Jeonbuk vs Seoul, a battle of the two favorites for this season’s title, met in the opening round of the 2016 K League Classic at Jeonju World Cup Stadium. Unfortunately, the game failed to really catch the imagination as Jeonbuk ground out a rather stale 1-0 win thanks to new signing Kim Shin-wook. You can catch highlights, as well as Tim and Jinseok’s thoughts, in the new “Match of the Day” video, but here I’d like to take a look at some of the tactics used by both Choi Kang-hee and Choi Yong-soo.
++ Asian Champions League preview at the end of this post.
The Starting Formation
When the lineups were released, there was a mini-debate on Choi Kang-hee’s formation as he opted for slightly unexpected XI with new midfielder Kim Bo-kyung injured. Lee Dong-gook and Kim Shin-wook both started, as did Luis Henrique, Lee Jae-sung, and Erik Paartalu. Kim Chang-soo and Park Won-jae started at fullback with Kim Hyung-il, Choi Chul-soon, Lee Ho making a five-man defense.
There was no debate about Choi Yong-soo’s side, as he largely went with an unchanged XI that was seen in Seoul’s two ACL matches. The 5-3-2 that has become his preferred formation was once again on display. Yoo Hyun was in goal. Park Dong-woo, Kim Wonsik, and Osmar were the three defenders with Ko Yohan and Ko Kwangmin on the flanks. Joo Se-jong, Takahagi, and Shin Jin-ho were the midfielders. Dejan and Adriano the two forwards.Choi Kang-hee reacts to Adriano and Seoul’s ACL performances
The first thing of note is how Choi Kang-hee reacted to Seoul and specifically, Adriano’s, ACL performances against Buriram and Sanfrecce Hiroshima. While he’s used five-man defenses before, it’s much more common for him to use a four-man line in either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 formation. Dropping Lee Ho into defense was clearly (and he admitted as much later) a move to counter the dual threat of Adriano and Dejan.
Big names force Choi Kang-hee’s hand?
I’m not sure if this was his preferred decision or if he felt compelled to do so, but starting Lee Dong-gook AND Kim Shin-wook along with the tactics employed seems (even in hindsight) a very odd choice. It strikes me that, and I may be wrong, that Choi Kang-hee felt a certain obligation to start both his big-name forwards in the home opener against a quality Seoul side. Perhaps he’s aware of the ego of the players, or perhaps he didn’t want to have the media noise about dropping one? I’m not sure, but it’s hard to explain why he started both and used the tactics he did.
5-3-2 vs 5-3-2
The three-man or five-man defense is something that seems to be growing in popularity recently. The formation has been (increasingly) frequently seen in Serie A after Juventus had much success with it under Antonio Conte. And with Pep Guardiola occasionally using it with Bayern, it seems to have caught on in other parts of the world. Despite having two forwards rather than one, the formation is a defensive one as it seeks to provide plenty of men in central midfield as well as a spare man at the back. The formation’s primary weakness is of course the lack of width given only the wingbacks are out wide. In Serie A, as well as the K League, this is usually not a problem given the lack of quality wide midfielders. But of course it depends on the tactics employed by the side.
When teams go 5-3-2 vs 5-3-2 as we saw here, the result is often a rather stale, tactical gridlock of a match. Everyone matches up against each other, and chances become difficult to find. It often takes a moment of brilliance by one player to open up the game.
Why these matches become such a stalemate is not hard to see. The midfields cancel each other out 3v3, as do the wingbacks. The forwards have trouble breaking through as they must not only beat their individual marker, but also the third centerback sweeping behind. In this case, we had four quality forwards in Dejan, Adriano, Kim Shin-wook, and Lee Dong-gook, but mobility, creativity, and the ability to beat a man on the dribble are not skills they have in abundance. As we saw in this match, it often falls to one of the centerbacks to provide the defense-splitting pass. For Seoul that was Osmar who was allowed plenty of time and space on the ball. Osmar is one of the league’s best players, but asking him to play incisive through balls is not a strong route to victory. An international example of this would be Giorgio Chiellini with Juventus and Italy. A quality defender, Chiellini, but not gifted in the attacking department.
