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Kim Min-jae: How the South Korean can replace superstar Koulibaly in Naples – scout report

After joining Turkish giants Fenerbahçe at the start of the 2021/22 season, Kim Min-jae took his first steps out of Asian football. His first campaign in Europe was impressive, immediately becoming an integral player as he started every Turkish Süper Lig fixture when available alongside six full nineties in the Europa League group stage. As a result, interest was at an all-time high for Kim as he looked to make his long-awaited move to a top five league.

Everton and Tottenham Hotspur have been long-time admirers of Kim whilst French side Rennes were reportedly on the brink of signing the South Korean international. However, Napoli swooped in and hijacked the £20m deal, bringing Kim to the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona with Champions League football on offer. Alongside Leo Østigård, Kim is the second centre-back arrival by the Gli Azzurri as they look to replace colossal leader Kalidou Koulibaly.

Kim has been a leading player at all of his previous clubs. He was signed as a key player for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, leading the club to reclaim and then retain the K-League title. Transferring to Beijing Guoan in the Chinese Super League, Kim was integral to second and third-place campaigns. His spell in China was where he first attracted reported interest from Everton and Spurs, but Istanbul would be Kim’s first European destination. Despite just one season at this level with Fenerbahçe, his performances convinced Napoli boss Luciano Spalletti that the South Korean was ready for the big stage.

In this tactical analysis, in the form of a scout report, we will look at Kim Min-jae’s style of play, and whether he can replicate the successes of Chelsea’s new centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly. It will also be an analysis to see whether the defender fits into Napoli’s tactics.

Player profile

Kim Min-jae (190cm/6’3”, 78kg/171lbs) is a technically assured, yet defensively solid centre-back. Primarily right-footed, the South Korean has displayed crisp passing with both feet to retain and progress possession under pressure. He is positive in possession and is a comfortable ball carrier despite his awkward stature. Defensively, Kim is physically strong with good pace and excellent anticipation.

On the other hand, Kalidou Koulibaly (195cm/6’5”, 89kg/196lbs) is an established player, continually proving his world-class ability over the last five seasons now. Joining Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea for around £35m at the age of 31, Koulibaly will take his incredible ball-playing ability to the Premier League. Also right-footed, the Senegalese would help Napoli find their attackers with accuracy whilst also being a commanding presence in defence.

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The figure above displays Koulibaly and Kim’s heatmaps from the 2021/22 season. Koulibaly was typically deployed as the left-sided centre-back for Napoli in Spalletti’s commonly used 4-2-3-1. The Senegalese international was mainly paired with Amir Rrahmani, also right-footed, although Brazilian Juan Jesus was also sporadically used as a left-footed option. Rrahmani, captain of the Kosovo national team, is expected to be Kim’s centre-back partner next season.

Kim’s heatmap is a result of Fenerbahçe’s mid-season managerial change and the variety of formations used. Starting the season under Vítor Pereira, the Portuguese deployed variations of a three at the back during his tenure. As a result, Fenerbahçe used three at the back formations for over 33% of their games in the 2021/22 season. Under Pereira’s replacement, Ísmail Kartal, Fener often lined up in a 4-2-3-1. Kim started as the central centre-back in Pereira’s three-man defence.

Meanwhile, in Kartal’s set-up, Kim was mainly deployed in the left-sided centre-back position, continuing to be an integral starter in Istanbul, accumulating more minutes than all of his centre-back partners. With Rrahmani expected to retain his starting role as the right-sided centre-back, it is likely that Kim will resume his left-sided role in Naples. However, Kim is still experienced on the right of the defensive duo starting there for South Korea and Beijing Guoan alongside the occasional Fenerbahçe fixture. His right-sided centre-back game-time with South Korea has also skewed the above heatmap.

What Koulibaly brought to Napoli

Since joining Napoli in the summer of 2014 from Belgian club Genk, Kalidou Koulibaly has been a consistent performer for Gli Azzurri. His overall ability and leadership would be valuable to any club, but his ball-playing ability is particularly valuable at Napoli. Under Spalletti last season, Napoli’s average possession of 57.3% was the third-highest in Serie A. To achieve this, their centre-backs must be comfortable in possession and help maximise the double pivot’s time on the ball.

