The most prestigious final of the 2016 Asian football calendar year is here, and for the first time in three years, a Korean team is 180 minutes away from claiming the title. It wouldn’t be hard to find Asian football observers ready to crown Jeonbuk Hyundai as easy treble winners after their strong performances out of the gate, but an inopportune bribery scandal coming to light and the odd stumble here and there now have left one of Korea’s most formidable domestic XIs in history with one last chance at a trophy.
Who Are Jeonbuk Hyundai?
Believe it or not, Jeonbuk Hyundai were not always perennial favorites to win the K League title. For the better part of their first decade in existence, Jeonbuk often languished near the bottom of the table. It was only when Choi Kang-hee took over the club in 2005 that the Green Machine embarked on a decade-long record of dominance. With 4 league titles, 2 ACL finals (and a victory in 2006), 1 FA Cup final and an 8-season streak of not finishing outside the top three in league competition, Choi is indisputably one of the greatest domestic managers the K League has ever seen, turning Jeonbuk into imposing league titans.
This season, they took on a completely different flavor, however, with the purchase of several top-quality players and promising prospects, earning them comparisons to Bayern Munich in Germany – superclub status achieved.
K League: 2nd place, (20 W, 16 D, 2 L, but deducted 9 points for bribery scandal in 2012).
KFA Cup: knocked out in the Quarter-Finals
ACL: 1st place Group E (3 W, 1 D, 2 L), defeated Melbourne Victory, Shanghai SIPG and FC Seoul
Road To the Final
Jeonbuk ran into some uncharacteristic hiccups in the early parts of their ACL campaign, losing away to Jiangsu Suning and Vietnamese side Becamex Binh Duong. This is easily attributed to the fact that Jeonbuk had an influx of new players learning Choi’s system, and Choi likewise not really knowing his best XI. After several players came up shockingly short in their defeat in Vietnam, the former Korean national team manager banished many – including Erik Paartalu – into an indefinite stay in reserve team purgatory.
By the time the knockout stages rolled around, Jeonbuk was undefeated in the league, dominating every encounter and validating those Bayern Munich “superclub” comparisons. Though the trips to Melbourne, Shanghai and Seoul in the Round of 16, Quarter-Final and Semi-Final ended in uncomfortable draws or losses (at Seoul), Jeonbuk was saved each time by a dominant performance in the home tie, that saw them blast 5 past then-Sven Goran Eriksson’s Shanghai and 3 past Hwang Sun-hong’s Seoul.
Jeonbuk went all-in during the winter transfer window last season and bought… pretty much everybody. In came towering striker Kim Shin-wook, then Korean national team regular fullback Kim Chang-soo, up-and-coming prospect and Asian Games champion Lee Jong-ho, the list goes on and on. These players, combined with other Jeonbuk regulars, such as stalwart custodian Kwoun Sun-tae and evergreen 37-year-old forward Lee Dong-gook, should have made an impressive title challenge in and of themselves.
But what really sets Jeonbuk apart from the pack is their midfield line. Lopes was a winter buy from Jeju United and usually occupies the left midfield position in the side. The Brazilian will exploit every vertical channel available and split defenses with his searing pace, and his meager 3 goals in the ACL belie his chance creation and ability to shift defenses into wack with his smartly utilized pace. Over on the right side, another Brazilian, Leonardo, has scored the most goals in the ACL this season among the two finalists (with 9) and racked up another 12 in the K League. Though his acceleration isn’t as impactful as Lopes’, he is a massive threat when drifting inside thanks to his particularly accurate long-range bullets. Regardless of whether or not Jeonbuk opt to play a counter-attacking game or retain and aggressively regain possession, both wide midfielders will have to be properly neutralized for Al-Ain to cope with the sheer attack in this side.
And that’s not all. The side’s greatest attribute is without a doubt their central midfielders. Lee Jae-sung and Kim Bo-kyung are household names for any proper Asian football aficionado. They are key for Jeonbuk’s ability to dictate tempo and pressure on an opponent, flawlessly distributing play. Both have already occupied more defensive roles in the past, and as such are competent winners of the ball – whatever physicality they lack is compensated by sheer willpower and willingness to get stuck in. When on the front foot, the stamina-abounding duo are able to play crafty one-twos, carve sides straight up the middle or play a slicing, well-timed throughball.
Three of the four midfielders featured in the K League Team of the Year (Kim Bo-kyung was omitted quite controversially) and were indisputably irreplaceable elements to Jeonbuk’s unprecedented success this season.
It has been a few years that Choi Kang-hee wanted to have his team play a German-style of football – that is to say – suffocating amounts of intense pressing on ball carriers high up the pitch. Think of Roger Schmidt’s Bayer Leverkusen as an astute kind of parallel. And although it took a raid of the transfer market and a few seasons to properly develop, Choi’s now got a lethal side on the ball who is just as positionally aware and tireless enough to win back the ball. It’s why Jeonbuk was able to neutralize players such as Wu Lei – not by out-matching them 1v1 with solid defending, but by simply not letting him ever get the ball in a comfortable position.
This pressing tactic often forces sides to make a rash transition, resorting to a hurried attempt to bypass the press with a long ball forwards or diagonally. Wu Lei was additionally man-marked by a persistent and experienced Jeonbuk fullback in both legs, Park Won-jae, which meant that the Chinese youngster – whose speed and technicality on the ball are core strengths – had instants to take a perfect touch, bringing down a hazardous direct pass, combat Park’s physicality… it just didn’t work.
Very few sides were able to cope with Jeonbuk’s gegenpressing game… until FC Seoul won the away leg of the ACL Semi-Final (2-1) and K League Final (1-0).
Whilst on the front foot, Jeonbuk are no one-trick pony. With strengths out wide (pace), from long-distance (Leonardo) and up the middle (creativity, one-touch passing combinations, throughballs), the Green Machine is as well-oiled in winning the ball back as they are with the ball. In the Asian Champions League of late, Choi has preferred 6ft 6 target man Kim Shin-wook to Lee Dong-gook. Although Kim’s hold-up play is questionable at times and his mobility is non-existant, his sheer height gives Asian defenses a lot to think about. Expect Lee to come off of the bench – despite his reduced mobility as he ages, he forever remains the “volley king” and has nearly two decades’ of professional footballing experience to rely on.
Al-Ain will succeed most when able to break out of Jeonbuk’s pressing system and make the game all about challenge the Jeonbuk back four, whose quality is suspect and balance is questionable. Though boasting years of experience, neither of the two usual centrebacks (Cho Sung-hwan and combative Kim Hyung-il) are the most mobile of players. Indeed, Jeonbuk’s defensive unit’s parts are fairly in line with the putrid quality of K League defending – and with the exception of fightback Choi Chul-soon, who has also played as defensive midfielder (could he be given a role to tirelessly follow around Omar Abdulrahman as a DM?) – isn’t very mobile in nature. Instead, it is their limitation of chances (gegenpressing) and the occasional Kwoun Sun-tae salvo that limited Jeonbuk’s goals against to 1 a game in a relatively high-scoring season.
This is a very competent and multi-faceted side in attack, but is far from invincible when their high-pressure ball-regaining tactic doesn’t bear fruit. Al-Ain probably come into this match as underdogs, but Jeonbuk should take nothing for granted – there are exploitable cracks in their system and unglamorous quantities defensively that could leave the Green Machine empty-handed in a near-perfect season.