Manchester United's Park Ji-Sung: Come In Number 13, Your Time Is Up

He's been a vital squad player for Manchester United but his performances this season have been woeful. He's not a winger, nor a holding midfielder, and it looks like he has reached the end of the line...
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He's been a vital squad player for Manchester United but his performances this season have been woeful. He's not a winger, nor a holding midfielder, and it looks like he has reached the end of the line...

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The last game that I saw Park play in was the second leg of the Europa League last 16 tie against Athletic Bilbao at the San Mames stadium in Basque country. In retrospect, It was up there (or down there rather) as one of Manchester United’s poorest performances of all time. And at the heart of our hopeless midfield was the man himself.

Fans will surely say Patrice Evra trumps him as far and away United’s worst player this season, but even they can’t deny that Evra has still been a potent attacking threat down the left wing. There’s no denying the fact that defensively, the Frenchman frequently looks like Napoleon with two right legs but he has been quite effective going forwards, which is rather admirable, considering the injury crisis(es) we’ve had. Add to that Ashley Young’s protean form, and Evra’s attacking contribution has been much needed.

But this isn’t about Evra. It’s about United’s misfiring Asian frog-eater. Coming back to that Athletic game, it was among Park’s poorest performances in that red shirt. I remember thinking when the teams came out for the second half “why in the name of all that is holy is that man still on the pitch”?

Evidently, I wasn’t alone in thinking that. On Ten Sports (that’s the channel featuring UCL and EL in India) Carlton Palmer had been screaming his head off during the half time show about Park: “They’re playing around Sung Ji-Park! They’re playing around Sung-Ji Park.” Twitter was awash with fans, journos and pundits all up in arms when they saw that Ferguson hadn’t taken the South Korean off after a calamitous first half performance. My Facebook newsfeed was sagging under all the “WTF IS PARK DOING?!!!” statuses popping up one after the other. And the mayhem continued in the second half as Park and United were deservedly dumped out of a competition Ferguson had claimed “we’re in it to win it.”

The South Korean’s form has been deteriorating slowly for a while

If this was an isolated incident, I’d have been more than happy to say it was a one off. Everyone has bad days. Berbatov had one at Wembley against City, Giggs had bad days against Bilbao and poor Andy Carroll seems to be having one everyday. But in Park’s case this was no one off. The South Korean’s form has been deteriorating slowly for a while now but unlike Evra, Park’s seems to be rather less widely documented.

The last truly great game that I saw Park play was the second leg of last season’s Champions League quarter final against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. United won the game 2-1 and went onto the finals for the third time in 4 years. The game was Park at his brilliant best. Drogba had just canceled out Hernandez’s first half opener but within 40 seconds, United were ahead again, when Ryan Giggs’s cross found Park on the edge of the box and he finished it expertly beyond Čech with an unnaturally good finish.

The game showed exactly why Sir Alex valued Park so highly. The Korean was at his running, combative best- fighting every 50-50, chasing after the Chelsea midfield and doggedly closing down spaces left in between the lines. He was a whirling dervish on the pitch, with his intelligent use of space and time, hard work off the ball and moreover scoring the decisive second goal which killed any sort of Chelsea fightback.

Sadly however, those performances are no more. Pas plus. Nicht mehr. Non più. Or in plain Korean, 더 많은 것 아닙니다. Whatever that means. Its been pretty much downwards for Park since that game.

The Champions League final for instance, was a new personal low for Park

Take the match against Arsenal at the Emirates in May - Park, who started the match had arguably one of the worst performances he has ever had in the red (technically black) shirt. He kept giving the ball away, tackled no one but himself and was usually seen dribbling the ball in the general direction of Edwin van der Sar. Guess who was supposed to be marking Aaron Ramsey when he scored for Arsenal? Yup, it was Park. I strongly recommend checking out the highlights of the match on YouTube - it shows Ramsey gliding past a presumably asleep Park and shoot throw a crowd of United players to score. The last person to even attempt to stop the Welshman wasn’t Park, it was Michael Carrick with a despairing lunge.

With every match since, this has been the general tone of Park’s performances for United. The Champions League final for instance, was a new personal low for Park. Sir Alex left out Nani to make way for Park in the starting eleven and the South Korean promptly put in such a catastrophically useless performance it was no minor miracle United only lost by 2 goals. Placed in the center of the pitch and asked to man mark Xavi, Park ended up chasing only shadows as Barça ran riot at Wembley and highlighted all the flaws in the United midfield - an alarming lack of depth, an over-dependance on ageing players and the lack of a truly world class talent to hold everything together.

Park’s poor form has followed him into the new season. Of the 3 games United have lost this season, Park has started 2 of them - Newcastle and Blackburn (thankfully, he wasn’t even in the squad to face City). Sir Alex plays Park nowadays almost exclusively as a destroyer, a person to stop the opposition from playing, an erstwhile Roy Keane if possible. At that, Park has failed spectacularly. Matches against Newcastle, the home loss to Ajax and both defeats against Bilbao showed that when placed in the center of the pitch, Park is pretty much useless. As Carlton Palmer pointed out so effectively, everyone just plays around Park, so he has to resort to running after them, which eventually leaves even bigger gaps in the middle. Since United do not have anyone intelligent enough to cover that space effectively, the end result is rather predictable.

Why has Park become a liability all of a sudden?

The one game where Park was asked to be the creator-in-chief, Blackburn at home, was a disaster as well. Remember the bizarre Park-Rafael combination as our central midfield pairing? Yeah that one. Cataclysmic failure.

Why has Park become a liability all of a sudden? Why is it that the man Rio Ferdinand one described as an “underrated, real top player” become so poor all of a sudden?

Part of the reason is his age - 31. His game is one of very high intensity, defined by combative aggressive play and much running off the ball. The older he gets, the more difficult it will become for him to keep at this sort of high pressure football, so he will have to mould his game to suit his limits, something Ryan Giggs, Raúl and Francesco Totti have all done. Against Bilbao, the Park of old would’ve harassed the midfield into submission, but as we all saw, the Park of new simply gave up and threw his hands up.

Another reason is his lack of a well defined position in the team. When Park retires, he’ll probably be described as a ‘winger’ or a ‘holding midfielder’. In truth he’s neither. He isn’t a winger because he hasn’t got the pace of Valencia, the trickery of Nani or the consistent crossing of Ashely Young. And he isn’t a holding midfielder because he hasn’t got the awareness, the mentality or the sheer willpower to be one. He is definitely no Roy Keane. But what he is, is a jack of all trades. A proverbial master of none.

I’ve personally never been much of a Park fan, but I’ve always respected what he does. As Rio put it, he brings something different to the team. He is always more than eager to do the dirty work for the team, the unglamorous job of running around, knocking people off the ball and mopping up the left overs, a bit like a Sean William Scott in ‘Goon’. And for that, I’ll always admire him, regardless of what happens to him. I truly believe that he has been an integral, if often underrated part of the club for a long while and for that legacy to be enshrined in gold, I want him to come back to form in style, and help lift number 20.

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