In Ji Dong-Won, Dortmund sees talent that Sunderland overlooked
It was one of the stranger moves of the January transfer window: the 22-year-old South Korean who ended three years of bench life at a Premier League club by moving on loan to a Bundesliga side looking to consolidate in mid-table. In itself, that sounds perfectly reasonable, but it's what will happen next to Ji Dong-Won, who left Sunderland for Augsburg earlier this month, that really caught the eye.
After his six months in southwest Bavaria, Ji will move to Borussia Dortmund, last season's Champions League runner-up and the closest side there is to a viable challenger to Bayern Munich. You did not misread that: Borussia Dortmund, the side that in the summer will see Robert Lewandowski leave, confirmed last week that Ji will join the club at the end of the season.
The team that signed Lewandowski from Lech Poznan, that spotted Ilkay Gundogan at Nuremberg and scouted Neven Subotic after one season at Mainz has seen something in Ji that three Sunderland coaches did not. So, what is it? And why did they all miss it at Sunderland? On Saturday, when Ji came off the bench for his second debut at Augsburg and scored with a near-post glancing header within minutes against, of all teams, Dortmund, did it even register at Sunderland?
Ji was 19 years old when Sunderland, with Steve Bruce in charge, spent £2 million on him. He had impressed Sunderland's new chief scout Pop Robson at the 2011 Asian Cup, where he scored four goals in helping South Korea finish in third place.
"Taking into account the fee, his age and the fact he is South Korea's regular center forward, it was a bit of a no-brainer," Bruce told the press at the time.
Bruce had liked what he saw, and gave Ji playing time as a substitute in 10 of the first 13 Premier League games that season. At that point, November 2011, Bruce lost his job, and his successor, Martin O'Neill, was not so keen.
Ji came off the bench in eight of the next 25 games. His most famous moment, the last-minute goal that beat eventual champion Manchester City 1-0 at the Stadium of Light on New Year's Day, did not lead to more chances: only two minutes off the bench in the next match, and a five-month wait before his only start under O¹Neill, in a 2-1 defeat at Fulham.
The story took another twist 12 months ago, when Ji moved to Bundesliga side Augsburg on loan. At that time, Augsburg looked down and out in its fight against relegation, but Ji helped turn things around. He scored five goals in his 17 games there, and created many more. The reason? He did not play as center forward, but as the second striker behind Sascha Mölders.
Significantly, coach Markus Weinzierl changed the formation from 4-2-3-1 to a 4-1-4-1 to fit him in - with Ji in the side, Augsburg had more presence in the box, lots of service from the wings and carried a greater goal threat. Augsburg won all five games in which he scored, and avoided relegation by two points.
Dortmund bid £5 million for Ji last summer, which was rejected by Sunderland's then-coach Paolo di Canio. That might have been understandable if the Italian had plans for him but instead he only started one game under him; strange, given that Sunderland sold Stephane Sessegnon, its only other option to play behind the striker, to West Bromwich Albion in late August.
Ji started one more game under new boss Gus Poyet. Had anyone at Sunderland even followed his progress during his time at Augsburg and realized where his best position might be?
"The root of the reason for Ji's failure at Sunderland is a microcosm of everything that is wrong with English football," said Michael Graham of Sunderland fans' website Roker Report. "From the second he joined, no one at the club ever considered him as anything other than a center forward, and that was how he was used and judged. For me, Ji didn't fail Sunderland. Sunderland failed Ji. It's a disgrace that the club did so little to nurture a very talented player."
In all, Ji started as many Premier League games as he had coaches at Sunderland, four (if you include Kevin Ball's short caretaker spell), and his adaptability, technique, tactical awareness and eye for goal were overlooked time and again. That won't be the case at Dortmund, where coach Jurgen Klopp could use Ji in the Marco Reus role next season.
Creating chances has not been Dortmund's problem this season, but it has dropped far too many points this season through poor finishing. Ji saw this first-hand on Saturday, his goal to level up for 2-2 a masterclass in opportunism just two minutes after coming on. As for his former club, only three teams have scored more Premier League goals than Sunderland, which is rooted to the bottom of the table along with West Ham and Cardiff City.
It could do with a player like him now. And if Ji makes a success of his time at Dortmund, owner Ellis Short might be left wondering how three coaches that he appointed got it so wrong.