The Next Generation: Potential K League Transfers to Europe Part 1

After a World Cup there are always transfer rumors, but after 2014 and 2018 we didn’t get many meaningful transfers to Europe. 

Transfers from the K League are complicated. In the past there have been issues of clubs not wanting to let players go, refusing to take offers unless they’re highly priced, or otherwise derailing transfers altogether – remember what happened to Hwang In Beom? Kim Min Jae, in his interview prior to boarding a plane to Napoli’s training camp in Turkey, directly referred to all of these issues (not the Hwang Inbeom case specifically, just the issue in general), lamenting how difficult it is for Korean players to transfer to Europe. The military issue is always over our heads as well. 

The most recent European transfers from the K League, Lee Dong Jun and Lee Dong Gyeong, are surprisingly not doing very well in Europe. LDJ, who was injured most of the time he was at Hertha, is officially coming back to Jeonbuk. But don’t start coming to conclusions that the gap between the K League and European leagues is growing or insurmountable. Remember that players like Lee Chung Yong and Kim Min Jae were able to instantly make an impact in Europe – it’s about the player’s ability, how they fit in the team, as well as elements of luck (injuries, opportunities, etc.) that decide whether our KPA succeed in the top leagues or not. 

As a side note: just having lots of players in Europe does not guarantee national success. Of course it would help, but Korea has gotten to the RO16 3 times with heavy K League representation. Do I want more KPAs in Europe? Yes – having our team play every week at a higher level will definitely help – but it’s not the panacea. Good form, talent, and a system that we can perfect is something that we can achieve no matter where our players are. And when it comes to talent at least, somehow Korea always manages to punch above its weight. No Asian country has produced a Park Ji Sung, a Cha Bum Kun, or a Son Heung Min. We’re doing SOME things right, but we’re also doing so many other things wrong… a discussion for the future! 

In this multi-part series we will be discussing several promising players who I believe might make a move to Europe in the future. I will roughly divide this into 1) the impending transfers (there’s only one and I think you can predict who it is), 2) the transfers that may happen down the line, and 3) the transfers that I really wish would happen but most likely will not. 

The Impending Transfer:

Cho Gue Sung
Age: 24
Position: FW
Club: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
2022 stats: 31 apps (26 starts), 17 goals (combining Gimcheon and Jeonbuk)
Military service: completed

After becoming our first man to score more than one goal in a single game at the World Cup and establishing himself as our starting CF, Cho was bound to draw European interest. Even my close friend who had never heard of CGS said “this guy’s going to Europe” (and also commented on his looks) after our match vs Ghana. He especially gets bonus points as he did his military service early on at Gimcheon Sangmu where he was a regular starter. He’s everything Kim Shin Wook was supposed to be but better – better on the ball AND better aerially despite being 3 inches shorter. He played only 3.5 games at the World Cup, yet pulled off the following statistics:

I won’t go into Cho’s attributes much since the whole world got a glimpse of his skillset, but rather speculate on where he might go. Celtic seems to be the forerunner at the moment, but personally I am not a fan of Celtic because of their massive Japanese contingent. I think the most ideal destination for CGS has to be Fenerbahce. They are actively looking for forwards at the moment to play alongside Enner Valencia, and are linked to a bunch of strikers outside of CGS – Antoine Semeyo, Anthony Nwakaeme, Halil Dervisoglu are some names I could find based on a cursory google search. I am very hopeful that Cho will be the one (and the only one) to actually sign for them – he’ll have a higher chance of playing time there compared to at Rennes, a very strong side in Ligue One. That being said, Park Ji Sung (the new technical director at Jeonbuk) will be overseeing this transfer and he surely knows better than I do. Given that CGS will likely be our starting CF for the forseeable (unless our new manager prefers Son Heung Min up top which I believe is perfectly viable), I feel very invested in hoping that CGS succeeds in Europe. 

Now we’ll look at the K League talents who probably won’t transfer this coming winter transfer window, but have a good chance later down the line.

