It’s been a bumpy road for young Ji Dong-Won. The former Chunnam Dragons striker found himself thrust into the spotlight when Park Chu-Young got injured just before the 2011 AFC Championship, and Ji was forced to step in as the lone striker. After a bit of a slow start in the tournament, Ji sprang to life and ended up bagging 5 goals (I believe) in the tournament. His performance earned him a move to Sunderland in the Premier League. Not many chances came his way, but he did score a memorable winner against Manchester City. A loan move to German outfit Augsburg came the next season where he was key in their quest to avoid relegation. Now back at Sunderland, Ji has been given a second chance to impress at the Stadium of Light.
Similarly, Ji has had a bit of an up and down time with the national team. Ji’s wonderful run couldn’t keep out Park Chu-Young, who came back with a vengeance. But Park has since dropped off the map, and Ji remains on the fringes. Rarely used by Choi Kang-Hee, and he, like all the Europe-based players, has yet to feature for Hong Myeong-Bo. Ji did, of course, go to London for the Olympics, where he was used as a left midfielder. His most notable performance was against the hosts, Team GB in the quarterfinals, where his hard work on the wing got people’s attention.
Ji has generally been used as a midfielder as of late for club and country, but since returning to Sunderland, manager Paolo Di Canio has been using Ji as a support striker, often playing just behind and wide of Jozy Altidore. Ji’s performances have been mixed. With a couple of decent substitute showings in the league, and one dismal start against League One side MK Dons in the Capital One Cup (AKA the League Cup).
When the team re-convenes in a week or so in preparation for the two friendlies against Haiti and Croatia, Ji will likely find himself on the bench again. But should he? The midfield is loaded with attacking talent in the form of Lee Chung-Yong, Son Heung-Min, Kim Bo-Kyung, and Koo Ja-Cheol. The forward line? A bit more lacking as we all know. As far as the KFA lists them, their is only one recognized forward in the squad, Suwon’s Cho Dong-Gun. Due to these issues, I believe that Ji should be strongly considered for the starting forward spot.
Point 1: Experience
While Ji is not the most experienced player, compared to other possible (and realistic) forward options he is the best candidate. Ji has 23 caps and 8 goals to his name. Cho Dong-Gun has 2 caps and 0 goals. Son Heung-Min has 16 caps and 2 goals.
Point 2: Playing Style
Ji is not a pure number 9. At the AFC Championship he often drifted wide (to the left usually) allowing Park Ji-Sung to cut inside and Koo Ja-Cheol to run into the box from deep. This is something I expect that the forward will be asked to do for this team. Also, Ji’s experience as playing as a wide midfielder will certainly be a boost. Hong seems to prefer a certain type of striker, which is why options like Lee Dong-Gook and Kim Shin-Wook are being ignored. Ji would seem to fit that style.
Point 3: Hong’s team tactics
Hong expects his forward to work. To hold up play, to create space for the midfield, and sometimes to press the defense. Ji can do those things. He’s not the biggest player, but he can hold up the ball. As mentioned in point 2, his natural playing style can help create space for the midfield, something that will be crucial for this team to score goals. Pressing? Ji’s workrate is very high, and something that Di Canio mentioned in his defense of Ji’s poor performance against MK Dons.
Point 4: Some chemistry with others
More specifically, Ji seems to have developed a nice chemistry with Koo Ja-Cheol. The two formed a wonderful partnership at Augsburg at the national team. Why not try to replicate it again?
Point 5: Europe experience
If we’re honest the main test in the upcoming friendlies is Croatia. While I don’t expect Haiti to be brushed aside like nothing, they won’t prove to be the real test. So, against (potentially) seasoned European veterans, why not put a player who has experience playing in the Bundesliga and Premier League? Why take a potential gamble on a career K Leaguer in Cho Dong-Gun?
Depending on what happens to Ji at Sunderland and beyond, Ji may not be the best long term option for the forward position. But, as of now, I don’t see too many better options. I think Son is better when he has a forward to play off of and can exploit space. I don’t think Hong is ready to try a false 9 like Koo or Kimbo. I don’t Cho Dong-Gun has the quality to really make an impact. So, why not Ji?