Ki Sung-Yeung’s journey isn’t over

Back in 2009, Tony Mowbray wanted to sign Ki Sung-Yeung before his inaugural campaign in charge had begun. But by the time the £2.1m January transfer finally went through, Celtic Park already coursed with frustration. 7 points behind in the SPL, Ki watched as his new team-mates mustered a dreary home draw against Rangers, one of the final nails in Mowbray’s coffin.

The acquisition of a player just 20 was typical of the new transfer strategy. Taking the likes of Ajax, PSV and Porto as inspiration, the plan was to gamble on developing cheaper, younger players from lesser-fancied markets (in this case, the S.Korean K-League). By now it was clear that the Martin O’Neill style short-termism was financially unviable, but by the end of Mowbray’s January transfer window, the expensive panic-buys of Robbie Keane, Diomansay Kamara and Edson Braafheid on less than half-season loans spoiled the new prudent thinking.

Then there were the depreciative commerical murmurs – that Ki’s signature was as much about maintaining a brand presence in Asia than it was about football. Shunsuke Nakamura is the obvious parallel, who Nick Harris of The Independent claims earned Celtic over £400k a year through commercial arrangements. Whether this influenced Mowbray or Peter Lawwell is moot, considering Ki was arguably Asia’s highest rated young prospect at that time, with Manchester Utd, PSV and (a more affluent) Portsmouth amongst others, all keenly interested.

Ki himself was quick to shoot down the Nakamura comparisons, at least on a footballing level: “People will be expecting me to be the new Nakamura, but I’m not. He was a wonderful player and really gifted technically, but that’s not the style I play. I’m younger, faster and stronger. In South Korea people compare me to Steven Gerrard, and I’ll admit that’s who I’ve based my game on.”

As far as attack-minded midfielders go, Ki’s early assessment was spot-on. Nakamura was a fragile and lithe number 10 turned wide-midfielder. But for FC Seoul, Ki could play anywhere across a midfield 4 – mainly as an old-school box-to-box central midfielder.  His game was built on either sitting back, finding comfortable space and spraying passes, or barging into goal-scoring positions from deep. Not in Gerrard’s class of course, but stylistically identical.

Those who survived the post-Mowbray disection suffered a horrible dive in reputation – Georgios Samaras, Scott Brown and Glen Loovens were prime examples and Ki was no different. Lennon didn’t use the World Cup bound Korean at all in the final 9 matches of the 2009/10 season, and the word – at least in Scotland – was that he was too lightweight, too meek, for the crooks and bullies of the SPL.

As if directly addressing this perceived criticism , the 2010 World Cup saw a different side to Ki. South Korea setup like many in that tournament with a 4-2-3-1 – a formation that funnily enough the midfield shape of which has all but consigned the box-to-box midfielder to history. While not exactly underdogs in their group, S.Korea were a predominantly defensive, counter-attacking side and hence Ki was shoehorned into a deeper, defensive position as a holding midfielder; with the unenviable task of both shackling Lionel Messi and squaring up to Javier Mascherano.

Ki’s talents however, are not destructive by nature and his deeper deployment influenced his defensive sensibility, relaxing that urge to bolt forward at any given opportunity helping transform him into more of a regista – a deep-lying playmaker. Taking the responsibility for starting moves away from the centre-backs, and getting forward only if possible as opposed to every play.

This subtle, semi-transformation happily coincided with a problem Ki’s new club perennially face – breaking down extremely deep defences. There’s little space for a midfielder to burst into or exploit between the lines, and instead the defending team are happy to relinquish space higher up – plenty of space then for a regista to pull strings and cause damage.

It’s here that Ki has been most effective under Lennon – not at war in midfield, harried and outnumbered – but further back with the park and it’s options ahead of him. Constantly an outball for the defence and goalkeeper, and constantly looking to thread passes into the most advantageous areas. You wouldn’t shove Andrea Pirlo into an SPL midfield brawl and demand more fight.

