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Spotlight: Lee Gyu-seong


Since returning from military service at Sangju Sangmu FC this year, Busan IPark midfielder Lee Gyu-seong has turned a few heads with his assured performances in the middle. But is this form a flash in the pan, or do Busan have a genuine top-class talent on their hands? Busan IPark columnist Tomas Marcantonio puts forward the argument that Lee Gyu-seong is the K League’s most underrated midfielder.


An Explosive Introduction

Lee Gyu-seong’s professional debut is easy to remember, because the then 21 year-old took only three minutes to announce himself to Korea’s top football league. Lee’s early goal in an eventual 3-1 defeat to Jeju United was not exactly a sign of things to come – he has only scored four times in the 128 games since – but the way he opened up his body to shoot into the far corner, only to instead drill his shot inside the near post, was a hint that Lee Gyu-seong was something more than the casual observer might expect.

Lee made 18 appearances for Busan in his debut season.
Five years later, Lee is still little known even among the more ardent K League supporters. In a team featuring the likes of Kim Moon-hwan, Lee Dong-joon, and Lee Jeong-hyeop, Lee Gyu-seong’s name will hardly get a mention in the headlines or columns. And yet, there is no doubt in this writer’s mind that the 26 year-old is one of Korea’s best midfielders.

Before the inevitable outcries of bias and hyperbole, please bear with me. I’m a Royals supporter and I’ve seen my fair share of midfield drivel churn up the Asiad and Gudeok turfs, but I’ve also seen international talent carve out careers in Busan. Even among the current crop of midfielders (the best set since I’ve been in Busan, incidentally) which includes a verified matchwinner in Rômulo, an experienced defensive stalwart in Park Jong-woo, and a hopeful Olympian in Kim Jin-gyu, Lee Gyu-seong stands out as the team’s most reliable and arguably important player.

Carving out a Role

Lee formed a successful partnership with Yoon Bit-garam at Sangju Sangmu.
Lee broke into the Busan team as a more attack-minded player, often featuring as the most advanced midfielder with license to roam. His speed and composure in tight situations, as well as his eye for defence-splitting passes, had always impressed me in his early years with the club. His game has changed significantly since his early days, however, and his forays forward are now less frequent.

Last season Lee thrived as the midfield partner to the more attack-minded Yoon Bit-garam, who Sangju Sangmu’s 2019 team was arguably built around. While Yoon was granted the luxury role of free-roaming playmaker, Lee was essentially tasked with being his dustpan and brush: tidying up foiled attacks, setting the tempo with simple passes, linking the defence with the midfield and the midfield with the attack. Easy to miss, but easily missed; Lee started 35 games last season and was named on the bench only once, a stat that demonstrates Kim Tae-wan’s faith in the midfielder.

In fact, Kim Tae-wan wasn’t the first or last coach to see Lee as an automatic name on the team sheet. Following his debut season, Lee has made 101 starts and has only been named on the bench 21 times. In other words, Lee has started five of the six games in which he has been available – this despite playing under five different full-time managers in that period.

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Reaching His Peak

Lee might have been crucial to Sangju’s modest successes last season, but he seems to have moved up a gear since returning to his parent club. Now dove-tailing in a more balanced midfield partnership with Rômulo, Lee has a little more license to create and roam whilst still holding the midfield anchor.

It might be easy for neutrals to watch a Busan game and not even notice that Lee is on the pitch. Playing alongside Rômulo (who has the uncanny ability of unleashing 30-yard belters into the top corner whenever the team is in need of a goal) Lee might appear workmanlike and unspectacular. Watch closely, however, and the eagle-eyed spectator will be rewarded with a masterclass in close control, aggressive pressing, balance, poise, and incisive passing.

Lee draws a foul during Busan's win over Incheon United in June.
And - forgive me - here comes the hyperbole.

Lee Gyu-seong is no mere water carrier; he is an excellent footballer. He can drop a shoulder and dance the ball past a midfield line with a sudden turn of pace; he can make defensive wardrobes fall on their backs with a slick touch, skip into space with a deft lick of his boot; he can separate a ball from an opposition boot like a pickpocket, then ping an inch-perfect pass over the shoulder of the last defender and onto the toe of an advancing teammate; he can spin webs in the centre circle; he can tackle, he can block, he can run; he can make the heavens open over Nampo-dong.

Artistic license aside, the statistics back up that Lee is indeed one of Busan’s top performers week in, week out. He is consistently among the team’s top passers, with an impressive passing accuracy (86.8%) for a player whose instinct is to break through the lines ahead instead of passing sideways or to safety. His bustling defensive contributions are such that Park Jong-woo, statistically the league’s top tackler and Busan’s natural leader in the centre, has hardly been missed since picking up an injury last month.


Recognition

In my time as a Royals supporter I’ve seen two Busan midfielders excel in the centre and go on to feature for the national team. Park Jong-woo was followed by Ju Se-jong, and Lee Gyu-seong has a similar pedigree. While the likes of Lee Dong-joon and Kim Moon-hwan have earned plaudits – and rightly so – for their exploits this season, I wonder if Paulo Bento is considering the spider in the middle of Busan’s web as an option to thread his team together. Small, yes, and inexperienced at the top level, but how many of Korea’s current midfield options are a shoe-in for the first eleven?

It is, in truth, unlikely that Busan’s invisible man will go on to earn national attention. I doubt that even most K League fans will learn his name in a division where the official Best XI reads as little more than a list of the week’s goalscorers.

It doesn’t bother me, and I’m sure most Busan fans would feel the same. As long as Lee Gyu-seong continues to spin his web across the Gudeok field in a red shirt, I wouldn’t mind if readers forgot his name immediately after reading this article. But just be aware, the next time Rômulo unleashes a screamer or Lee Dong-joon darts behind the opposition back line, that there’s a player just out of the glare of the spotlight who likely started it all.

And his name is Lee Gyu-seong.

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