After a promising pre-season, Valencia’s Lee Kang-in has established himself among the wealth of emergent young talent in La Liga. Jacob Morris has profiled the 19-year-old South Korean prospect, who has already made a name for himself in youth international competitions and now has his sights set on senior success.
Date of Birth: February 19, 2001
Nationality: South Korean
Position: Attacking midfielder
2019 Under-20 World Cup Golden Ball Winner and AFC Young Footballer of the Year
BREAKING INTO THE FIRST-TEAM AT VALENCIA
After catching only glimpses of Lee’s potential during last season, former Watford and current Valencia manager, Javi Gracia has given him the chance to show what he is capable of at the start of this campaign.
The young South Korean attacking midfielder featured in all four of Valencia’s pre-season matches, and helped the team go unbeaten with three wins and one draw. His pre-season was capped off with a brace against Cartagena where the full extent of his attacking aptitude was on display.
After capitalising on a goalkeeper error for his first goal, he doubled his tally for the evening with a neat touch and emphatic finish, rounding off the season's preparations at the forefront of Gracia’s mind.
Lee’s preseason form was rewarded with a start in Valencia’s first game of the season which he justified with two assists in a 4-2 home win against Levante. The second contribution was a perfectly weighted ball to Maxi Gomez who did not have to break stride to slide the ball into the far corner.
Gracia has shown faith in the young Korean prodigy, who has featured in all five of Valencia’s opening fixtures including three starts. The confidence shown by the manager has certainly permeated into his on-field performance. He has provided a creative impetus for a Valencia team which has lost many of its high-profile attacking players.
STYLE OF PLAY
Strong technical ability underpins his game
Uses his body smartly to retain possession
He is a clever, opportunistic defender
Needs to become a more consistent creative and goal-scoring threat
He is yet to translate effective attacking transition play to the senior level
Lee has already made eight key passes this season, compared to the six he managed in the entirety of last season. Although it is too early to jump to conclusions, Lee’s passing accuracy is showing promising early signs of improvement. With more starts he has been able to settle into games, finding a passing rhythm and acting as a focal point for Valencia’s attacking play.
His technical ability allows him to disguise his passing intent whether it is a reverse ball in the final third or a lofted through ball. Lee is capable of executing a pass over the top with very little back lift, picking out team-mates who are making runs that often go unnoticed.
At the start of this season, he has been given license to roam when his team has possession, occupying pockets of space between the oppositions defensive and midfield lines. His positional awareness has led to a higher percentage of touches in the attacking third and has allowed him to find spaces where he can get shots away and create openings for his team-mates.
Perhaps Lee’s most potent attribute is his dribbling, not only for his ability to take on players but also his ball retention under pressure.
With a combination of ball rolls and sharp touches with his instep, he has proven exceptionally difficult to dispossess. With his back to a defender, he is particularly strong in using body feints to wrong foot the opposition, escaping the press and turning difficult situations into promising attacks.
On occasion, he has also provided a goal threat. Despite not yet opening his account for the season, he has shown glimpses of his ability to cut in and shoot on his stronger left foot.
Furthermore, he makes intelligent runs when his team has possession in wide left positions often timing his run to meet the ball in front of the near post for a cutback as the opposition defend the six-yard box.
But Lee has largely struggled to translate good scoring form against lesser opposition into a tangible threat in league fixtures so far.
Across 7.8 90s since making his league debut, he has, according to FBRef and StatsBomb data, managed to record a non-penalty xG total of 0.9. He will desperately need to improve this output to remain a first team regular even at a club struggling as much as Valencia are.
On the flipside, the Korean offers quality from dead-ball situations. From crosses and wide free-kicks he has the ability to deliver accurate balls into the box as he showed in the first game of the season when Gabriel was able to convert from a corner which was floated to the back post.
Again though, he needs to become a more effective creative threat in transition – something he has shown he can be at youth international level – as well as from dead balls to properly stamp his authority on the senior team.
Defensively, pressing is an area where the young Korean has excelled, successfully cutting off passing lanes and creating favorable situations for turnovers in the opposition’s half. With his rapid acceleration, Lee is able act as a destructive force when his team do not have the ball, pouncing on loose balls and disrupting the opposition’s ability to play out from the back.
THE UNDER-20 WORLD CUP, SOUTH KOREA, AND A POTENTIAL TRANSFER ABROAD
The important thing for Lee now is to display a level of consistency that guarantees him playing time. After showing heaps of potential in the early stages of this campaign he needs to capitalise on the faith shown in him by the manager.
The start of this season has proven that he understands his strengths and plays to them, allowing him to put in performances that impact the result of the game.
Despite his age, he has proven his match winning quality at international level with a series of eye-catching performances during the 2019 FIFA Under-20 World Cup.
Only 18 at the time, he did not shirk responsibility when representing his nation in a tournament that would see him score two, assist four, and take home the Golden Ball award as the tournament’s best player.
After inspiring his nation to record runner up finish in the Under-20 World Cup, Lee was named the Men’s Asian Young Footballer of the Year at the end of 2019.
He then made his debut for the senior national team in September 2019 and looks set to become an integral part of a promising young South Korean team, alongside the likes of Beijing Gouan's Kim Min-jae, for many years to come.
Back in Spain, his contract with Valencia expires in 2022 and despite the clubs efforts to extend it negotiations have stalled.
Superdeporte have reported that Lee is not convinced of the sporting project at Valencia as a result of the players that have been allowed to leave and the lack of investment in the summer transfer window.
After losing Ferran Torres, Rodrigo, Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin, Valencia have declined to recruit any new players in this window in an attempt to balance the books. While it is not a good sign for the club’s ambitions, it could have some benefits for Lee who will benefit from a central role in first team.
Although Javi Gracia’s future at the club has been called into question in recent days it seems the Spanish coach will continue at the club at least for now.
The manager and board have marked him as a key player this season hence their reluctance to accept any offers during the summer transfer window despite interest from several French, German and Italian clubs.
Regardless of turmoil at the club, the 19-year-old’s talent has the potential to take him to the very top of the sport. Now in his formative footballing years, Lee Kang-in could well be at the start of a long and successful career.