Given the turmoil broiling at Valencia, one can forgive them for not prioritising the maximisation of Kang-in Lee.
The club are undergoing wholesale changes at every level. There has been little to fill their supporters with hope of a new chapter, given the decimation of resources that have taken place.
Acrimonious managerial change, the uncomfortable truth of owner Peter Lim’s intetntions, and the unceremonious selling of their major assets last summer. Ferran Torres, Francis Coquelin, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Rodrigo and Dani Parejo. All sold. Nearly seventy million pound of sales, and not a penny spent on arrivals (transfermarkt.com).
So as stated, the future at the Mestalla is uncertain. Gloomy, perhaps even threatening. Clubs around Europe have suffered at the hands of the pandemic, yet COVID-19 only piled further issues atop the Valencia hierarchy.
Once, the golden sunset streaks above the vertical stands of the Mestalla would enchant its’ faithful. Now it speaks only of a fiery pyroclastic flow heading for its shores.
Not an entirely hopeful time for Valencia CF. Yet, amongst their confused quota of players remains one gem. A player exuding such ludicrous talent that his true emergence could help alleviate the sludge. Yet even a talent as bright as Kang-in Lee is struggling to shine under such conditions.
A Young Star
Even by the standards of modern football, Kang-in Lee was cherry picked at a phenomenally young age. Having starred on a TV programme in South Korea as a child, Valencia signed him aged just eleven years old. Placing stock in one so young shows just what an impression the young boy made, and would work his way up through their youth ranks over the following seasons.
Lee was not the only South Korean departing for Spain however. Whilst he had joined Valencia at the tender age of eleven, two fellow countrymen would embark on similar ventures.
Lee Seung-woo and Paik Seung-ho would make high profile moves to Barcelona in 2011 and 2010 respectively. Only three years his senior, and having been signed at a later age (and by one of Europe’s elite clubs) they were heralded as future first team players.
The two players would face difficulties at the club. Barcelona’s transfer ban would deny them registering as senior players, and so were made to wait three years to sign officially for the senior team. Even still, the two would make only three appearances for the B team between them.
The situation was distasteful and showed of the frailties that surround signing such young players before they have matured. Yet over on the east coast, Lee was developing at a terrific rate.
Kang-in Lee: History maker
The young South Korean was building up a steady trajectory towards senior football. He joined the Valencia Mestalla reserve team in 2017, and less than a year later would make his full team debut. In doing so he became the youngest South Korean debuting in Europe in history.
To add to this accolade, his league debut a month later would make him the club’s youngest non-Spaniard, and their first Asian league player. His Champions League debut in September 2019 would make him the youngest Korean to play in the competition at eighteen years and six months. A first league goal just a week later would add further historic weight to Lee’s name. He was now Valencia’s youngest non-Spanish league scorer.
Within the space of twelve months, Lee had become the bearer of some historic landmarks in Valencian and South Korean history.
Yet as he continued to inscribe his name into the tones of football past, it was in the summer of 2019 that the hype truly exploded.
The Making of Kang-in Lee
International youth tournaments make for fascinating research. They paint a picture of national context. The styles and traditions being instilled in the newly blooded crop, or alternatively looking for a new way of doing things. Of superstars taking their tentative early steps into the game. Also of those that never lived up to their billing. The 2019 Under 20 World Cup was no different.
South Korea would finish second in the tournament, beaten by an impressive Ukraine team 3-1 in the final. Despite being so fresh in the memory, the list of stars to emerge from that tournament is staggering.
Erling Haaland. Jens Petter Hauge. Dan-Axel Zagadou. Michael Cuisance. Moussa Diaby. Yacine Adli. Boubakary Soumare. Timothy Weah. Sergino Dest. Konrad de la Fuente. Darwin Nunez. Rafael Leao. Trincao. Pedro Neto. Andriy Lunin.
An unprecedented array of young talent. Kang-in Lee was present amongst this company, and shone brighter than any to win the Golden Ball. The tournament’s best player.
His two goals and four assists were second only to Haaland’s nine goals. His goals were both penalties, in the quarter final and then in the final. Yet his assists were the true indicator of his abilities.
Lee was the side’s chief creator, playing as an attacking midfielder yet drifting to the right. His gifted left foot saw him cut inwards from that right side, and provide delicate angled passes for those running beyond him.
In the final he dropped deeper and deeper to receive the ball and influence counter attacks. Despite being the side’s youngest player, he played with the responsibility of a seasoned veteran.
