Get to know new Vancouver Whitecaps FC midfielder Inbeom Hwang, a 22-year-old South Korean international who is considered to be one of the top young talents in Asia.
Those who follow the K League closely have been raving about Hwang since he made his professional debut with Daejeon Citizen FC in 2015 at the age of 18 years old. Over the last few years, he has been linked to European teams such as SL Benfica and Sporting CP of Portugal’s Primeira Liga and Borussia Monchengladbach, SV Werder Bremen, and Hamburg SV of Germany's top two tiers of football.
It was only within the last six months, however, that Hwang truly started to make a name for himself – and that’s largely due to his emergence on the international scene.
Last summer, Hwang was a key contributor for South Korea’s U-23 gold-medal winning side at the 2018 Asian Games. His performances there caught the attention of South Korean senior national team head coach Paulo Bento, who gave Hwang his debut the following month.
He has since earned 12 caps for the senior national team, scoring one goal, and most recently appeared in all five of South Korea’s matches at this month’s 2019 AFC Asian Cup. Hwang finished the tournament with nine chances created, which was just one back of Tottenham Hotspur winger/forward Son Heung-min for the team-lead.
The 22-year-old’s strong play has certainly not gone unnoticed.
South Korean soccer legend Young-Pyo Lee, who ended his career in Vancouver after a 14-year playing career that included successful stints with Tottenham Hotspur and PSV Eindhoven, said he believes Hwang is “among the top three most talented midfielders” currently playing in Asia.
Bento, who coached Portugal from 2010 to 2014, also had significant praise.
“He told me that this is probably one of the best midfielders technically that he ever saw,” Whitecaps FC head coach Marc Dos Santos said of his conversation with Bento.
The first thing that stands out when watching Hwang play is the gracefulness in which he controls the ball. As Dos Santos put it: “It’s a player with an incredible gift technically.”
Hwang has an innate ability to skillfully wriggle out of high-pressure situations, often turning on a dime and leaving the opposition in their wake. He’s also known for having an immaculate first touch and what Lee referred to as a “killer pass” to cut through opponents.
Dos Santos said he also liked that Hwang has an “incredible attitude without the ball” and is highly committed to the defensive side of the game, as you can see from the example below.
This play, in which Hwang regained possession for South Korea through an alert interception in midfield, is from last week’s Asian Cup quarterfinal vs. Qatar. In that game, Hwang was deployed as an attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 formation, whereas earlier in the competition he made more of an impact playing deeper on the field as one of the holding midfielders, which allowed him to see more of the ball.
Dos Santos said that Hwang can play anywhere in midfield, whether it’s in an attacking, box-to-box, or defensive role. Conveniently, his strengths appear to be well suited for the 4-3-3, which has typically been one of Dos Santos’ preferred looks, as it’s a formation that doesn’t require a true number 10 but rather two central midfielders who support both defence and attack.
Another thing you’ll notice about Hwang is that he’s very comfortable with both feet. He’s primarily right-footed but has actually scored many of his goals with his left, including a few long-range stunners.
That being said, the goals are a bonus with Hwang. He’s averaged four goals per season in Korea, so he certainly shouldn’t be expected to fill the net.
What you should expect is a player who will help pull the strings offensively – whether he’s delivering the final ball or starting the attacking phase of play.
SON OF DAEJEON
Hwang was born and raised in Daejeon, which is South Korea’s fifth largest city. It’s located in the heart of the country, about 160 kilometres south of Seoul.
Aside from a short stint with Asan Mugunghwa, a team made up of players serving their mandatory military duty, Hwang has spent his entire career to date with his hometown club Daejeon Citizen FC. He came through the club’s youth academy, joined the first-team in 2015, and became the youngest goalscorer in club history at 18 years and 253 days old.
Also of note, following South Korea’s U-23 gold medal win at the 2018 Asian Games, Hwang donated his winnings to Daejeon’s academy setup.
He’s the pride and joy of the club and city, thus his nickname: “Son of Daejeon.”
FILLING KI’S SHOES
Hwang has said that his role model in soccer is fellow South Korean midfielder Ki Sung-yueng, who is currently playing for Newcastle United FC in the English Premier League.
Ki has been a staple in the South Korean midfield for years, earning over 100 caps and appearing in three FIFA World Cups. The former Swansea City AFC and Celtic AFC man had also been the South Korean national team captain up until recently giving up the armband to Son.
However, the 30-year-old announced his international retirement on Wednesday. And Hwang is the player many are looking at to fill his shoes.
“I still have a long way to go to catch up with him,” he was quoted as saying in the Korean JoongAng Daily. “I said I’ll help Sung-yueng retire earlier because after spending time with him, Koo Ja-cheol and Lee Chung-yong, I learned how hard they have worked for the national team throughout the years, despite their injuries. The only way for them to rest is for us, the younger players, to play better.”