Out of 162 defenders to play over 500 minutes in Serie A last season, Koulibaly was top ranked for forward passes per 90 with 23.8, alongside an impressive 83.6% accuracy. In possession, he can utilise his short and longer passing range for Napoli’s ball retention, but he can also bypass opposition pressing and help progress possession with his varied passing range.

Koulibaly’s longer-ranged passing could be especially potent when finding teammates in behind the opposition defensive line to help create goalscoring opportunities. His longer passes would typically be direct to Napoli’s attackers, entering the final third and bypassing the midfield line. Completing 6.39 passes into the final third per 90, Koulibaly ranked 21st out of the 162 Serie A defenders. Attempting 5.68 long passes per 90 with 54.6% accuracy, the centre-back can also switch and spread play to the wingers with lofted passes. His passing has been utilised to break lines centrally as well, completing 8.71 progressive passes per 90.

The image below is an example of these longer, lofted passes over the top of the opposition’s defensive line. After recycling possession, Napoli have found Koulibaly free to receive and bring the ball into the midfield. Struggling to break through the Legia Warsaw defensive structure with minimal options ahead of the ball, the centre-back executes a lofted pass over the defence for Hirving Lozano’s run off the right wing.

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Alongside being ranked third in Serie A last season for average possession and goals scored, Spalletti’s Napoli had the joint best defensive record alongside champions AC Milan conceding 31 goals. Koulibaly is essential to this defensive record. His defensive duel success rate of 69.72% from 4.95 duels p90 is exceptional, proving his overall effectiveness and outstanding defensive capabilities. His aerial duel win rate of 56.12% from 3.41 duels could be improved upon from last season and is something that Kim could provide despite the height difference.

Koulibaly’s awareness is a standout attribute of his defensive game. He frequently drops behind the defensive line to provide cover, which is particularly effective alongside Amir Rrahmani due to the Kosovan’s tendency to leave the defensive line to follow opposition strikers. However, the Senegal international is also comfortable stepping ahead of the defence to close down the opposition and recover possession. His reading of the game and decision-making in these situations is crucial to Napoli, with Koulibaly’’s 7.26 PAdj interceptions ranking in the top thirty Serie A defenders.

For such a possession-dominant side like Napoli, these qualities can be best showcased in defensive transition. Koulibaly has displayed his ability to drop and cover behind the defensive line in his own half, whilst also successfully stepping out to regain in rest defence. An example of this in rest defence is below against Inter Milan. With all ten outfield players in the Inter Milan half, Napoli are vulnerable after the possession loss in the final third. As Edin Džeko receives the ball, he could release Ivan Perišić behind the defence, but Koulibaly has sprung out of rest defence to tackle the Bosnian striker. Regaining possession in the final third, Koulibaly pokes the ball to Dries Mertens who scores from distance.

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Composed in possession

When on the ball, Kim Min-jae is confident in his technical ability to retain possession. He rarely forces progression, instead choosing to be safer as a ball-handler in the defensive line. Kim still plays with elements of risk with his passing and ball-carrying, but his more direct passing is either forced by the opposition or attempted with a high chance of completion. Out of 164 defenders to play over 500 minutes in the 2021/22 Turkish Süper Lig season, Kim ranked 77th for long passes per 90 with 4.2 with 61.03% accuracy. His three teammates in the Fenerbahçe centre-back unit (Attila Szalai, Serdar Aziz, and Marcel Tisserand) all attempted longer passes.

This could be affected by Kim being a right-footer deployed on the left side, whereas last season Fenerbahçe’s other three centre-backs were mainly on their natural-footed side. However, this is something that Kim must overcome to succeed as the left-sided centre-back at Napoli. This will come with time and understanding of the set-up under Spalletti, with Koulibaly also having to improve on these fine details to reach his current standard. The long passes are an area where Kim must improve, especially in comparison to Koulibaly. With his 3.58 passes into the final third per 90 ranking 121st out of the 164 Süper Lig defenders, the frequency of his more direct passing is lower than his new centre-back partners at Napoli.

