All season long Manchester United have been linked with a move for star talents from the squad of newly crowned Scudetto champions, Napoli.
Napoli’s owner, Aurelio de Laurentiis, is one of the toughest negotiators in world football and has been so for a while now. While Manchester United’s potential move for Victor Osimhen will be impacted by De Laurentiis’ foolhardy nature, but that will not be the case in a potential move for defender Kim Min-Jae. The presence of a release clause in the South Korean defender’s current contract means that Napoli are essentially powerless, if a club ends up paying that fee.
While the Partenopei have tried to extend his deal, increase his wage while keeping him under the wage cap and removing the clause, it doesn’t seem to have worked out. Rumours in Italy so far have constantly bombarded information about Kim, stating that he has agreed to join United in the summer and that Erik ten Hag’s side are willing to pay his release clause too. But once you delve deeper into the situation, it becomes a lot clearer than just the black and white of him staying or leaving Napoli for United.
When Kim joined Napoli from Fenerbahce after being close to joining Rennes at one point, his agents were desperate to have the release clause in his Partenopei deal. That was vital in making sure that he moved to Napoli and not Rennes, who signed Joe Rodon from Tottenham later. Il Mattino - a local outlet in Naples, has been one of the key sources to constantly report about Kim’s situation and that would ideally raise the question about whether this is Napoli briefing local media to increase attention on the player or not. But because the 15-day release clause in July exists, Napoli can’t be doing that as they will have no say in how much they earn from the sale. De Laurentiis has been clear about the fact that he doesn’t want to sell his prized assets this summer.
Recently, Il Mattino themselves mentioned how the intermediaries that are dealing with Osimhen’s future are the same ones who are dealing with Kim’s future and that, right away, increases the possibility of intermediaries (not Kim’s agents) leaking information to the Italian press about the defender. On top of that, information about the release clause and the wages that United can offer to the defender is constantly changing. Not long ago, La Repubblica reported that United are offering €7 million per season to him but more recently, Il Mattino took that number upto €9 million per season. The same happened for the release clause amount and the time at which it would be active.
And considering how Kim’s agents have already clarified that the move isn’t close, it only increases the probability of intermediaries (or intermediary) trying their best to bring about a move for their financial benefits. In fact, there is a high possibility that in the first 15 days of July, Kim could be undergoing military training back home and that may complicate any move.
While the potential absences aren’t great news for United, it is quite clear that the club at least ‘like’ the player, and the player in question is arguably one of the best defenders in the world right now. If one considers his skillset and performances under Luciano Spalletti this season, it is barely a surprise.
Kim, over the last season in Italy, has acquired a reputation for his ability to be extremely quick across the turf and use the same pace on the ball in starting attacks from the back. He is a constant at carrying the ball out of the back - a quality that Harry Maguire was once renowned for but a loss of confidence and form has led to that not happening anymore. Like the Englishman, Kim too plays on the left side of the centre-back pairing which involves him and Amir Rrahmani, having replaced a club icon in Kalidou Koulibaly.
In some ways, Kim has proved to be the perfect replacement for Koulibaly in terms of his stature and profile. While Koulibaly’s fitness issues were catching up, Kim being younger certainly has helped and this allows him to use his explosiveness in a much more reliable manner than the Senegal international. The South Korean has shown a reading of the game which allows him to get to dangerous loose balls much quicker than the opposition and while that is something Koulibaly was also known for, increasing age had made him slower in that regard.
Manager Spalletti, who is lauded for his poetic verbiage, stated earlier this season, defining Kim’s playing style perfectly:
“Kim does at least 20 incredible things per game. For me, he truly is the best centre-back in the world. When he starts the run with the ball at his feet, he can get it into the opposition penalty area in five seconds flat.”
Spalletti’s innovative approach to the game is based on the ideals of Relationism, as his team constantly changes from building up in either a back three or a back two, with captain Giovanni di Lorenzo often dropping in reliably. If not Di Lorenzo, Mario Rui plays that role and the club captain takes up a position higher up on the right flank. A system like that needs centre-backs who are capable of playing in versatile rest defences and shapes in possession.
Rrahmani is adept at playing that role from his time at Verona, who played a back three consistently under the tutelage of Ivan Juric. Kim too is similarly adept in shapes like those, having played in the middle of a back three at Fenerbahce. That habit has come in handy at Napoli, whose 3+1 build-up requires defenders who can defend wide spaces well and be extremely useful in possession. Since Di Lorenzo is the full-back who usually drops into the back-line, Kim shuttles out wide as a left sided CB, covering the spaces behind Mario Rui or Mathias Olivera. And he has done that job exceptionally well, often allowing Napoli numerical overloads in midfield or wide with his ability to carry the ball.
Kim isn’t just someone who plays on the left side of the backline though, as in the absence of Rrahmani, he deputised on the right side of the defence alongside Juan Jesus. The role was similar apart from the fact that he acted as a central defender in back three in possession - something he did often during his time in Turkey.
While those are the reasons why Ten Hag would naturally have a liking for Kim, Napoli’s well-oiled midfield and heavy pressing allows the backline a lot of protection - something that can’t be said of United all the time. United’s backline has been more and more exposed post-February, with Casemiro being leggy and overly cautious and the midfield partner either being a Christian Eriksen who struggles to function beyond one hour or misfits such as Marcel Sabitzer and Scott McTominay. A midfield structure like that isn’t too promising and the opposite rings true for Napoli.
While signing a centre-back of Kim’s quality does make a lot of sense, especially with Maguire leaving but as they always say for United - there is a bigger issue to be sorted out in midfield and between the sticks (with David de Gea simply incapable of adding any value in possession or with any sweeping abilities). Without solving those issues, the backline will be let down at various points of the season, regardless of how well the team can perform in spurts.
Kim’s versatility as a defender is his biggest trait and he is a Ten Hag defender. While Raphael Varane is an excellent box defender, he is limited off the ball and struggles with injuries constantly. Signing Kim to replace the Frenchman would make natural sense because of how much of an upgrade Kim is over the ex-Real Madrid man. It would also be a case of United admitting a fault of theirs by using Varane merely as a rotation option after signing him two seasons ago but the age profile of the United squad needs replenishment and that is what Kim would do.
It isn’t just tactically that Kim fits into a Ten Hag setup, as he is known to have an admirable work-ethic and discipline. So much so that Napoli owner De Laurentiis now wants more publicly spoke about his desire to sign more Asian players in an interview with La Repubblica recently. Napoli, in their history, never had East Asian players in their side before, and Kim’s impact has been so tremendous that the club’s fans and management now consider him to be an ideal representative of that part of the world. The Partenopei are set to tour South Korea in pre-season and that says a lot about the impact that the 26-year-old has had at the club.
He has done that while not even knowing Italian or English properly. He is still learning the two languages and is barely fluent at those, coming across as someone who communicates in rather basic versions of both languages and is generally reserved. Despite that, he has conquered the hearts and minds of everyone at Napoli.