Scouting with Stewart: Kim Min-jae
Stewart Brown returns to Scouted Football with another in-depth look at another obscure young talent. This is The Monster. It's Kim Min-jae.
South Korean football is on the rise. Whether it's the prominence of Son Heung-min at Spurs, Hwang Hee-chan at FC Red Bull Salzburg, or the intrigue surrounding Lee Kang- in at Valencia, we're getting a steady of diet of South Korean prominence in Europe. What will set the subject of this piece, Kim Min-jae, apart from his fellow countryman is that he'll rise to reckoning as a centre-back.
For far too long South Korea and other Asian nations have suffered from the stereotype of being technically good but lacking the physical components to succeed defensively. They play attractive football, but are stereotypically susceptible to being bullied. That may be about to change.
Kim Min-jae rose to national prominence with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in South Korean's top-flight, and was affectionately nicknamed "The Monster" due to his dominance. It wasn't long before richer leagues came calling. On January 29th 2019, Kim Min-jae completed his transfer to Beijing Guoan of the Chinese Super League for a fee reported to be around €5 million. The Monster has since gone from strength to strength. At the time of writing, Kim has 30 caps for South Korea at just twenty-three years old. He'll be a fixture of that national side for a very long time, and it's in international games where his talent is most obvious.
The most noticeable of Kim's traits is his willingness to get on the ball. With his goalkeeper or fellow centre-back in possession, he's always making options to receive. He's very aware that ball progression from the back relies on him more than anyone else in this South Korean team. He can drill passes, see below, through the lines with his right foot – which everyone likes – but, equally importantly, can engage in small triangle combinations around the opposition front-line to create opportunities to step forward with the ball. With that first line of pressure broken, Kim is confident and calm stepping into the opposition half, playing forward.
If I'm being picky, and I like to be, he's too fond of a longer diagonal or ball in behind the opposition. Whilst very much capable of both, I'd like to see his long passes become more medium distanced; play through, rather than over.
His on-ball attributes might be enough to gain interest from outside China, but he prides himself on his defending. In an early interview, Kim spoke about central defenders at Barcelona & Real Madrid, asserting his preference for the latter. “The Real Madrid defenders are a bit rough, and the Barcelona defenders are a bit soft. I personally like to hit.” Whilst he might like to hit, I'd argue the best and worst aspects of his game are most evident when he doesn’t.
Firstly, he's very intelligent without the ball. In recent outings, South Korea’s back four have looked very much in touch with their spatial awareness as a unit: their defensive lines are straight and they move together in every direction. What sets Kim apart from his team-mates is his understanding of when to break out of said defensive line. He's very adept at tracking runners that go beyond the defence, and he knows when to play offside and when to follow the runner. He's mobile and intelligent, reducing the need to be as much of a Real Madrid-inspired ‘hitter’ as he'd like to be.
Watching the crosses that South Korea concede to the opposition, Kim jumps off the screen. It looks instinctual the way he drifts towards his own goal, getting himself in the best possible place to make clearances. Whether it's instinct, luck, anticipation, or a combination of all three, it's a terrific trait to have as he continues to learn.
If he wants to eventually fill the ‘hitter’ hype, he'll need to be more proactive when the opposition pass through his midfield. Too often he's a second late, allowing the striker to link the play and keeping South Korea on the back foot. I'd like to see him under coaching that focuses on training his timing and aggression when pressing – when he gets it right it's effortless, but when he doesn’t, he's left sprinting towards his own goal.
Whilst the Chinese Super League isn't a top five league by any measure, Kim has proven to be a calm, confident and intelligent player against that standard of opposition, and more than the part against Brazil and Japan at international level. The future of South Korean defending is in the hands of The Monster. It's about time a European top five league got a glimpse too.