Jeonbuk defends deep with high ball-side pressure
Another mini-online debate was Choi Kang-hee’s tactics (or lack thereof). Jeonbuk adopted a very defensive position when Seoul had the ball. Opting for little pressure on the Seoul centerbacks when they had the ball. However, Jeonbuk did apply a lot of pressure when the ball went to the flanks, shifting their entire midfield to that side of the pitch in order to deny Seoul’s midfielders. It also didn’t allow Seoul’s wingbacks space to get running and penetrate deep into Jeonbuk’s areas for crosses.
The above image, taken right after the opening kickoff, illustrates Jeonbuk’s general idea well. The three midfielders (Luis, Lee Jae-sung, and Paartalu) have shifted towards the ball. Park Won-jae is ready to step up and press his opposing number when the ball comes to him. There is acres of space behind the midfielders (Jeonbuk’s), but little real danger if the ball came there. Kim Chang-soo (off screen) is ready to cover Ko Kwangmin (bottom left). The only truly free player is Osmar (bottom right), but as we’ve already discussed, he’s unlikely to really cause Jeonbuk problems on his own in that position.
A few seconds later, the ball does eventually come to Osmar in space, but again if you’re Jeonbuk there is little threat. Osmar has few options other than to pass it backwards or dribble forward and shoot (which he eventually does). Seoul’s midfield is well covered as are the forwards. This will become a fairly common scene throughout the game, Osmar with time and space.
Man-marking on Adriano, Joo Se-jong, and Dejan
Choi Kang-hee gave directions to pay special attention to three Seoul players, Adriano, Joo Se-jong, and Dejan (to a slightly lesser extent).In this image, Adriano can clearly be seen (middle, on the ball) quite deep for his position and playing style. The man challenging him for the ball is not a Jeonbuk midfielder, but rather Choi Chul-soon who has followed him out from the back.
This image, taken a few seconds later, shows how Choi Chul-soon continues to follow Adriano despite the presence of several of Jeonbuk players in the area. Choi Chul-soon and Lee Ho seemed to be the primary man-markers, likely due to their higher mobility than Kim Hyung-il.
Here we can see Dejan in a similar position to Adriano’s before, and again we can see he’s been followed out by a Jeonbuk defender. Attempts to deny Dejan and Adriano time to turn on the ball and face goal was a big part of Jeonbuk’s defensive strategy.
We’ll return to this image in a little while, as this move resulted in one of Seoul’s better scoring chances.
The final marking instruction was on Seoul’s deep-lying playmaker Joo Se-jong. In the above image he is on the left side between the two Jeonbuk players (Luis on the left, Lee Jae-sung on the right). Luis had the primary job of marking Joo Se-jong when the Seoul man entered the Jeonbuk half of the pitch. This is a normal tactic employed around the world, when the defending team’s attacking midfielder picks up the attacking team’s deep-playmaker. Often games can hinge on how well the attacking midfielder sticks to his task. This job however was not only on Luis, as you can see in the image he’s yelling at Lee Jae-sung and pointing to pick up Joo Se-jong so Luis can move back closer to his normal position. Luis would pass on marking duties for Joo Se-jong to Lee Jae-sung or Paartalu when he moved further up the pitch.
Seoul too slow with ball circulation/changing focus of attack
With Jeonbuk applying heavy pressure on the ball-half of the pitch, the seemingly obvious tactic would be to quickly and frequently change the angle of attack. Either to create disorganization in Jeonbuk’s defensive set-up, take advantage of the pressing, or simply to tire the Jeonbuk midfield out from running side-to-side. Yet, Seoul really didn’t do it.
One of the more frustrating things to come out of Guardiola’s Barcelona, is the high number of copy cat teams that don’t fully understand how to utilize possession and passing. The most obvious example being teams that slowly pass the ball around the back in a U-shape. It doesn’t do anything because the defending team can easily just move across as a unit to block the attack. Seoul was certainly guilty of this at times. The other big problem with Seoul’s attack was the lack of movement off the ball. The players were far too static and offered little ball support. Consider the above image. Osmar (bottom center) has the ball and is looking for options. Shin Jin-ho (center) makes a run, but no one else does. Everyone else just stands and waits. Jeonbuk would go on to clear the attacking move.