Oh Hyeon Gyu
Age: 21
Position: FW
Club: Suwon Samsung Bluewings
2022 stats: 36 apps (24 starts), 13 goals
Military service: completed

Our 27th KNT member who unfortunately did not get into the final squad for Europe (he was the backup in case Son or HHC were unfit) but according to the NT players still played an important role on the team. The team even came together and pooled their earnings from the KFA for OHG, who did not earn anything as he was not on the official squad. As things stand OHG and HUJ are clearly the favored FWs on the NT after CGS. 

In some aspects, OHG is a lot like CGS. Built like a tank and good in the air, he looks even bigger than CGS and KMJ on the pitch even though he’s a little shorter than them at 185 cm (CGS is 188, KMJ is 190). Interestingly, OHG and CGS were teammates at Gimcheon Sangmu, but Oh enlisted in 2020 whereas CGS enlisted in 2021. Oh was only 18 at the time, and that turned out to be a stroke of genius because he got regular playing time in his second season there and became an instant hit at Suwon on discharge, with 13 goals including a near-hattrick (a brace) vs FC Seoul. Honestly, more promising youngsters should do this if their club team has established starters in their position. May his career turn out better than Kim Gun Hee’s, because OHG is to me THE most exciting young forward in the K League. 

Oh Hyeon Gyu’s Namu Wiki page (like Wikipedia but specifically for Koreans) states the following: Not only is he 185 cm tall, he is also blessed with excellent physical attributes. Even during his high school days he was a player with overwhelming strength. He bulked up even more during his time as a soldier at Sangmu so despite his age he is not easily pushed around by anyone in the K League. He also has a high workrate and participates in defense – important for any modern center forward. He actively presses the opponent’s back line, which synergizes well with his physicality. His shooting technique and his ability to score goals are fairly good, and his decision making has improved significantly as he has gained further experience on the professional stage. 

Though he can outmuscle any defender, he can become invisible if the opposition is organized and he is well-marked. His stamina is another weakness. His play style is direct and he covers a lot of ground – this can be exhausting and he is often visibly tired in the second half if he starts a game. This past season he has improved on this aspect however as he has scored consistently even after starting.

Yang Hyun Jun
Age: 20
Position: RW
Club: Gangwon FC
2022 stats: 36 apps, 33 starts, 8 goals
Military service: pending

This guy is probably one of the most well known youth talents at the moment. He won the Young Player of the Year award for the 2022 season, swept 4 out of 9 possible “Young Player of the Month” awards, and most famously, turned heads during the K League XI vs Tottenham Hotspur match, when he dribbled past multiple Tottenham defenders. Antonio Conte even commented on him after the match – he had just turned 20 at the time. YHJ to Europe rumors were all over the place after that game, although to my knowledge only Fenerbahce (you’re going to see Fener pop up a lot on this post) and Tottenham (yeah right) have been speculatively named up to this point.

Per Namu Wiki: as a winger his speed and technical ability stand out. His other strengths include pressing and instant acceleration. Over the course of the 2022 season he particularly improved his on the ball and off the ball movement, and his individual skills have progressed at a rapid pace. Recently his scoring ability has been labeled as a weakness, but he improved on this aspect as well with 8 goals this season. However, his shot accuracy and power are still lacking. 

YHJ himself specifically stated in an interview that he has lots to learn at Gangwon. I agree with him – he’s still quite raw but clearly talented – so it might take another season or two of consistent performances to make the leap. More international experience would help – he has been called up by Bento but has yet to make his KNT debut, especially with guys like Song Min Kyu, Um Won Sang, Jeong Woo Young, Hwang Hee Chan, etc. more established on the KTN.