Accomodating registas however – as AC Milan have found to their dismay – is never easy. Normally only able to exist with two other central midfielders ahead (in a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 diamond for example), this doesn’t sit well with Celtic’s historical 4-4-2 leaning. Another complication is Lennon’s midfield strength in depth – or more specifically midfielders suited to both the SPL battlegrounds and a flat(ish) midfield four.

Having the 7th highest amount of appearances in all competitions last season (out of outfielders), clearly Lennon has found room. Joe Ledley’s deputising at left-back, Scott Brown’s use on the right and various injury problems have contrived to see Ki frequently utilised in the centre. But there’s bigger flux afoot as Lennon is in the search for a new formation. Each of the new formational candidates have forgone the use of a regista – 3-4-1-2, 4-2-3-1, flat 4-4-2 and the diamond 4-4-2. The latter system has strictly made use of a genuine destroyer in the sitting role – typically Victor Wanyama or Scott Brown.

Instead of shoe-horning Ki into physically competitive areas of the pitch (when there are more robust alternatives), the idea is to find a way to make the most of his more natural strengths. That is: mobility, positional intelligence, and a cracking right-foot. Lennon tried Ki on the left of a flat midfield (Hibs, October) and on the left of a diamond (Udinese). He was tried as quite a deep number 10 (Rennes, Atletico Madrid) and has also appeared on the right. In each case, the freedom to push higher into dangerous zones is reminiscent of his box-to-box days at Seoul.

While there are advantages to having a midfielder of Ki’s quality in more forward positions, there is a sense of forcing a square peg in a round hole. There are pacier wide midfielders, more natural attacking midfielders, and tougher scrappers available; leaving Ki’s status at Celtic worryingly vulnerable.

Furthermore, there is the current “investment” transfer policy – buying low and selling high. Of all such development projects, Ki ticks the most boxes: open and vocal in his quest for football in the English Premiership or La Liga, a renowned internationalist, still approaching his prime and would almost certainly command a high transfer fee.

The logical argument presented by detractors therefore, is that Celtic, for each position in the midfield can do without him; that a megabucks deal could fund a new targetman striker and a new quality centre-back. The same way that Aiden McGeady’s departure funded Lennon’s post-Mowbray rebuilding. Considering this is the entire business model that Lawwell has structured in order to compete at a European level – perhaps he will come to the same conclusion.

But Ki isn’t as superfluous to the team as may be thought. Sure there are stronger options in other areas – but he is the sole option in his area. Aside from being the most prolific goal-scoring central-midfielder in the side (when used in that function), he is the sole deep-lying playmaker. It’s interesting then, that in recent friendlies Paddy McCourt has been reimagined in exactly this position. If there’s one thing Lennon – the great tinkerer – likes, it’s options in the team, and as Celtic’s sole recognised deep-lying creator, it’s difficult to envisage that Lennon would ratify Ki’s departure.

This then, is the ultimate impasse: financial gain against importance to the squad. Surely, both Lawwell and Ki are endorsive of a lucrative move to England or Spain. The question is if Lennon can bear to lose such a unique creative midfielder who cannot be immediately replaced.

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About tictacticuk

Football fan and commentator of all things Celtic FC.
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11 Responses to Ki Sung-Yeung’s journey isn’t over

  1. It’s going to be a struggle to hang on to him. In an ideal world I’d like Ki to sign a extension to his contract. Stay with us this year to help us out in Europe. Then I would happily let him go for a good fee next summer. But it’s not an ideal world and we do need funds for a big target man and a centre half.

  2. thomas mckiver says:

    I struggle to see his positive effect in most games.
    His passing accuracy is impressive but should be with his low risk approach.
    Can’t really think of to many defense splitting passes as he generally goes lateral or backwards.
    He also has a tendency to pass and stay put rather than attack space to increase options.
    When he plays central we are to one dimensional and rely on hopeful crosses to create chances.
    Would rather see some of the youngsters get playing time.
    Would sell and use cash to bolster defense.

