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.