Having impressed at the Asian Games and being handed a debut in Paulo Bento's first match in charge of the Korean national team, is Busan IPark's versatile youngster Kim Moon-hwan now a genuine option as Korea's future first-choice right-back?
It came as no surprise to most when Kim Moon-hwan was named in the Asian Games squad for this summer's tournament. After all, he performed well as Korea finished fourth in January's AFC U23 Championship, and he has been a regular for K2 side Busan IPark since his debut at the start of last season. It may have surprised some, though, that Kim was given the opportunity to make his national team debut by new coach Paulo Bento.
Although only given token minutes in the closing stages of the friendlies with Costa Rica and Chile, it marks a significant step in the development of a young player who impressed many onlookers as Son Heung-min and company marched on to gold medals and military exemption this summer.
Kim first burst onto the scene after being signed by Busan in January 2017. He was a surprise starter on the opening day of the season in a 1-0 victory against Seongnam and hardly looked back from then on, making 39 appearances in all competitions in his first season as a professional. In a team that was heavily rotated throughout the year, Kim Moon-hwan was an unlikely stalwart of the side, appearing in several different positions and often at the expense of more experienced and bigger name stars.
Now in his second year in the K2 and a regular for the Korea U23 team, Kim has done well enough to be considered by Bento as a possible future right-back for the national team. But with many more natural right-backs plying their trade in K1, is the speedy but lightweight Kim a viable option?
The Old Guard
Right back has long been a problem position for the national team. While the likes of Park Joo-ho, Yoon Suk-young, and Kim Jin-soo (all three with experience either in the Bundesliga or the Premier League) have been competing for a place on the opposite flank, standout right-backs have been in short supply ever since Cha Du-ri retired.
Korea's current first choice at right back is Jeonbuk's Lee Yong, a solid enough option who now has two World Cups under his belt. While reliable defensively, the former Ulsan man came under scrutiny in Russia for his final ball, with many crosses being either over or under-hit. In Lee's defence, his attacking form in the K-League this year has been stellar: Lee currently has a highly impressive eight assists from 23 appearances, the joint-highest in the division. On that kind of form Lee's place in the national team looks assured for the time being, but at 31, it's unclear how long he will continue to be involved.
The other main challengers for his position over the past year have been Seoul's Ko Yo-han and Jeonbuk's Choi Chul-soon, although neither has been playing regularly at right-back for their clubs this year. Ko has been more frequently used in midfield, while Lee Yong's clubmate Choi has featured predominantly at left-back. Both are also on the wrong side of 30, so in any case Paulo Bento will need to look at other options sooner or later in preparation for future tournaments.
A Problem of Versatility?
At 23, Kim Moon-hwan still has plenty of time to find his best position. He has, at various points over the past two years, played at full-back, wing-back, and wing-forward, performing equally well on the left side as on the right. While such versatility is a blessing for coaches and young players looking to develop, it can also limit a player's impact within a club.
Busan IPark have had a fairly settled starting eleven for much of 2018, with just two or three positions regularly being rotated, but Kim's versatility has made him such a wild card selection that it's almost impossible to predict where he might show up in the match day squad. Veteran full-backs Kim Chi-woo and Lee Jong-min are only occasionally rested, and in the wing-forward positions Kim Moon-hwan is competing with the likes of Han Ji-ho, Arsenio Valpoort, Lee Dong-joon and Kim Jin-gyu.
Busan coach Choi Yoon-gyeom has occasionally implemented a 5-3-2 formation this season, and it's perhaps in this system that Kim thrives the most. Kim has all the attributes to be a top wing-back: speed, dribbling ability, stamina, and defensive acumen, especially for a player who initially came through as a forward. He has a willingness to track back, a doggedness in regaining possession, and good positional sense. Of course, he is yet untested against top-quality attackers, but the signs so far have been positive.
Going forward, Kim is also much more than your regular pump-it-into-the-box full-back. He is a tidy, quick dribbler and he remains a creative player, as he showed in the opening game of the Asian Games when he dribbled inside from the right flank and slipped a ball into Hwang Eui-jo to open the scoring. Although Kim's final ball still needs work (he has only two assists in 47 league appearances for Busan), his finishing is improving. For evidence, you don't need to look further than the 25 yard half-volley he scored on his Busan return on Sunday evening. This passage of play began, incidentally, when Kim sprinted inside from the left flank to win the ball back in the middle of the park with an excellent tackle.
For now Paulo Bento has a solid selection of right-backs at his disposal in the K League 1. Lee Yong, Ko Yo-han and Choi Chul-soon are experienced and dependable options who in all likelihood may all go on to feature for the national team regularly for the next couple of years. There will come a time, however, when Bento will need to look elsewhere, and he could do far worse than Kim Moon-hwan.
Although still highly inexperienced as a defender, Kim is an exciting option in a role that has provided little excitement for the KNT in recent years. If he can get regular game time as a full-back for Busan over the next year or so, expect Kim's name to be mentioned when future national team squads are announced.
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