Lee Seung-woo: The ex-Barcelona prodigy, better record than Messi, wonder goals and what he'd offer Hearts

“We find the Asian market a real good market,” Hearts sporting director Joe Savage told fans at a Foundation of Hearts event back in April.

The club have raided the A-League across the past 12 months for Cammy Devlin, Nathaniel Atkinson and Kye Rowles. They made a move for forward Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa of Japanese side Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo in January.

Therefore, when news broke late on Sunday of the club’s interest in Suwon attacker Lee Seung-woo it shouldn't have been much of a surprise. For any fan with the Monday dread it was the perfect tonic.

A South Korean international once on the books of Barcelona. If supporters can’t get excited about such a prospect what hope can you have for them? The unknown. The fascinating back story. The gem unearthed from far away lands. It evokes a feeling which is different to a Scottish player arriving or a signing from England.

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In Seung-woo, there is a talent who would add to Robbie Neilson’s attacking options, providing a profile of player who would bring a different dimension. Someone who wants to take opponents on while offering a threat in behind with pace and acceleration.

Messi record

To get a better understanding of what he would bring to the team, it is important to understand the 24-year-old’s football education and the compelling journey to this point in his career.

Aged just 13 he made the move to Barcelona having impressed the Catalan giants during a youth tournament when representing South Korea. What started as a dream, delivering a better record than Lionel Messi in the club’s Infantil A squad, with 39 goals in 29 games, soon turned into a difficult situation.

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Lee Seung-woo featured once for the Barcelona B team. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Seung-woo was one of a number of Barca starlets banned from playing competitively due to Barcelona having breached FIFA Article 19 on the status and transfer of players. This particular article regarded the protection of minors, prohibiting international transfers under the age of 18.

It meant that from the age of 15 he knew he was unable to make his debut for the club until he turned 18. During that time there was even reported interest from Real Madrid.

The versatile forward, who can play through the middle, as a second striker or on the wings, could at least demonstrate his undoubted quality on the international stage. In 2014, at the AFC U-16 Championship, he finished top scorer and won player of the tournament as he helped his country reach the final. It included a double against Japan with one goal which can only be described as sublime. Picking the ball up in his own half, he sped away from three opponents before being faced with a three-man defensive line. He dribbled past that trio, rounded the goalkeeper and slotted home.

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You could understand the ‘South Korean Messi’ moniker.

The forward has played 11 times for South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Euro journey

That was only heightened three years later against Argentina at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2017. On the ball just inside the Argentine half, he skinned one opponent, using his pace to accelerate away before clipping the ball over the goalkeeper with his left. It was awarded Korean FA Goal of the Year. He also won Asian Young Footballer of the Year.

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By then he had made his debut for Barcelona B but would be moving onto pastures new, joining Hellas Verona for €1.5million. Such was his potential, Barcelona held a repurchase option until 2019 and he played twice at the World Cup in 2018.

Seung-woo would feature in Serie A, the Belgian top-flight with Sint-Truiden and then briefly in Portugal’s Primeira Liga for Portimonense under Paulo Sergio without hitting the heights many expected, especially in his homeland.

Seung-woo featured at the 2018 World Cup. (Photo credit should read PASCAL GUYOT/AFP via Getty Images)

Finding form at home

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But this year he has returned home, joining Suwon and has hit the goal trail. Ten goals in 22 games.

Despite scoring six goals in his last nine he has come off the bench in the first half in eight of those games. The times he has been substituted in: 18’, 25’, 12’, 23’, 15’, 15’, 18’ and 34’.

It is an unusual quirk of the K-League whereby if teams start with two under-22 players they get five subs so it is not uncommon to see younger players play the opening quarter before being replaced.

Seung-woo has played from the left and right and as a striker. In the latter role against Gangwon, he dropped very deep to collect a pass and clip it around the corner to strike partner Lars Veldwijk before making a run through the middle of the defence to latch onto a through ball, opening his body and slotting into the bottom corner.

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Four of his ten goals have seen him use his pace to run in behind defences. A quality that is required in the Hearts frontline with the way Lawrence Shankland and Liam Boyce occupy defences or move to link play. Seung-woo’s speed would help open up space and stretch the game. Enter Barrie McKay and his capacity to succeed at Where's Wally blindfolded such is his vision.

He is perfectly suited to one of the supporting forward roles either side of a striker or in a partnership. At times he has played on the left or right of a midfield four and been too far away from goal.

You can see his Barcelona education, watching the way he changes direction quickly, how he handles the ball and his touch. In tight situations under pressure he can display lightning quick feet to evade opponents and is a strong dribbler, who regularly looks to create chances for team-mates with through passes and combination play.

Seung-woo is also deceptively strong and tenacious. He works hard off the ball and won’t be bullied. His last appearance saw him red carded for using his elbow to shrug off an opponent in the box.

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The signs point to another shrewd find in the Asian market by the club's recruitment team.

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