers in Europe. Together, the two will discuss the latest possible moves that could be made for rising stars Lee Kang-in, Kim Min-jae, and Kim Hyun-woo within the next few weeks. A third installment about more established Korean players will be released very soon.
Lee Kang-in to Levante?
After orchestrating the Korean midfield almost single-handedly at the U20 World Cup, it’s become clear to most KNT fans and football fans alike that Lee Kang-In is a once in a generation talent. The real question was however, where he would go from here. After a couple scintillating cup performances for Valencia last season, it seemed almost inevitable that Lee Kang-In would feature more prominently for Valencia throughout the latter half of the Season. Nonetheless, much to the disappointment of Kang-In vocalists in Spain and Korea, he was deemed “too young” to start in a league and club that has actively encouraged accelerated player development in the past. Unfavourable playing times, coupled with his eye-catching performances at the World Cup, resulted in an exciting transfer saga for Lee, as rumours of a move to the Eredivisie with Ajax floated around for the last couple of weeks.
More recently however, Kang-In has been garnering interest from mid-table La Liga sides such as Levante, who are understood to be extremely interested in bringing Kang-In in via a loan move.
I did briefly touch upon a prospective loan deal of Lee Kang-in from Valencia to Ajax in my last article. A move to the Eredivisie, in general, would have been great with both PSV and Ajax rumored to have taken interest in the young creative midfielder. However, a move to a lesser-known La Liga club would have also been a great option on the table.
The main thing here is that a young generational talent like LKI gets sufficient playing time at this early stage in his career. A move to Levante for a year or two allows LKI to get the playing time he needs and desires while getting experience playing in the tactically-gifted Spanish first division. Although Levante has produced some mixed results over the last few years, they have become one of the most exciting teams to watch in La Liga. Former third division coach Paco Lopez has turned things around at Levante after taking the reins of the club last March and has emphasized a non-stop attacking approach to the game.
Typically employing the 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 formations in domestic matches last season, Levante may have LKI better positioned as a CAM than in the 4-4-2 formation he is typically forced to play at Valencia under Marcelino. Under Paco Lopez, LKI may able to show his creative ability in attacking situations that the team constantly sets up for themselves against similarly skilled opponents. With this opportunity still being in the Spanish first division, LKI knows exactly what he is facing ahead of him when he returns to Valencia for the remainder of his four-year contract. Retrospectively speaking, this might be a better move for LKI than one to the Netherlands. Let’s hope this happens and works well.
Verdict: I know Valencia might want to keep LKI on their first-team roster for a little while longer, judging from the €80 release clause. This won’t be a benefit to him though as Levante is a great fit for LKI’s development and playing career in Spain. A loan deal is the best option for the young talent, and this needs to and should happen.
In a scenario like this, a loan move is theoretically the soundest option for Valencia. A way to protect their future asset, whilst downplaying the risks that are attributed with accelerating a youth player through the ranks. However, raw prospects such as Lee Kang-In require complete managerial faith as well as a tactical system that can mask their weaknesses. A loan move would be smart, however, one can’t help but wonder if a permanent transfer would be a better option for Kang-In’s personal development. As demonstrated by Jadon Sancho’s incredible season with Borussia Dortmund, these are the two fundamentals that a hot-prospect needs in order to blossom into a star player.
Nevertheless, Levante most certainly offer an interesting option for Kang-In, as the current counter-attacking 4-4-2 system being deployed by Valencia under Marcelino doesn’t exactly allow Lee’s creativity to flourish and often exposes his lack of pace on the counter.
Verdict: Interesting to see what the future holds for Lee Kang-In. A loan move would be fantastic for Lee Kang-In, but at the moment it almost seems like Valencia do not have his best interests at heart. Thanks to the €80 million release clause squeezed into his recent contract renewal, a permanent move away for Lee Kang-In seems bleak. Fingers crossed that a solid season out on loan will be enough to convince Valencia of his value.
Kim Min-jae to Watford?
During the Premier League’s Winter transfer window last January, reports had speculated Watford’s interest in centre-back Kim Min-jae for a £6 million signing. Jeonbuk’s “Monster” had no experience playing European football, but Watford was able to overlook this fact due to the young defender’s physical attributes. His domineering physical presence at 6’3, 190 lbs would have made KMJ a perfect fit for the immense physicality needed to play in the Premier League. However, a few days after the news had broken out, Watford manager Javi Gracia had claimed that he had no knowledge of the player. Rumors of the signing were temporarily shelved, and KMJ had since joined Chinese Super League team Beijing Guoan for at least the first half of their campaign. As the Premier League’s summer transfer window is set to heat up, the rumors have flared up again, and KMJ’s future is now in question once more. Can one of the K-League’s biggest stars rise up to the occasion and make his mark in England’s top flight?
If the history of Korean players in the English Premier League is a tell-tale sign of anything, then this would be quite the career jump for KMJ. Out of the 13 Korean players to have played in the Premier League, only seven have made the direct jump to England’s first division from an Asian league. Others have had to prove themselves in less prestigious European leagues such as Ligue 1 or the Eredivisie before making to England’s biggest stage.