Seoul created probably their best open play chance, when the players did actually move around a bit. Here Dejan has dropped deep (pulling Choi Chul-soon out), Ko Kwang-min has pushed high (far left) and dragged Kim Chang-soo with him. Shin Jin-ho moved to the left wing (bottom left). Essentially the three have rotated in a triangle (Dejan to midfield, Shin Jin-ho to left wingback, Ko Kwang-min to center forward), but the key is the way Jeonbuk is marking. Kim Chang-soo and Choi Chul-soon have man-marking responsibilities and have followed them. Paartalu does not, and he gets caught in a no-man’s land trying to cover Shin Jin-ho and Osmar (he also makes a mistake by stepping up to press Osmar). Kim Shin-wook’s poor positioning (middle right) does not help as he should have been in a spot to cover Osmar.
The pass goes to Shin Jin-ho who has space and freedom to run down the flank and cross because neither Kim Chang-soo nor Choi Chul-soon came afford to leave their man open to cover. Shin Jin-ho gets a good cross in, but Adriano’s shot is blocked by a sliding Kim Hyung-il. The point though is that, Seoul did not do these kind of things enough. The midfielders often stayed too central and the wingbacks stayed too wide.
Seoul lacks a dynamic player
When you consider the above issue (little off the ball movement/ball support), and combine it with the fact that Seoul did not really have a dynamic player to breakthrough Jeonbuk’s defense on their own, it should be little surprise Seoul created only a few real chances. Seoul’s best player for breaking through wasn’t even on the bench (Yoon Il-lok). Seoul will certainly face packed, deep defenses throughout the season, but most will not be at Jeonbuk’s individual quality, and so Seoul will likely be able to get results from them. However, it should be slightly concerning to Seoul fans that the team is unable to really produce a change of pace attack.
It is also not a coincidence that Seoul’s best chance (which Adriano fluffed) came on a very direct counterattack. Admittedly Choi Chul-soon made an error that gifted Dejan the ball at the edge of the box, but when Seoul quickly bypassed the Jeonbuk midfield block, voila. A chance was created.
Jeonbuk tries to mix midfield pace with forward power
Jeonbuk’s attack was slightly confusing in that they clearly looked to attack on the break, but Choi Kang-hee put his two slowest forwards up top in Lee Dong-gook and Kim Shin-wook. It’s certainly worth noting that they had Ricardo Lopes and Lee Jong-ho on the bench. The two won’t set the world on fire, but they are certainly more mobile and comfortable running with the ball then the former two are.
That left the running to Lee Jae-sung and Luis. The two certainly caused Seoul some problems, but the issue was that they were often starting midway in their own half leaving them quite a ways to go in order to really create something dangerous. If Jeonbuk had put one or both of Lopes/Lee Jong-ho in, that could have worked with Lee Jae-sung and Luis able to play forward passes into the space behind the Seoul defense, but that was never going to happen with Lee Dong-gook and Kim Shin-wook ambling around.
Seoul more set in defense
Seoul’s defending wasn’t too different from Jeonbuk’s in that they set out in a fairly passive 5-3-2. The main difference was that Seoul did not engage in any man-marking, and the midfield wasn’t as aggressive in shifting ball-side.
This image shows the lack of man-marking and also the small difference in the midfield shape. Paartalu has dropped deep to pick up the ball, but experienced little pressure. Remember when Joo Se-jong would do that for Seoul he would usually get pressure from Luis. It also shows the flipped shape of the two midfield threes. Jeonbuk operated with two deeper midfielders (Paartalu and Lee Jae-sung) with Luis at the top (closer to the forwards). Seoul (as you can see) is flipped with two midfielders higher (Takahagi and Shin Jin-ho) and one deeper (Joo Se-jong). This image shows the lower pressing from Seoul. Lee Jae-sung (top center on the ball) picks up the ball, but Takahagi does not move up to press. Rather he keeps his position and attempts to force Lee Jae-sung to create something on his own. It’s not easily shown due to the changing camera angle, but in a few seconds there is also an example of the centerbacks not marking the forwards as tightly. Kim Shin-wook (top right) drifts towards the touchline, and while Kim Dong-woo follows him, when he has to make a choice between sticking with Kim Shin-wook or going back to track the run of Park Won-jae (who is being marked by Ko Yo-han), he opts to drop deep leaving Kim Shin-wook open.
