Words by Tom Danicek
Not part of a K-League team youth set up, not at all prominent on youth internationl levels, and only in his second year among professionals, Lee Jae-sung – alumni of the same university Cha Bum-keun or Park Chu-young went to – has blown many off their seats in 2015. Like King Midas, seemingly everything the South Korean sensation of the year has touched in recent months instantly turned into gold.
His competitive debut for the senior national team saw him decide a surprisingly even matchup with Myanmar. At the East Asian Cup, he used the platform to show he can easily be the prominent creative force of a side. And on the club level, he deservedly ran away with the Best Young Player award, while in a brave new world, he surely would’ve contested the main category.
One great thing about Lee Jae-sung is his adaptability. He always did the job for Jeonbuk when acting like a deep-lying playmaker, particularly at times when the team was chasing the lead and needed to accelerate build-up. Similarly, Lee’s ability to produce a well-timed pass without giving away a thing comes in handy in a more advanced position, especially with a smart striker like Edu upfront. And finally, 23-year-old’s greatest contribution in World Cup qualifiers has come from the position of a false right wing.
Accordingly, various end-of-the-season stats (kindly verified by Steve Han) reflected midfielder’s versatility, and indeed importance to his club’s success. It turned out Lee Jae-sung was the league’s top specialist in intercepting passes, and the third most active tackler as well as the second most reliable distributor in the attacking half (75,8 %). That all, combined with the fact he’s played the highest number of balls in the team and ranked among top 10 producers of key passes, makes Lee Jae-sung an incredibly effective asset that already seems to have overgrown the domestic scene.
Good thing is, Lee need not to undergo the full military service, having helped South Korea to golden medals at the 2014 Asian Games, and there has been some rumoured interest from Germany recently, so another step seems to be a given (although probably not this winter, because Lee spends the whole January by attending a four-week basic military training).
Meanwhile, a potential move abroad and the midfielder’s further development is absolutely vital for the country as a whole, since – as the distinguished South Korean football expert Jae immaculately points out in his scout report – Lee “is one of the few Korean attacking midfielders who is comfortable (and confident enough) to play one-twos with teammates”, and that’s one precious element which simply shouldn’t go wasted.
Highlight of the Year: Making important things happen for both club and country
There is a good argument for his lack of production, but to be fair, Lee Jae-sung clearly values quality over quantity in that regard. All competitions considered, he’s been instrumental in as many as 11 winning goals for Jeonbuk and national team. Before the East Asian Cup began and robbed Lee Jae-sung of some valuable energy, a whopping 12 league games out of 20 with Jeonbuk on scoreboard and their mainstay on the pitch included either goal, assist or a penalty won by no one else than the ever influential number 17.
It was highly symbolical, therefore, that his penultimate 2015 club goal also meant the definite stample on Jeonbuk’s title bid, ending their longest goal drought of the season. Only more so, the fashion in which Lee Jae-sung scored against Jeju on that night – coming late to the penalty area to aggressively push the ball into the net – was great testament to his gritty nature.
Lee Jae-sung doesn’t fear a harsh tackle, either as the receiver or the producer, and his enthusiasm for pressing (or outright chasing of the circulating ball) makes him enormously dangerous even on his own.