Lee Han Beom
Age: 20
Position: CB!!
Club: FC Seoul
2022 stats: 23 apps (20 starts), 1 goal
Military service: pending

A tall, 190 cm defender who established himself as one of FC Seoul’s first choice CBs this season. He has incredible aerial prowess as well as surprisingly strong distribution and passing ability, possibly owing to the fact that he played midfield until he was in 10th grade. Sounds familiar? Yep, he was inevitably going to draw comparisons with Kim Min Jae, who also first broke into the Jeonbuk Hyundai XI when he was 20. He’s not quite as fast as KMJ, but should things go well I am certain LHB can reach similar heights. So links to Fenerbahce were inevitable, but whether there is serious interest isn’t 100% clear. 

Lee Han Beom will certainly play a bigger role next season with CB Lee Sang Min (also KNT RB Yoon Jong Gyu) joining the military next season. He will need to sort out the military issue soon too – he will certainly be aiming to break into the squads of the upcoming AG and Olympics. He also will need to take steps to prevent injury in the future – he has unfortunately suffered multiple injuries to his knees, including two season ending injuries the end of the 2021 and 2022 seasons.

Per Namu Wiki: Based on his excellent physicality, he has strong aerial supremacy. In addition, since he played as a midfielder until his first year at Boin High School, he has excellent technical ability and is two-footed. At the 2019 U-17 Brazil World Cup, he played an active role as the main center back and showed stable defense and build-up ability. At FC Seoul too, during his first season at only 19 years of age he proved that his build-up ability was much better than his seniors Hwang Hyun-soo and Kim Won-gyun. Lee Han-beom passes with accuracy and a clear purpose. He usually plays as the right central defender in a back four as he is right footed, but because he can use both feet equally well, he can also slot into the left CB position without any difficulty. 

With above-average speed, jumping ability, tackling, vision, and build-up play, he has all the abilities needed for a modern defender. Expectations are high.

Kim Ju Sung
Age: 22
Position: CB!!
Club: FC Seoul
2022 stats: 12 apps (9 starts), 0 goals (combining Gimcheon + Seoul)
Military service: completed

Kim Ju Sung is a left footed CB who has not seen much playing time this season, but has been linked to a transfer to Fenerbahce. Turkish media and Fenerbahce fan accounts on Twitter have been reporting it frequently as of late, but rumors have been going on since the end of the season in October. People were speculating if Fener might be confusing Kim Ju Sung with Lee Han Beom. From a fan’s perspective it seems that Lee Han Beom is the more talented CB. But at this point it seems clear that they are interested in Kim. I’d assume that professional football scouts know better and Fener know what kind of player they need better than I would. The national team managers seem to favor Kim as well – Lee Han Beom has yet to be called up by Paulo Bento or Hwang Sun Hong (though among the U23 matches I watched, KJS had a really bad showing in the shameful loss to Japan in the 2022 U23 tourney). Surely the fact that he already completed military service is a big plus. 

I can’t seem to find any highlights of him playing for FC Seoul this past season on YouTube, but he seems to be an absolute fan favorite. He graduated from Seoul’s youth academies (Osan Middle School and High School), was the captain at Osan High, and has been called up for the U17, U20, and U23 national team sides, even getting his first cap for the senior NT in the EAFF vs Hong Kong. 

Namu Wiki entry on his attributes: a clever player who excels at build-up play, aerial ability and interceptions are his strengths. As a former captain of Osan High School, he is someone who sets an example for the team because of his excellent leadership skills. 

The more defenders we can send to Europe the better, and if he does make the move I hope Fener can shape him into a player every bit as good as Kim Min Jae. 

We’ll wrap up here for now – we still have 10 more names to get through, but not all of them will be as detailed as the entries in this post. Keep a look out for part two!

About Jinseok 220 Articles
Diehard KNT fan

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this! I am so glad to see CB’s in the pipeline! Yang Hyun Jun’s highlights look fantastic. Love his style and flair.

  2. Can you explain the “ but personally I am not a fan of Celtic because of their massive Japanese contingent” line please? I can’t tell if you mean that Cho would somehow struggle in a team with a lot of Japanese players, or if you mean you would rather he didn’t go to Celtic because you don’t like Japanese players.

    I can’t see a non-racist reading of that line and I’m hoping I’m missing something.

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