The modern creator can no longer wait in the pocket to receive and deflect passes forwards. They must roam and affect play across the pitch to maximise their effectiveness. Lee personified this, joining the side’s defensive block to press and win possession. He would quickly turn defence into attack, through exceptional tight dribbling and a deceptive strength to withstand pressure.
It might not have been South Korea’s tournament. But it was definitely Kang-in Lee’s.
A conflicted reputation
Lee was now public property. No longer was he the hopes and dreams of just his native South Korea. He was now a European talent of huge potential waiting to explode.
He would make his senior international debut by the end of 2019. At club level he was now an official first team member, with a contract that included an €80 million release clause.
Yet such is the spread of disease at Valencia, Lee’s path too would begin to cloud. Having appeared in forty four matches for the club, he has already played under six managers. Such is the nature of managing Valencia that few have had the time to embed Lee within their set up.
In 2019/20 for example he made fourteen substitute appearances, with only three league starts. Marcelino, Alberto Celades and Voro would all take charge during the season, with all three showing caution in their use of the young attacker.
That season would feature as many goals as it would red cards for the player. Both dismissals reeked of frustration and inexperience, validating the reticence of his coaches to start him.
One saw him dive in recklessly from behind in the ninetieth minute versus Atletico Madrid. The second was again in the dying seconds, this time in a 3-0 defeat to Real Madrid. Being held off by Sergio Ramos, Lee attempted three unsightly hacks at the Spanish captain.
At the 2019 World Cup his tenacity and aggression had been a marked quality in his game. Yet such recklessness in unnecessary causes bred only frustration on behalf of the Valencia fans and playing staff alike.
Starting on the right path
Lee is now playing under his sixth Valencia manager in Javi Gracia. In the aftermath of the summer fire sale, the club have had to rely on pre-existing assets to get them through the campaign.
This has been favourable to Kang-in Lee. From the eleven games played, he has started six and featured in a further three. He has also had the license to play in his favoured creative role, sitting behind Maxi Gomez as a second striker. This has afforded him the right to roam and collect from deep as he prefers to do. He cllected two assists in one game against Levante in September, making him the youngest player in La Liga to do so for the club.
Yet to paint a rosy picture would be misleading. Valencia lie fourteenth in the table, and are lucky to be as high. Having scored seventeen league goals, their xG suggests they should have a return of only 12.4 (fbref.com). They take under nine shots per game, with no player with over five full games to their name taking more than two shots. This is a miserable attacking unit.
Lee himself must improve too in this regard. His 1.22 shots per game is a low return for any forward, and an xG of 0.3 shows that he is rarely even troubling the goal. What he has brought however is a spark of creativity.
Thirteen key passes are a squad high, as are his thirteen completed dribbles at an 86% success rate. In tight spaces, with a designated forward ahead of him, Lee is making the most of his pockets of space. 3.42 Shot Creating Actions (SCA) is also a squad high. With Valencia’s whole team only creating 14.64 SCA per game, the creative burden upon him is already burgeoning.
Yet this responsibility may define him. Having sat and waited and ultimately disappointed in fleeting opportunities over the last few years, now is his time to make his mark at the club.
Time for a new chapter?
It is refreshing to see the club turn to youth in this uncertain time. Equally to see a player of Kang-in Lee’s potential be given such playing time and opportunity, is a small victory even if it were unavoidable.
Two senior goals and three assists in forty four appearances is a poor return. Yet the truncated nature of his career thus far can go some way to explain this meagre return. The three assists have all come this year, and leading the club’s craetive metrics show that he is pushing the limits of what he can individually do within such a team.
Ultimately the answer likely lies away from the Mestalla. For all its history and pedigree as a Spanish power, the Valencia of 2020 is no longer the place for a player like Kang-in Lee. Had they not be forced to play him this year, he likely would have left anyhow. It is said that he had already rejected two contract renewals prior to the 2020/21 campaign beginning.
This season will prove a lot about Kang-in Lee. Should he prosper in a misfiring and under resourced team such as Valencia’s, it will be a major plus for his record. Should the inconsistencies and irresponsibility of previous years creep in, it will only prove the need to venture elsewhere.
He should look no further than Martin Odegaard for his inspiration. He too was cherry picked as a child. Heralded as a future star, he too had to battle through and experience knock downs. Yet it was his experiences on loan at Heerenveen, Vitesse and Real Sociedad that proved the making of the Norwegian. He now is back in the reckoning at Madrid, and among Europe’s elite creative midfielders.
Kang-in Lee can be that player too. He should be that player. It is now the time for him step up and be counted. Even should he depart Valencia, a full season of his talents could prove the best relief felt in those parts for a long time.