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However, the South Korean international has displayed the ability to find runners in behind as Koulibaly does to great effect. In the example above against Çaykur Rizespor, Kim has carried the ball out of the defence and created the angle required to thread a pass in behind. As Kim carries forward, he points in behind and triggers left winger Diego Rossi’s movement to penetrate the defensive line. The pass in behind was in Rossi’s stride, resulting in the Uruguayan getting the pre-assist for Enner Valencia’s headed goal. Kim has the required excellent weight of pass to execute these passes more frequently at Napoli. With wingers Matteo Politano, Hirving Lozano and Kvicha Kvaratskhelia all possessing the willingness to stretch play with inverting movement in behind, Napoli have the players available for Kim to release in behind.

Kim is also capable of progressing play in central areas, playing line-breaking passes to bypass pressure or finding central midfielders with simple passes. His ability to access central midfielders is masterful, utilising his quality weight of pass off both feet to thread the ball into space for teammates to run onto away from danger.

Kim’s weight of pass is also useful for ball retention, with his crisp passing never overhit or scuffed so teammates can easily receive or play first-time when under pressure. His 22.69 forward passes per 90 ranks 12th out of Süper Lig defenders with 85.03% accuracy. These qualities would be especially fruitful at Napoli due to how influential their double pivot is to attacking play. In the 2021/22 season, double pivot options Fabián Ruiz (76.32), Stanislav Lobotka (68.95), and Diego Demme (68.18) completed the most passes per 90 for Napoli.

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The image above is an example of Kim’s ability to execute line-breaking passes under pressure with his weight of pass. As Galatasaray press the backline and force play backwards, Aziz finds his centre-back partner Kim. With Gala’s central midfield pairing of Alexandru Cicâldău and Berkan Kutlu closing in, the South Korean remains composed and shifts the ball onto his right foot despite the oncoming pressure.

Gala’s midfield line of the 4-1-4-1 is very advanced to apply pressure, creating large spaces for their pivot player Taylan Antalyali to cover. This space is further enlarged by the Fenerbahçe wingers maintaining maximum width. With Antalyali following Miguel Crespo, there is more space for Kim to exploit by lofting a pass into Crespo’s double pivot partner Miha Zajc. It is common for Kim to add height to his passes between the lines to help avoid opposition interceptions. His 8.31 progressive passes per 90 with 72.86% accuracy ranks 44th out of the 164 Süper Lig defenders.

With Fenerbahçe’s full-back duo of Bright Osayi-Samuel and Ferdi Kadioğlu both converted wingers, they have a willingness to attack and get forward. Their ball-carrying is used as a route of progression, with Osayi-Samuel completing 4.91 dribbles per 90 and Kadioğlu completing 3.8. With such technically talented full-backs, Fener’s centre-backs often make many lateral passes, with Kim completing the most at 26.27 per 90.

The use of full-backs to progress will continue at Napoli, with last season’s starting pairing of Mário Rui and Giovanni Di Lorenzo completing the most progressive passes per 90 at the club. However, the importance of the full-backs also enables Kim to deceive the opposition and progress play with a different passing option or a dribble, as shown below.

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The image above displays Kim executing a disguised pass to break lines and find the striker. Initially, he is shaping his body to spread play out to the right-back. However, he swiftly rotates his hips to fire the ball into striker Hwang Ui-jo and find a potential opening. Tottenham’s Son Heung-min was another option to receive the disguised pass ahead of the ball, but Kim played the more direct pass. As a right-footer, Kim’s disguised passes are most effective with the angles from the right centre-back position.

In the image below, Kim has faked passing to his left to decrease the pressure from Trabzonspor’s nearest presser Abdülkadir Ömür. As Ömür slows down, Kim bursts away and drives forward to penetrate, finding Serdar Dursun between the lines. On every ball reception, Kim takes his first touch out of his feet. This changes the picture around him and forces the opposition to react differently than to a touch that stops the ball dead. His positive first touch enables him to break forward at pace if he sees an opening.

Koulibaly could often be seen dribbling from the defence at Napoli, but this was mainly driving forwards after a regain or just general ball manipulation to retain possession and create passing angles. Meanwhile, Kim is more likely to utilise his ball-carrying in a settled state of possession to progress and penetrate a more resolute defensive structure. This change of dynamic could help Napoli next season if Kim can attempt dribbles more frequently than at Fenerbahçe.

