Words by Tom Danicek
He’s arguably closest an Asian comes to worldwide recognition nowadays. Linked with Arsenal seemingly every transfer window, Ki Sung-yueng could possibly do better than Swansea City, but even there, he’s being rated by numerous spectators as one of the league’s masters of ball retention, on his own capable of pure dominance in the centre of the park.
It would probably be only fair to claim that Ki Sung-yueng is currently the European jewell of Asian football. Son Heung-min might be the darling, sure, but Ki is the more consistent and unique export here. The former Asian Young Footballer of the Year can be compared to absolutely no one, so any label is inherently offensive to him (much more the initial ‘Korean Gerrard’ one), and with every year, it appears, Ki Sung-yueng moves only closer to full complexity.
In recent months, the freshly 26-year-old midfielder has added a bit of steel to the mix, significantly improved his aerial presence and started putting more consideration as well as accuracy in his shot attempts. In other words, he’s becoming the full package; if he isn’t just that already…
Before I proceed in explicitly asking you to lick his feet, though, let’s discuss what Ki Sung-yueng’s 2015 was actually all about. Because, to be clear, it wasn’t just shiny stuff.
The whole, otherwise impressive Asian Cup resulted in a bitter experience, only supporting Ki’s reputation of a grateful runner-up (he had finished second best in two leagues and two league cups before), and the South Korean himself had somehow, with considerable help from a light injury, turned into a squad player to begin this wholly disappointing campaign with Swansea – having received the club’s best player award for the last season, when he set his career high in league goals scored (8).
Apart from these stains, however, Ki Sung-yueng had a year to remember – off the pitch, where he became a father in September, as well as on the pitch, where he’s predictably embodied the most reliable performer for the national team and someone who made the new diamond formation work for Swansea in the second half of 2014/15, showcasing his versatility when operating slightly wide.
It was precisely Ki’s total unwillingness to get dispossesed, smart distribution and flawless positioning what, above all, allowed Park Joo-ho to slip so effortlessly into his new role of a central midfielder at the Asian Cup, while it was also his aggressivity and readiness – resulting in a rare assist – what helped to push the final game into extra time.
Had the Taeguk Warriors won the tournament, Ki Sung-yueng would’ve most probably followed in the footsteps of Kim Joo-sung who remains the last Korean to claim the Asian Cup Most Valuable Player award (1988).
In the end, it was only fitting for such a classy midfielder that Ki Sung-yueng marked his 80th international cap, earned on November 17, with his very first career brace and an assist on top. By reaching that round number this soon, by the way, the Gwangju-born phenomenon and current national team captain looks to be firmly on his way to become the country’s top apperance-maker ahead of the former skipper Hong Myung-bo (136).
Highlight of the Year: Difference-maker in both games against Manchester United
There’s loving to play against one particular club, and then there’s being the said club’s Nemesis. Ki Sung-yueng is quite clearly the latter to a club no smaller than Manchester United, or namely to Louis Van Gaal himself.
On 16th of August 2014, the South Korean grabbed his first goal in Swansea City jersey against a debuting Dutch manager, then he completed a double vs the Red Devils in February 2015, and later that year, he proved to be a difference-making sub in the third consecutive 2:1 win for the Welsh club. With the minute he came on the pitch, the Swans started to own the middle of the park and a swift turnaround within 10 minutes was on the cards.
You could argue that Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United is nothing compare to Sir Alex Ferguson’s one, but the glamour is still there, and bullying the likes of Schweinsteiger, Fellaini or Fletcher obviously remains a big deal. No wonder, then, that Ki Sung-yueng will treasure these memories forever.