Although Arsenal were completely outpassed by Bayern Munich on Wednesday evening, Arsene Wenger’s side remain among the most reliable passers in the Premier League, particularly in deep positions.
In fact, the Premier League’s four most reliable passers are all Arsenal players – centre-backs Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker both have 93% pass completion rates, while Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta are on 92%. Further forward, there’s presumably more risk-taking involved, because the Gunners only have the third-highest pass completion rate in the division overall, behind Swansea and Manchester City, but at the back, Arsenal rarely concede possession.
This weekend, however, Arsenal’s quartet will be up against their closest rival in the pass completion stakes (only counting those who have started more than half their side’s matches) – Sunderland’s Ki Sung-Yeung. Although Sunderland have only the 13th-best completion rate in the division, the South Korean brings great authority to their possession play in the centre of the pitch.
Ki’s situation is slightly peculiar. He made an impressive impact in his first season at Swansea, generally playing in central midfield but also deputising at centre-back for the Swans’ thrashing of Bradford in the Capital One Cup final. He seemed a perfect fit for the club, who base their play around short, neat passing football – but was surprisingly loaned to Sunderland this season, with Michael Laudrup not exercising his recall option in January.
Born 24 Jan 1989 (age 25)
Height 6ft 1.5in
2006-09 FC Seoul
2013-14 Sunderland (loan)
Like a lot, Ki didn’t find his best form under Paolo Di Canio, but has improved significantly since the appointment of Gustavo Poyet. “I like the way we play [under Poyet],” Ki recently told the Daily Mirror. “It's not just long balls, but much more about keeping the ball.
“I can play to my strengths: keeping the ball, passing the ball and helping the strikers. I have even shown that I can score myself! A lot of that is down to Gus… tactically, he is very organised and smart.”
A classic Ki performance was on Boxing Day, during Sunderland’s 1-0 victory over Everton at Goodison Park. With so many other matches that day, the victory received little coverage – and is surely one of the most underrated results of the Premier League season.
Ki was the matchwinner, earning and converting the crucial penalty, but his passing was superb – he misplaced just one of his 59 balls, and created five chances. In that respect, it’s important to underline the fact Ki can be ambitious, as well as simply reliable, with the ball at his feet. Often, a high pass completion rate is evidence a player is scared to take risks on the ball, but Ki is creating as many chances per game as, for example, Charlie Adam – whose pass completion rate is 15% lower.
Ki was also superb in another big away win, at Fulham in January. Here, he mucked in defensively with a high number of tackles, and his passing was as reliable as usual.
But he also made a decisive impact in the final third, setting up one goal and scoring another himself. It sums up Ki’s neatness on the ball that he only attempted one shot, and only played one key pass, but managed a goal and an assist – it’s not his natural game, but with Sunderland lacking goals from further forward, his breaks into the final third are crucial.
In Sunderland’s third key away win in recent weeks, 3-0 at Newcastle, Ki was magnificent yet again. Strangely, his defensive work was almost non-existent in a typically fiery derby, but he rose above the mayhem to provide mobility and ball retention higher up the pitch.
This weekend’s trip to the Emirates will be an even tougher trip for Sunderland, but Ki should have no fear, having won away at Arsenal with Swansea last season. Poyet might decide to play cautiously, noting how Arsenal can struggle when deprived of space in behind the opposition defence – and Sunderland have a fine record of keeping clean sheets in recent weeks.
If Sunderland attempt to play football, however, Ki’s passing guile will be crucial – and with his future still undecided, it’s not difficult to see him playing at the Emirates on a more permanent basis.
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