  3. Kieran says:

    Really enjoyed that read, great having you back 🙂

    I think Ki is our most technically gifted midfielder and in an ideal world we should keep him, but a strong striker and an experienced, quality centre-back is a must for this squad to make good progress in Europe, so we need to sell him.

    I hope Lawwell has pulled of a masterstroke by rejecting the 6m offer from Rubin, so waiting for Ki to hopefully have a good Olympics and get 7 or 8m and if he has a really good tournament I can easily see clubs paying 10m for him, seen a lot worse being bought for a lot higher.

    Say if we got 8m for him I would like 3m on a target man, 3m on a centre-back and a couple of those under-20 1m gems like Wanyama would do me very nicely.

    Hail Hail

  4. Mark T says:

    Great article as always, one tiny error – McGeady was sold to fund Lennon’s warchest after mowbray left. Hail Hail!

  5. Craig McKee says:

    Whenever I listen to anyone analyst Ki’s game it always reminds me of the same conversations about Mark Crosas. I can’t remember the last “killer ball” or “controlled the midfield” performance from him, I realise that there have been but they are so few and far between that it always feels that people are discussing his football manager stats rather than his impact on games.

    I think the reference to Pirlo was particularly apt as his single biggest asset and the aspect of a player I feel most undervalued in Scotland is awareness.

    Ultimately he is a technically proficient player who will always be let down by his pedestrian and lackadaisical speed of thought.

  6. Drew says:

    Put like that there is almost a compelling case for hanging on to Ki. However, having seen him play (rarely badly) for most of the season, I think that he is jack of all midfield positions master of none. Good squad player but not for the hurly burly of our league and goes missing in European games. If we can get anywhere above £6m then adios or turrah chuck.

  7. moctical says:

    He is undoubtedly talented but question marks remain over his overall effectiveness. Essentially does Ki add any value in terms of matches won over and above any of the other midfielders? I think it would be difficult to make that case [unless @fitzpas has his spreadsheets on hand :)]

    Another way of looking at it is how much of a fit to Ki’s game are Celtic? We still tend to play a lot of long balls from the goalkeeper/defence in comparison to European teams which does not suit his game. We’re not very potent at set-pieces, despite how good his and Commons’ deliveries can be. Against Scottish defences there’s not much room for a guy like him to do more than play sideways passes. In Europe we rely on two solidly defensive central midfielders (Kayal and Wanyama preferably and maybe Brown) and try to use pace in the front four going forward, neither of which Ki is ideal for. For Celtic to get good money for him and for Ki to move to a team he fits into better is probably the right thing to do for both parties

    You could argue that Ki has suffered from the lack of a real number 10 in the Celtic side, since the onus then shifts to him to be the playmaker in the team however sitting as deep as he does it’s difficult to play the killer passes that gets his contribution noticed. Regardless I think no matter where he ends up he’ll have to add not necessarily ‘steel’ but a higher level of off-the-ball work to his game above what he’s done at Celtic.

  8. paul mcmullan says:

    Nice to have you back. With everything else this summer, its good to talk about our team in a footballing sense.
    With regards Ki, I think he’ll go. Good player, could be great..at another club though. Like you say he’s shoehorned in at times at the expense of the balance of the team. Out of them all I could live without him. Live without Kayal or Ledley doesn’t bear thinking about though.

  9. Bowow says:

    Having seen most of Celtic games this season, I personally believe that there is no doubt that Ki is one of the few (maybe 3~4?) key players of the club. He is technically proficient, has great football intelligence and adds creativity to the overall squad. Selling him this summer would only add pain to the club for it would be difficult to find an alternative.

    • Craig McKee says:

      While I fully respect your opinion and realise that a lot of people think the same about Ki, I just don’t understand it. To me Hooper, Forrest, Forster and to the latter half of last season Wanyama have all taken control of a games in which we were really struggling and changed things. I don’t think Ki is within a mile of a key player.

      I think Ki has dined out on the performance in the 2-2 Old Firm game where he played a the fulcrum around which we kept possession and Ranger pinned in.

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