FEATURE | One To Watch: Lee Jae-Sung

Ex Bundesliga star Heung min-son and current Napoli centre-back Kim min Jae will be the players on everyone’s radar in Qatar when watching South Korea. However keeping things ticking in the middle of the park will be Mainz midfielder Lee Jae Sung. Being a standout player in his homeland, Lee ventured to Germany aged 26 and has since risen from the 2. Bundesliga to now being a vital cog in Bo Svensson’s Mainz side, who have gone from strength to strength in the Bundesliga.

South Korea sit 28th in the current FIFA rankings and are appearing at their 10th World Cup. Featuring in a group with Portugal, Ghana and Uruguay, South Korea will fancy their chances of progressing into the knockout rounds whether that be via a 3rd or 2nd place finish, albeit in a highly competitive group. Paulo Bento’s side are well represented in midfield, boasting the likes of highly rated Mallorca starlet Lee Kang-in, and more offensive midfielder and wide players who all ply their trade in Germany in Freiburg’s’ Jeong Woo-yeong, Hertha Berlin’s Lee Dong-jun and Hansa Rostock’s’ Lee Dong-gyeong.

Arguably the jewel in the crown of the South Korean midfield is Mainz creative maestro, Lee Jae Sung. The Ulsan native arrived in Germany in 2018 and has been quietly producing very consistent attacking output ever since. Lee arrived In Europe with a phenomenal reputation from playing his homeland, featuring in the K League Team of the Season three years in a row, winning the 2015 Young Player of the Season, featuring in the AFC Champions league 2016 All Star squad, and being named the K League’s most valuable player in 2017. After registering 74 goals and assists in 163 appearances for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Holsten Kiel of the 2. Bundesliga came calling next for Lee.

Signing for under €2 million, Lee was an instant hit in Kiel, scoring five and laying on nine assists in under 30 games. His second season was his best to date, hitting 18 goal contributions across all competitions in only 33 appearances. The crowning moment of the Korean’s career so far came in the middle of the 2020/21 season where Lee played the whole game as Holsten Kiel achieved a historic win over Bayern Munich in the DFB Pokal, Kiel progressed all the way to the semi-finals of the competition for the first time ever before facing elimination at the hands of Borussia Dortmund.

With various high profile performances and regular playing time for his national team, Lee made the step up to the Bundesliga in July 2021, joining Mainz upon the expiry of his contract. Lee featured 30 times last season and adjusted to life in Germany’s top tier with relative ease, tallying four goals and three assists in 1500 minutes of football.

Although he can play out on the left and even as a centre-forward on rare occasions, Lee is typically in a midfield three in Svensson’s favoured 3-5-2. Naturally an attacking-midfielder, Lee provides the most attacking impetus of the midfield trio although his defensive number are not too be dismissed, ranking in the top 10 percentile for attacking-midfielders and wingers when it comes to tackles made, interceptions, blocks and aerial balls won. Offensively Lee averages 0.25 goals per 90 and creates nearly four shot creating actions per 90, in addition to averaging 2.7 touches in the opposition box/90. Lee is a modern attacking-midfielder in the sense that he is able to blend defensive work rate and affect the game physically and maintaining the ability to threaten offensively and create in the final third.

At the 2018 World Cup Lee played all three group stage games – including the famous 2-0 victory over Germany – as South Korea failed to progress to the knockout round but gave a solid account of himself, averaging four successful dribbles and 4.58 interceptions in his three appearances. Ahead of the upcoming World Cup, Lee rounded off qualification in fine form as South Korea won their final five matches without conceding a goal with Lee contributing one goal and three assists.

Wearing the No. 10 shirt, Lee played as the central-attacking-midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 against the UAE and as part of a midfield four in a 4-1-4-1 against Iran in his most recent international appearances. Expect Lee to be the primary creative force for South Korea. As highlighted before, he will provide defensive intensity and the work rate required to play in a midfield two, however whenever entrusted to roam and given more responsibility to create and produce attacking output he will be up to the task. This will be vital for South Korea in a group where they must unlock two very stubborn defences in the form of Uruguay and Portugal if they are to pick up points in their group. Sharing goals in the team will also be vital as so much pressure will be on Heung min Son to produce moments of quality and offer a constant threat, especially when he will be heading into the tournament severely out of form at club level with Tottenham Hotspur.

South Korea provided one of the shocks of the tournament at the last World Cup when defeating defending Champions Germany, however this time they will look to progress to the latter stages of football’s biggest tournament and they must cause another upset or two if they want to. South Korea possess genuine world class players in Kim and Son but it’s Mainz’s Lee Jae Sung who will have to hold things down and take responsibility in midfield if South Korea are too unlock their full potential.

GGFN | Joe Langlands

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