A negative and rather ugly performance, yet it yielded three-points and sent the message they were still the team to beat. It’s fair to criticize Choi Kang-hee’s tactics and personnel choices, but one must also acknowledge that it did the job. For most of the second-half and the latter part of the first, Seoul looked well neutered and their deficiencies laid bare. However, if Jeonbuk is to make a serious run at the ACL one feels that Choi will need to embrace his attacking options more or at least make different selections to counterattack with. I suspect that Choi Kang-hee will not always play such a negative style, and hope that he shakes things up more as the team blends together.
A one-trick pony? For Seoul, I believe their biggest problem is that they seem unable to really change the pace of their attack. It is always the same, and against better teams it is far too slow. Joo Se-jong will need to step up his game and become more decisive with his long passes, or Seoul must hope one of Park Chu-young or Yoon Il-lok can become a game-changing substitute. In a long league season, Seoul should be good and be in for the title. But in cup competitions where one bad game can end things, Seoul may have trouble.
Asian Champions League Matchday 3 preview
Tim here, we didn’t want to bury each others posts, so we’re sticking the preview here … Brilliant analysis Jae! Here’s a quick preview of the AFC Champions League action for this Tuesday and Wednesday.
Melbourne Victory vs Suwon Bluewings (Tuesday, 4:45am EST, 5:45pm KST)
Suwon Bluewings have had a sluggish start to their season. They’re bottom of Group G, with a lifeless draw with Gamba Osaka and disappointing defeat against Shanghai East Asia leaving them in the basement. However, it’s not all doom and gloom – if they can win against Melbourne, they will keep a fair shot at making the knockout stage. Despite that shred of optimism, it will be no easy task. Melbourne have gotten off to a flying start in the ACL, drawing Gamba but defeating Shanghai East Asia. The trip to Australia can also be very difficult – you’ll recall that Suwon ran into a bunch of flu and fatigue problems in Brisbane last year, with Kim Eunseun even having to go to hospital. That being said, Melbourne did lose 5-0 on the weekend, so confidence might actually be at equally poor levels for both teams.
Prediction: 2-0 Melbourne. Suwon will have the revert to a younger team because players like Cho Donggeon and Lee Jungsoo weren’t registered in time – I hope Gunny (Kim Gunhee) does well but there’s to me that suggests that Suwon can compete in Asia right now.
Jeonbuk Hyundai vs Becamex Binh Duong (Tuesday, 6am EST, 7pm KST)
The Jeonbuk side we will see here will no doubt be very different than the Jeonbuk side who beat Seoul 1-0. Since players like Lopes and Lee Jongho did not feature on the weekend, expect Choi Kanghee to take it to the Vietnamese side with an attacking team selection. Jeonbuk are currently second in their group, with a 2-1 win over FC Tokyo and a 3-2 loss against Jiangsu Suning being their two early fixtures. Now, Binh Duong aren’t pushovers – they’ve held their own, holding Jiangsu to a draw and losing 3-1 – a respectable score – in Tokyo. But Jeonbuk’s sheer talent should see them win this one handily.
Prediction: 3-0 Jeonbuk
FC Seoul @ Shandong Luneng (Wednesday, 3:30am EST, 4:30pm KST)
FC Seoul probably drew the easiest of Chinese clubs in this year’s ACL. Shandong has left it late in both of their games (all of their goals so far vs Sanfrecce (2-1 W) and Buriram (3-0 W) have come after the 65th minute, but they can still be a factor. Seoul’s lost to Jeonbuk probably brought them back to reality after high flying starts, but their fairly rigid structure and shape has done them well in the ACL so far. Will be curious to see if Seoul bring in some new players this time – they haven’t rotated for their games straight – will Park Chuyoung get a start?
Prediction: 2-1 Seoul
Pohang Steelers vs Sydney FC
Choi Jincheul’s Pohang went from defense solidity to total failure to amazing comeback to #$%#^& in their last three games. In general, you can expect a well built defense structure from Pohang (key to their draw of Guangzhou), but against Gwangju they were picked apart. Sydney FC on the other hand will hope to channel their stunning victory over the reigning Asian champs in this game, but no guarantees – they haven’t taken three points from a league match since January 16th! If Pohang can recover from defensive issues and show the same desire in when in possession as vs the closing minutes of their stunning 3-3 draw on the weekend, they can beat Sydney.
Prediction: 1-0 Pohang.