Pathway to Europe: Lee Dong-jun

Lee Dong-jun has been a standout player for his boyhood club, Busan IPark, over past couple of seasons. Ross Davis describes the South Korean's style and assesses whether he can make the leap to Europe.

Credit: SOPA Images / Getty Images

Lee Dong-jun debuted in 2017 for his hometown club Busan IPark who were then second-tier competing in K League 2. Towards the end of his debut season, he showed glimpses of what was to come. He scored in both the semi-final of the K league 1 play-off promotion game, in which he netted twice, and also in the Busan's defeat to top-tier opposition in the Korea FA Cup final. The following season was unremarkable but saw him player more minutes – 23 appearances and nine starts, to be precise – which set him up for his breakthrough year.


He scored 13 times in total as the joint-third top scorer in the league and registered seven assists; it was that production which propeled his team into the top-flight and saw him named K League 2's MVP of the season. He played in every possible game too, an underrated quality and an ever-presence which he's carried over into the current 2020 season.


His rise hasn't been ignored by South Korea. He was called-up for the 2020 AFC Under-23 Tournament, a tournament in itself but one which covers as a qualifying campaign for the Olympic Games. Lee opened the scoring for South Korea in that tournament with a typical run behind the defence and cool finish. Lee was later shortlisted for Player of the Tournament as South Korea won the entire thing, cementing their place at next year's Tokyo Olympics.

STYLE OF PLAY


His durability, direct dribbling and speed makes the right-sided winger a constant threat to opposing full-backs. He's consistently able to move beyond defenders using his speed and deliver balls from the by-line into dangerous areas. The majority of his seven assists last season came from cut-backs from those areas, and this season he averages 0.64 crosses into the six-yard box per 90 – fourth-highest in the league.


While predominantly the winger in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 shape, Lee has demonstrated some flexibility by operating as a second striker in a 3-5-2. His three goals so far this season have been well-taked, first-time finishes from locations you would expect a striker, rather than a winger, to be in. Those striker's instincts are only enhanced by his capability to score with either foot, as well as his head. Three of his 13 goals last season were headers despite his slight 5'9" frame.


His work ethic and durability is beyond question too, with Lee competing in the third-most defensive duels in the league with 137. Moreover, he was the most fouled player in the second tier in 2019 and is currently the second-most fouled player in the top division in 2020. Despite his combativness, he hasn't missed a game through injury in his senior career so far.

Averaging 4.1 dribbles per 90 minutes with a 55.3% completion rate, tenth-highest in the league, his agility and sharpness are two traits that contribute to his high-risk high-reward approach in attack. His intelligence in finding space and off-the-ball running are prominent aspects of his skillset too; he picks his moments well.

A definite aspect to work on would be his efficiency in the final third. Lee’s preferred option is to isolate the full-back, beating him one-v-one, then getting a cross in. The 23-year-old attempts the sixth-most crosses in the league (2.78 per 90) but only has a completion rate of 23.1%. In constrast, the league leader in this metric has averages 4.7 crosses per 90 at a 38.2% completion rate, so there is definite room to improve.

CURRENT SEASON


2020 has not been without its challenges for Lee: the two-month delay to the league owning to the COVID–19 outbreak was a difficult period, and playing in a defensive side whose main aim is to avoid relegation doesn't necessarily suit his strengths. Nevertheless, the 23-year-old winger has had some standout individual performances and has registered three goals and three assists as of matchday 22. Four of those six goal contributions came away at relegation rivals Gangwon FC in what was undoubtedly his best performance of his season so far.


It also happened under the watching eye of the current South Korean head coach, Paulo Bento; there is an outside chance that Lee receives his first senior call-up this year. He followed up his performance against Gangwon with another goal and assist in his next game against FC Seoul. It was a performance which had marked similarities to the previous in terms of his goal contributions: an accurate cross from the right side for the assist and darting in from his flank to meet a ball from the opposing side for a first-time finish.

Some of the most interesting direct duels in the K League this season has been Lee Dong-jun taking on the two best left-backs, Kim Jin-su and Hong Chul. In the first of the two games, Lee won a penalty. In the second, he was denied one by a VAR intervention that deemed the foul just outside the box. His acceleration frightens defenders in this league and is the primary factor as to why he is the second-most fouled player in the division.

Not everything has gone well for Lee this year – he sometimes finds himself on the periphery of games and subsequently struggles to have an impact – but he has produced enough to earn an opportunity to make the move to Europe.

PATHWAY TO EUROPE

Lee’s most likely route into Europe would be to one of the continent's lower-level leagues, a route taken by many South Korean players before. Hwang Hee-chan and Lee Jae-sung (the former a product of the Red Bull system, the latter a 2. Bundesliga standout at Holstein Kiel) are prominent examples of the value in making a move to a lower level. Moreover, clubs in Europe's mid-tier leagues are often able to afford the reasonable fees which South Korean clubs ask for. With that in mind, Portugal's SC Portimonense – a club who have provided a pathway to Europe from East Asia for players – had a concrete bid for Lee rejected by Busan. It would be disingenuous not to mention South Korea's military service programme also.


The 23-year-old will be planning to take part in the now 2021 Tokyo Olympics with the hope of achieving exemption from the country's military service system by claiming a medal at the tournament. A gold, silver or bronze would ensure that, and would likely be the catalyst for a move to Europe. Fortunately, the Olympics' football committee has granted an extension to those participating in the tournament who would have been over the age limit given the postponement of the 2020 tournament meaning Lee is available for selection.

Failure to win a medal may leave the Busan player at somewhat of a crossroads in his career. It may force him down a path similar to Hwang Hee-chan, Hwang Eui-jo and Son Heung-min, all of whom made the move abroad at an early age and attempted to win exemption through the AFC Asian Cup. Military exemption or not, it does seem that Lee is destined to make the move in the near future.

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