Sunderland have been desperate for a quality player in central midfield, with none of Seb Larsson, David Vaughan and Craig Gardner having that extra bit of quality to unlock defences, former club captain Lee Cattermole seemingly out of favour, Cabral yet to adapt to the Premier League and El-Hadji Ba being one for the future. Paolo Di Canio has been very vocal about what kind of midfielder he wanted to bring into his side this summer, stating;
[I want] someone who brings the keys to the house - an intelligent player with fantastic ability.
The club repeatedly tried to sign someone to fill that role but tried and failed to sign the likes of Tom Huddlestone, J.Alfred Duncan and Josuha Guilavogui. We also saw Michael Bradley, Zdravko Kuzmanovic and Manuel Fernandes strongly linked with a move to the Stadium of Light but as those links fizzled out and the end of the transfer window drew to a close, it was a Swansea City midfielder who suddenly emerged as our main target.
Ki Sung-Yueng arrived on a season-long loan from Swansea City, with the Welsh club having an option to recall the midfielder in January.
Ki was born and grew up in Gwanju, South Korea but moved to Australia with his father in 2001 to participate in the Brain Soccer Program at John Paul College to play football and learn English. While in Australia he took up the name David as he is Christian and he felt communication with team-mates was important and asked them to call him David if they struggled to pronounce his Korean name.
After graduating college in 2005 he received offers from Brisbane Roar and FC Seoul but decided against remaining in Australia and returned to Korea to join the capital based side. He made his full debut in 2007 and impressed immediately, including a starring role in a friendly against Manchester United, after which the Man Utd scouts took a huge interest in the young Ki and eventually tried, unsuccessfully, to take him on trial.
As he continued putting in performances that belied his age, interest from Europe grew with Portsmouth, PSV Eindhoven, Hamburg and Porto all linked but it was Celtic who won the battle for his services, with the Korean moving to Parkhead for a fee of £2.1m. He left Korea after twice being voted into the K-League Best XI and also voted Asian Young Footballer of the Year.
Ki impressed from the off after his move to Celtic, as he immediately settled into his calm, accurate passing game but it wasn't until the 2010/11 season that he became a first team regular and in October of that season won the SPL Young Player of the Month after a series of impressive displays. At the end of 10/11, Ki was instrumental, scoring the first goal and being awarded Man of the Match, in Celtic's 4-0 Scottish Cup Final win over Motherwell.
He impressed again during the 2011/12 season, with 7 goals and 7 assists in all competitions for Celtic and earning the 2011 Korean Footballer of the Year award, however he was never the regular that his performances perhaps deserved as he often found himself behind players such as Wanyama, Kayal, Brown and Ledley in the league, with Neil Lennon seemingly believing those players were more suitable to the rough and tumble of the SPL.
Come the start of the 2012/13 season, Ki was on international duty with South Korea in the 2012 Olympics and was an ever present throughout the tournament, as Korea won the bronze medal. He also scored the winning penalty that knocked Team GB out of the competition, the same game that Ji Dong-Won scored the opening goal.
When he returned from representing his country at the Olympics, speculation had increased that he would leave Parkhead, with numerous clubs throughout Europe rumoured to be chasing his signature but it was Swansea who won the battle, paying a club record £6m transfer fee to take Ki to the Liberty Stadium.
He had a solid first season in Wales, as Swansea finished 9th and won the League Cup. During the 5-0 Carling Cup Final win against Bradford, Ki played a very unfamiliar centre back role but as the season drew to a close he found himself slowly falling out of favour with Michael Laudrup amidst rumours of a falling out with his Danish manager. Then the summer purchases of Jonjo Shelvey and Jose Canas pushed him further down the pecking order, which is where we came in.
So, what kind of player is Ki Sung-Yueng?
