My brain is still half-dead from spending four hours in an examination room doing algebra, but news has been slow after the June friendlies and it’s been a while since we’ve had an update post on the K League. We’ll try to get our Match of the Day’s back out soon but Jinseok and I are in that end-of-year flurry of applications (in his case) and exams (in mine).
So for the sake of getting back into posting mode, this is a tiny two-part series of bitesize posts to keep you up to date on the K League Classic and Challenge. First up, the top half of the K League Classic.
1. Jeonbuk Hyundai
Record: 7-6-0, qualified for ACL Quarter-Finals
It’s not entirely surprising to see Choi Kanghee’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on top of the K League table, with 27 points and no losses to their name. That being said, they haven’t been invincibly dominant as many had predicted them to be at the beginning of the season. After a ridiculous amount of rotation in the early stages of the season, culminating in the embarrassing 3-2 loss in Vietnam, Choi Kanghee finally got his sh*t together and is finally opting for consistency in the team selection. That means he’s had to bench veteran centreback Kim Hyungil, Asian Cup-fullback Kim Changsoo, Australian foreign signing Erik Paartalu, and to some extent the usually energetic Lee Jongho.
Since that April game, he’s given chances to younger players including Jang Yunho, Seo Sangmin and CB Choi Kyubaek – the latter pleasing Shin Taeyong in the Olympic team friendlies. Lee Jaesung has regressed a little bit, but he hasn’t had to do all of the work with ex-Cardiff man Kim Bokyung being the team’s star playmaker in the first 13 matches, leading to our total incomprehension of his exclusion from the June friendly team. Lee Donggook continues to impress up top while Kim Shinwook comes in late in matches to unlock stubborn lines from over the top.
Defensively, they remain frail, and might want to delve into the market for another centreback come the summer transfer window. They have conceded a goal in every K League game since March 20th, after all.
2. FC Seoul
Record: 8-2-3, qualified for ACL Quarter-Finals
FC Seoul have been a joy to watch this season, perhaps because they are crashing the Jeonbuk-third-title-in-a-row party and providing for exciting matches. Choi Yongsoo’s side, who play a 3-5-2 formation and system, were able to reverse the trend of their usual slow starts, thanks in large part to the Adriano-Dejan partnership. “Deadriano”, as they’re called by the Korean media, have been responsible for 12 goals in the K League and 14!_ in the ACL. Combine that with a 5 goal contribution from Park Chuyoung and it’s easy to see why FC Seoul are averaging above 2 goals a game.
FC Seoul have also been blessed with great seasons from wingbacks Ko Kwangmin and particularly Ko Yohan, who cover the whole length of the pitch. In midfield, Yojiro Takahagi and Joo Sejong have been having quietly impressive seasons, while Olympic-hopeful Park Yongwoo is also getting regular playing minutes as the more defensive of the three central midfielders. Choi Yongsoo’s biggest challenges will be trying to keep Yun Illok at the club, as the winger doesn’t really fit anywhere in the team’s current system, but more particularly Adriano, who will undoubtedly be seduced by mega-rich Chinese clubs all summer long.
It’s a foregone conclusion that the title will come down to Jeonbuk-FC Seoul this year, with the next matchup of these two teams being slated for a Wednesday evening in Seoul – July 20th. Until then, FC Seoul simply need to keep firing on all cylinders as opposing managers continue to be slightly puzzled on how best to nullify the Seoulites’ assets.
3. Jeju United
So, I probably should apologize. At the beginning of the season, I scoffed at the idea of Jeju qualifying for the ACL. I didn’t think they’d be able to adjust to the loss of Ricardo Lopes and Yoon Bitgaram. Turns out, 13 games in, they are in one of the top three spots and are proving me wrong with every match. This is a team who loves to attack, with a league-best 6 matches in which they have scored 3 goals or more. Marcelo Toscano is the league leading assistor and the team’s top scorer, but the playmaking contributions of Song Jinhyung and Kwon Soonhyung cannot be overlooked. They obviously need to tighten up at the back (20 goals conceded) but their no f*cks given approach is one that I certainly want to see in the ACL qualification battle.
4. Seongnam FC
Seongnam had a strong start seeing them defeat the Bluewings on Opening Day and only lose once in their first nine matches. Their recent form hasn’t been so great, barely winning away at Sangju and becoming the first team to lose to Incheon on May 28th. My biggest reservation about this Seongnam side at the beginning of the season was their depth, and indeed this may continue to be a problem, as when Kim Doheon and Hwang Uijo are left on the bench, the Magpies simply don’t show up. However, a really bright point for them are the performances of winger Tiago, top scorer of the K League with 11 goals. After departing the Steelyard last winter, Tiago has caught on fire and torments the opposition with direct running and efficiency. Seongnam will want a bit more from Hwang Uijo, as he has just three goals to his name this season, but the 2-2 draw with Jeonbuk on the previous matchday shows that Seongnam are a force to be reckoned with.
5. Ulsan Hyundai
Road warriors. With only one loss away from the Munsu Stadium this season, Ulsan Hyundai are K League’s definition of true road warriors. Concerns about a lack of team chemistry remain going forward, but defensively, Ulsan are rock solid, conceding only a goal per game. The centreback pairing of Lee Jaesung (yes, there’s two of them) and Jung Seunghyun is working like a charm, and leadership from veteran keeper Kim Yongdae is ensuring that Ulsan’s goals are deadly ones, as opponents never know if they will be able to reply. Deadly on the counter, Ulsan are making every goal count and sit within striking distance of the top three.
6. Gwangju FC
Damn, Gwangju… Back at it again with the surprise. Last season, Gwangju went on an early season tear, and despite regressing to the bottom half in the latter stages, made a name for themselves after just having won promotion. This year, May manager of the month Nam Kiil’s side are scraping out points thanks to two summer signings from FC Seoul – 23 year old midfielder Kim Minhyeok and 32 year old striker Jung Jogook. The latter has had a mini-comeback in his career this season, as joint-2nd best scorer in the league. Only time will tell if Gwangju can keep up this form.
Tomorrow, positions 7-12 and the K League Challenge.