Steve Bruce has started the process of swelling his depleted striker ranks by securing the signature of Chunnam Dragons forward Ji Dong-Won. The 20-year-old South Korean was one of the leading lights of last January’s Asia Cup and joins on a 3-year contract for an undisclosed fee.
Despite spending some time at Reading's academy a few years ago, he arrives as an unknown quantity very much in the "worth a punt" category. So what is he all about? Whilst it can be notoriously difficult to predict how players from far-flung lands and considerably weaker leagues will adapt to life in the Premier League – yes Marcos Angeleri, Paulo Da Silva, and Christian Riveros, I am looking at you – we have done a little digging to try and unravel what Sunderland fans can expect from the club's first ever South Korean representative.
First of all, the formalities.
Ji has agreed a 3-year deal, believed to be around £2.2m in total to the lad, whilst the actual transfer fee will remain undisclosed. The 20-year old will join the club after South Korea's next Olympic Games qualifier, which takes place towards the end of the month.
He himself had this to say about the deal... "I had the impression that Sunderland strongly wanted me. I know there will be tough competition for playing time, and my goal is to become a player that the team wants. I am also looking forward to playing against Ji-Sung Park and Chung-Yong Lee, whom I both admire."
His arrival is unlikely to set pulses racing with excitement on Wearside, but he brings with him a reputation for being one of Asia's brightest prospects. He is considered to be a tall, elegant, and versatile forward, with a good vertical leap and some comfort on the ball, although his national coach has commented that to succeed in Europe the player must "add some power". In recent internationals he has mainly been deployed in a lone-striker's role, but has also spent time in an inside forward position on the left, despite being predominantly right footed. He is starting to sound an awful lot like a South Korean Danny Welbeck. In a recent interview with FIFA.com, however, Ji described himself as "an out and out striker". Steve Bruce may finally have found his new left back. I jest.
Dong-Won's transition to English football is unlikely to be easy. He is expected to play in under-23 Asian Qualifiers for the London Olympics later this month before jetting off to Columbia to captain his country in the Under-20 World Cup, a tournament in which South Korea are predicted to do well and lasts well into August. Whether or not a move to the Premier League will bring his involvement in the tournament into question, however, remains to be seen.
He does arrive at Sunderland with one notable fan, though. After seeing him score against Ghana in a recent friendly, Asamoah Gyan, who also scored in the game, said "Ji Dong-Won is an excellent player. He keeps the ball well, can head, and is fast. If he comes to Sunderland and we play together I am sure that we will combine well."
With any signing like this, the skeptics will suggest that it is more about selling merchandise in the lucrative east-Asia market than it is about football and, with the club being open about their intent to become a more global brand, their suspicions don't seem entirely unreasonable. But my own thoughts on the signing is that it seems rather reminiscent of the Ahmed Elmohamady signing last summer; an emerging international from a credible footballing nation who can likely be developed into a Premier League player. I am loathe to stereo-type, but South Koreans have long enjoyed the reputation of being tremendously energetic players with a hugely admirable work-ethic, and Park Ji-Sung of Manchester United and Lee Chung-Yong of Bolton have proved that they can settle into English football and produce. Patience will be required. Steve Bruce's recent record in forays into this kind of market have been patchy at best and with last season's spectacular collapse still fresh in the memory, patience may well be in short supply amongst the fans.
We're hoping to bring you more detailed information about Ji next week, as we open a Q&A with a South Korean football expert.
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