When he joined Celtic, he was asked about comparisons to Celtic's previous Asian midfielder, Shunsuke Nakamura but was quick to shoot down those comparisons and compare himself to a completely different kind of midfielder;
People will be expecting me to be the new Nakamura, but I'm not. He was a wonderful player and really gifted technically, but that's not the style I play. I'm younger, faster and stronger. In South Korea people compare me to Steven Gerrard, and I'll admit that's who I've based my game on.
Although there are similarities between how the two play, Ki isn't as dynamic as Steven Gerrard but is a better passer of the ball than the Liverpool captain.
In fact during his sole Premier League season so far, Ki attempted 55.8 passes per game, which was 14th in the league (compared to Sunderland's best - Craig Gardner with 38.6pg) and had a passing accuracy of 92.7% (compared to Sunderland's best - David Vaughan with 88.7%), a percentage which seen the Korean top the Premier League rankings for that particular statistic.
His passing accuracy is all the more remarkable considering he can be quite adventurous with his passing, although he specialises in quick, short passes to team-mates, he can also spray long, accurate passes at pace to his wide man and strikers. With Gerrard being the only Premier League midfielder to rank above him in that regard last season, as Ki averaged six accurate long balls per game.
Comfortable on either foot but predominantly right footed, he will look to distribute the ball quickly to a team-mate and will always look to move into a position where he can receive the ball back. Usually deployed in front of the back four as a deep-lying playmaker (or regista if you prefer), he can also play as an orthodox central midfielder.
Ki also possesses a rocket of a shot that he can use to great effect when arriving late on the edge of the box, although one big criticism is how few goals he scores considering how well he can strike the ball, although he explained himself that he sees his role as a creator, more than a goalscorer;
My position is not for scoring goals, so I want to help other players to score goals. If I the have chance then I'd like to score 5-6 goals a year.
Standing 6'2" he does have a physical presence but prefers to read the game and make interceptions or steal the ball off the oppositions toes. rather than getting stuck into tackles and although not the fastest player, he is quite mobile (particularly compared to our current midfield, Cabral and Ba apart) but can often be seen strolling through games dictating play. That's not to say he doesn't work hard, as he is capable of playing Di Canio's high pressing game, a feature of his game that he has displayed on regular occasions for his national side. He also has an excellent injury record, with the only injuy of note being a month on the sidelines at Celtic due to a slight hamstring injury.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the signing of Ki, is who to play him alongside in midfield and what formation to play to get the most out of him. If we are to play 4-4-2, which the sale of Sessegnon would suggest, then he may need to play alongside Cabral or Cattermole, if we are to see the best of him. With the 24-year-old allowed to play while his more defensive minded team-mates act as a minder.
On the other side of the same coin, the signing of Ki opens up the possibility of varying our style of play to a bigger degree. From the 4-2-3-1 that we are familiar with during Sessegnon's time at the club that could become more effective due to Ki's ability to quickly and accurately find the attacking midfielders, to a 4-3-3 possession game that Ki operated with at Swansea with Jack Colback and David Vaughan coming in alongside him. Although Colback and Vaughan do not possess particularly incisive play, both can recycle possession well, as they find their team-mates more often than not, couple that with Ki's highly accurate passing and we could have the dreaded 'tippy-tappy' football as an option this season.
The fact he was often left out of the Celtic side in favour of more physical players, that were better suited to the SPL, is a slight worry but he did adapt well to his move to Swansea and already having a Premier League season under his belt is a big plus.
To sum up;
- Excellent passer of the ball, from short and long range
- Comfortable with both feet
- Good athlete
- Still only 24-year-old but with vast experience in three different leagues and already has over 50 caps for his country
- Should give Di Canio a lot more tactical options
- Still question marks over his suitability to the Premier League
- Not the strongest player
- Only on loan
On paper Ki Sung-Yueng is the type of player Roberto De Fanti was looking for all summer and the deep-lying playmaker the team has been crying out for. The fact he is only on loan is a worry, especially as he can be recalled in January, but overall he should provide the extra bit of quality from midfield and fingers crossed that Sunderland's new number 4 is finally the player Di Canio has been looking for that has 'the keys to the house'.