Who Is the Modern Park Ji-sung?
Or: Does the modern Park Ji-sung even exist?
Another donation request fulfilled today! Addison donated to COVID-19 relief and asked me to write a piece about Park Ji-Sung, so here is a piece about Park Ji-Sung.
Everyone loves Park Ji-Sung -- relatives, rivals, referees, reef-surfers, roid ragers, Red Devils. One of my friends literally named his dog, “Ji-sung”. United fans still sing songs about the guy. And Sir Alex Ferguson doesn’t seem to have ever said a bad word about him:
The great thing about Ji-sung Park is he's one of the best professionals we've had here. He was truly fantastic, and particularly in big games. I loved playing him in the big games. His record against Arsenal, for instance, was fantastic. The Milan games over there and at Old Trafford, when I asked Park to play directly against [Andrea] Pirlo, are memorable. He never gave Pirlo a kick and he kept running off him which was brilliant too. Park had roles that only a disciplined and selfless player could have. That’s exactly what Ji-sung was, selfless. He played for the team and whatever role you gave him, he would stick to that role. So he was a really wonderful, disciplined professional for us.
Here’s Pirlo himself, on Park:
At Milan, [Ferguson] unleashed Park Ji-sung to shadow me [in the Champions League]. He rushed about at the speed of an electron. He'd fling himself at me, his hands all over my back, trying to intimidate me. He'd look at the ball and not know what it was for.
They'd programmed him to stop me. His devotion to the task was almost touching. Even though he was a famous player, he consented to being used as a guard dog.
Park was a particular kind of archetype: a superstar from a lower league turned into a situational workman for a super-team. At the time -- late aughts and early 2010’s -- it seemed like every big team had one of these players -- a defense-first attacker who would supposedly balance out the other expensive defense-maybe-fourth-or-fifth attackers in, as SAF put it, “big games”. You couldn’t have a Wayne Rooney, a Carlos Tevez, and a Cristiano Ronaldo without a Park Ji-sung, the thinking went. In fact, you often could only have two of them because you needed a Park, too. Back then, it would’ve been unthinkable for Liverpool and Manchester City to butt heads without a Park-type player in the starting 11, like they both did on Sunday.
The Korean workhorse seemed ever-present to anyone who watched Manchester United during the Late Ferguson era, but that’s because he only really played in the games you wanted to watch. Park never played more than 1,700 minutes in a Premier League season and only broke the 1,000-minute mark twice in his seven-year United career. The 2010-11 season is perhaps the purest example of Park: he started eight matches in the 10-game Champions League campaign, but just 13 of United’s 38 Premier League matches.
Outside of the odd big club using one keeper for the Champions League and one for domestic play -- see: Barcelona in 2014-15 -- this kind of situational squad usage just doesn’t happen anymore. The best players tend to play all the time; top teams try to make their opponents submit to their style; and that style is increasingly more attack-focused. Now, rather than raving about Ferguson’s savvy deployment of Park’s fresh legs for the most important matches, we all make fun of Pep Guardiola whenever he makes an unorthodox change for a big game.
Is there a Park Ji-Sung of 2021? A couple names come to mind: Lucas Vazquez of Real Madrid, Giorginio Wijnaldum of Liverpool, maybe Mason Mount of Chelsea. But I mean those more in the sense that all three of those teams seem like they have individual players who would more directly contribute to goals and assists than those three players. However, the latter two certainly don’t fit the “big games only” mold; they always play. As for Lucas, I tend to think of him as a player who just makes Madrid fans mad, rather than a less-flashy utilityman who still significantly contributes to winning. And perhaps that’s just a sign of the modern game; maybe if he’d played 10 years later, Park would be an object of misdirected scorn meant for the manager; hell, maybe he’d be Dan James. And maybe if Lucas was fitting in amidst the Galacticos, the Madrid faithful would be signing songs about him, long after he’s gone.
But who plays like Park today? Is there anyone at a big club doing something roughly similar to ... whatever it was, exactly, that Park did?
We’ll define “big club” as someone within the top 12 of FiveThirtyEight’s global club rankings, which, as of Monday afternoon, looked like this:
And we’ll use Park’s best statistical Premier League season (2008-09) to try to find the next Park. Here’s a statistical snapshot, via Stats Perform:
-Shots per 90: 1.3
-Chances created: 1.2
-Touches in penalty area: 4.3
-Passes into penalty area: 2.3
-Passes into final-third: 2.3
-Ball recoveries: 4.0
Starting with all of Park’s offensive stats as baselines, there are, somewhat surprisingly, only 31 players from the top 12 teams who have hit all of Park’s numbers. (We’re using last season and this season’s stats, combined.) None of those numbers are individually all that impressive, but he’s contributing a little bit to all phases of play. That tracks with the Park Three Lungs picture of him as a player -- he’s everywhere -- and it’s also easier said than done. Funnily enough, the only side that doesn’t have a player who meets Park’s benchmarks is Manchester United. Forget Fergie; they never replaced Park, either.
To whittle it down a bit more, let’s take a look at his involvement in goals and shots. Park was involved in sequences (uninterrupted possessions) that ultimately ended up with 0.35 expected goals worth of shots per 90 minutes in 2008-09. Among all the sequences he was involved in, 12.69 percent led to shots and 1.21 percent led to goals. And per 90 minutes, he started 0.16 sequences that led to a goal and 1.04 that led to a shot. Take all of those numbers as baselines, and we’re left with 11 players:
-Barcelona: Lionel Messi
-Bayern Munich: Thomas Muller
-Inter Milan: Alexis Sanchez and Ivan Perisic
-Juventus: Paulo Dybala
-RB Leipzig: Christopher Nukunku
-Manchester City: David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez
-PSG: Angel Di Maria
Now, that list is, by definition, filled with a lot of great players! We’re picking only from the 12 best teams in the world, and we raised the baseline on a number of attacking metrics. Most of these guys are doing way more shooting, shot-creating, penalty-area penetration, and ball progression than Park did, but still: only 11 guys did all of the things he did -- on the attacking end.
Once we flip on the “ball recovery” filter, the list cuts down to Muller, Willian, Sanchez, and three City dudes. Manchester City have the monopoly on intra-city trophies, and it turns out they have all the modern Parks, too.
Once we flip on any of the other filters, though, the list is empty. While Park really can’t match the attacking output of any of these guys, none of them come close to his ball-winning ability. The most attempted tackles per 90 among this remaining crew are Muller’s 1.8, and the most interceptions are Willian’s 0.7. Park’s combined attempted tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes was 5.0; Muller leads the final six with 2.34, with Willian right behind at 2.25.
Both Willian and Muller feel like pretty good modern proxies for Park, though. Willian (before this season, of course) is more of an exact fit; a super-active, very clean wide attacker who often seemed to be asked to sublimate his scoring and creative potential for the greater good of his teams. He was almost always the less-heralded of whatever two wingers Chelsea decided to play at a given time, but they kept winning with him in there. And as for Muller, well, he’s the ultimate “glue guy”, Sir Alex’s “big game” player who looks like he wandered in off of the street from a tour-guide-led bike ride with his family but also scores and assists goals at the rate of a superstar.
Of course, neither one is a perfect comp, but what did you expect? They don’t make ‘em like Park anymore.