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Aggressive out of possession

Overall, Kim is defensively very good. His defensive duel win rate of 72.63% from 5.53 duels per 90 ranks 10th out of the 164 Turkish Süper Lig defenders to play over 500 minutes. He is adept at defending a variety of opposition attacks in different areas of the pitch, which is likely one of the main reasons Napoli decided to bring him to the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.

As we’ve previously mentioned, the full-backs at Napoli are essential to ball progression and attacking. Napoli’s four full-back options from last season were all ranked in the top seven at the club for passes into the penalty box per 90. With their willingness to impact play in the final third, Kim must be capable of covering. Combining his powerful speed with his comfort of using either foot to engage and challenge opponents, Kim is strong at defending in wide areas. From both the left and the right-wing, Kim can deal with nimble attackers that want to cut inside or beat him on the outside to the by-line. Many defenders prefer to use their strongest foot to tackle, regardless of their body shape, but Kim’s two-footedness assists his ball-winning efficacy.

Similar to Koulibaly, Kim often occupied positions as the deepest player in the Fenerbahçe defensive line. As the deepest player, he has the maximum decision-making time for whether he should remain as the sweeper or push out and engage ahead of the defensive line. This is something that Koulibaly does to an elite level, recognising when to cover wide areas or stay centrally to cover Rrahmani’s tight man-marking tendency. Kim has displayed the intelligence to cover his centre-back partner during his spell in Turkey and will take on Koulibaly’s responsibility behind Rrahmani.

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Despite his often deeper position, Kim is also excellent at aggressively regaining possession ahead of the defensive line. The South Korean international ranked 7th in the Süper Lig for PAdj interceptions with 8.8. His ability to cover ground and hunt the ball at pace with his dominant physicality to regain possession is frightening for the opposition. Combining this with his composed and accurate ball-playing to help recycle possession, Kim Min-jae is an able Koulibaly replacement in rest defence.

The image above is an example against Göztepe of Kim’s aggressive interceptions. With initially the deepest defender, Göztepe striker Franco Di Santo dwells on the ball with his first touch under his feet. As the Argentina attacker turned to drive at the defence, Kim accelerated rapidly to put in a strong challenge with his tackling finding teammate Mert Hakan Yandaş. Kim is always alert to denying opposition attacks that quickly develop into goal-scoring opportunities. He is aware of when and where his defensive line is exposed and makes the correct decision for his positioning, only pushing ahead of the defence when his outstanding anticipation ensures ball recovery.

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Kim also challenges aerial duel with the same intensity and robustness and is great at defending crosses. With a 62.92% aerial duel win rate from 2.75 duels per 90, his win rate is greater than Koulibaly’s last season. Typically, when Kim contests aerial duels, he will tussle with and lean into the opponent to force his body ahead of his man and win the aerial duel. An example of this can be seen above against Kayserispor striker Mario Gavranović. He is able to hold his own against big and physical strikers, whilst constantly dominating smaller strikers.

However, Kim does often avoid contesting aerial duels due to his exceptional reading of ball flight. Kim drops away from the opponent to control the ball down when opponents have misread the ball flight. He does this to great effect, guaranteeing his side regains possession rather than contesting an aerial duel that could result in the opposition picking up the second ball. The image below is an example of Kim dropping off behind Hull City forward Allahyar Sayyadmanesh, with the South Korean international effortlessly cushioning the ball down to a teammate.

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Conclusion

With interest from Everton, Tottenham Hotspurs and Rennes, the long-awaited transfer of South Korean centre-back Kim Min-jae to Europe’s top five leagues was completed by Napoli. In this summer window, world-class defender Kalidou Koulibaly departed the club for Thomas Tuchel’s Chelse and Kim looks set to be Koulibaly’s replacement, with the two sharing similar defensive qualities and tendencies alongside neat passing.

However, fully replacing the quality of Koulibaly at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona is an impossible task for Napoli. Although, the arrival of Kim is exciting in Naples with Luciano Spalletti hoping a partnership with Amir Rrahmani can bring results in the Champions League and Serie A.