However, KMJ is the biggest defensive talent that Korea has produced in quite a while. His experience in the K-League proves this, and it wouldn’t hurt to see him in a bigger pond. Still, KMJ has just signed with a heavily improved Beijing Guoan team that is taking the CSL by storm this season. As one of Asia’s premier young talents and his team’s three allotted foreign players, I believe KMJ will be given a proper playing experience in China.
Lucky for Watford, they were able to exceed experts’ expectations and finish comfortably mid-table in the Premier League last season. Now, the Hornets need to make immediate improvements to bolster their defense this summer if they seek a potential Europa League spot next season. However, there’s not enough evidence that KMJ will be the player they need to make such adjustments. He might just prove to be a major liability and financial risk as someone with no playing experience in Europe. He’ll need to prove himself just a bit more before making that big jump, which I think will happen eventually. Just not now.
Verdict: KMJ is flying high in the CSL right now, so he will stay in China for at least the remainder of the season. He will need the experience before making a big jump to the Premier League. He can reevaluate his options at the end of this year, but a move to Watford is unlikely to happen this Summer.
Flashing back to 2017 in Kim Min-Jae’s debut season where he took home the K League Young Player of the Year award, it seemed almost inevitable that this absolute tank of a central defender would end up playing European football. Another stellar season later, shouts of a move to Watford became louder and louder, as fans began to drool and rub their hands together at the prospect of seeing Korea’s most promising defender in the last 15 years match up against Son Heung-Min. It was later revealed that Javi Garcia had “absolutely no intention” of bringing him to watford, even going as far as to offer the classic FM response of “I have never heard of the player.” Linked to Watford again, this time it seems just as likely.
Verdict: Sources in the Korean media seem to be grasping at straws again. Kim Min-Jae has only recently moved to China and seems to be putting in consistent performances. Bejing Guoan will not want to lose out on their investment this early and it seems unlikely that Kim will leave on the cheap. Watford on the other hand, are desperate to bring in some fresh faces in defense, but require proven pedigree and are likely to see Kim as a financial risk.
Would we like to see it happen? Yes.
Will it happen? No.
Kim Hyun-woo to Dinamo Zagreb?
Although Jeong Woo-young’s deal has been confirmed, most of the other rumours seem to be mere whispers in the wind. Kim Hyun-Woo’s transfer, however, seems to make a lot of sense. Fresh off the back of an incredibly successful U20 World Cup run, Dinamo Zagreb look keen to pursue him permanently, with reports of either an extended loan or a permanent transfer looking imminent. Although he will probably play the majority of the season for the U23 side, Bjelica looks to be keen on squad rotation, which should result in Kim seeing some playing time for the first-team.
The K-League has always had a fascinating Balkan connection. In fact, with the exception of Brazil, Serbia has provided more talent to K League 1 than any other country in the world. Countless other Balkan nations including Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have also contributed many players to Korea’s top flight. I know some Croatian football fanatics felt vindicated when they heard that two Ulsan Hyundai academy players were being transferred to Dinamo Zagreb last year.
One of those players, defender Kim Hyun-woo, has impressed just enough over the last year and a half for promotion into the best senior team in Croatia. Instantly after his arrival to Maksimir, KHW was named the best player of Dinamo Zagreb’s premier annual youth showcase, the Mladen Ramljak Memorial Tournament. His class has been apparent to the Croatian side since the day he was signed to the club on a loan deal. After the U-20 World Cup, that high level of potential has been exposed to a wider range of football fans around the world. Therefore, KHW has the chance progress from the same academy where many of today’s Croatian greats, including La Liga stars Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić, have played.
Unfortunately, there’s still a lot in the air about how good the youngster will really be. The Croatian First Football League, although not at the same level as La Liga, is nothing to scoff at. It is the best league in the Balkan region and, in fact, almost notched a second Champions League qualifying spot two years ago. KHW will have plenty of opportunities to prove himself over the next couple of years, so it might be best for him to be employed conservatively next season.
Verdict: Ultimately, I would like to see KHW called up to the senior Dinamo Zagreb side, but it’s not a necessity. If he is called up, I would like for him to make key appearances in Croatian cup matches or as an occasional sub in Croatian league matches. He could be to Zagreb next season what Juan Foyth was to Tottenham last season: a young defender who may make domestic appearances later in the season for early senior experience. Otherwise, he would also fare well by staying in the academy and honing his skills for Dinamo Zagreb II. It can go either way for me.
This may be a slightly premature European move for Kim, who more than produced on the international stage with solid performances throughout the U20 World Cup. On the surface, it looks realistic. A couple of years in the youth squad, while gathering some experience and ultimately playing Europa League with Zagreb. However, it’s worth noting that youth tournaments can often breed a sense of complacency and unrealistic expectations. The domestic league would present many more first-team opportunities to these sorts of promising young players and a rushed move abroad often decelerates their progress. With that being said, Kim still seems like he has all the makings to become a key option in defense for Korea.
Verdict: Only time will tell whether or not a youth player moving overseas will benefit from the added pressure and expectation. We must remember that for every Son Heung-Min, there is also a Kim Shin.