The Jeonbuk Influence

Last week, 16 of the 26 call-ups of the Korean national team for the senior squad’s key World Cup qualifiers against Iran and Uzbekistan made their way to Paju National Football Centre. (The foreign-based players later joined them.) Among them were 10 former or current Jeonbuk Hyundai players.

That scenario may sound like something more plausible under Choi Kang-hee’s managership or Stielike’s tenure (remember when the German boss said ‘national teams need a core of players from the top team in the domestic league’?), but no, this is the current selection of the senior side. A majority of the domestic and Asia-based options have gone through or are an integral part of Choi Kang-hee’s Green Machine.

The witch is dead, they said. The bad man is gone, they said.

Nope! With Shin Tae-yong admitting a majority of the starting eleven against Iran could be composed of domestic players, given his desire to deploy a more efficient side versus a side that shoehorns in the haewaepas, it is plausible to see as many as 5 or 6 of the national team hailing from the Jeonju Castle.

Though certain mainstays like Son Heung-min or Ki Sung-yueng are incomparable players in the national side, many of this team’s weakest positions can only be filled by Jeonbuk alumni or personnel, and with defense being a major issue, the Iran line-up could mark a sharp transition from a CSL-leaning defensive line to one which has its roots ingrained in pastures of Jeolla. Let’s meet them.

The baby-faced sensation: Kim Min-jae

The K League hasn’t produced a star central defender since Hong Jeongho –  and if you think this categorization is problematic you’d have to go even further back into the days of Kwak Tae Hwi in his “prime” or Kim Jinkyu/Kim Youngchul from the 2006 WC qualification cycle. Well, Kim Minjae – born in the year 1996 (!) – is looking like a good candidate to be the K League’s next big defender. He’s already deemed the best defender in the league as of now, and he’s only 20.

Admittedly, the only time I watched him live was against the U-20 team when they played against Jeonbuk as a warmup before the U20 World Cup. And Kim Min Jae was easily the best defender on the pitch, making us very sad that he was just two months too old to play for the team. He stopped basically every U20 offense, successfully tackling LSW a number of times, and bullied his hoobaes to the ground. His physicality is especially notable – he looks more intimidating than basically the entire Jeonbuk squad and in height, is only second to the Wookie.

The dilemma is this: All our defenders suck. Kim Minjae is young, untested, and inexperienced. What STY does will really say a lot about his attitude going into the job. JY

“A record signing in Korean history?” Kim Ki-hee

Is there much to say about Kim Kihee? Notoriously known for being the guy who played 30 seconds of the 2012 Olympic Games just to qualify for military exemption (there’s a humorous story out there of Hong Myungbo admitting he didn’t have an answer to “where should I play boss?” before Kim came on in injury time of the Japan game), Kim became more of a mainstay under Choi Kanghee. Until he wasn’t, and settled into a largely successful K League career at Jeonbuk for 4 seasons. Kim established himself as a veteran among K League centrebacks at the young age of 27, with good technical ability and ball-playing skills, he brought an unusual calmness to Jeonbuk’s defense which helped them win 2 K League titles. His transfer to Shanghai Shenhua for 6 million US was the then biggest transfer in Korean history (passed only by Kwon Kyungwon, if you count him). The problem for him in the national team is that he’s never been more than average, and his ball playing ability (trying to play a Kim Younggwon role in his absence?) was sketchy at best. Nonetheless, another proof how a simple, good Jeonbuk product with a couple good career moves can find his way to the national team. TL

From zero to…? Redemption on the line for Jeonbuk fullbacks

Kim Jinsu has a lot on the line. 2015 – Asian Cup Final – that terribly timed back heel that led to the Australian winner. There was much sympathy for Kim then, given that he was trying to cut his teeth in Germany and had shown a valiant offensive display at leftback that inspired much hope. He was raw, but better than we had seen before in many aspects. Since then, his career has gone downhill. Disappearing in Hoffenheim’s set-up, Kim made the choice to come home and play at Jeonbuk, where he is consistently one of the side’s top performers. However, his recent national team games have been rather lame, which seem to reflect that the step down to Europe may reflect a regression in his overall ability. Nonetheless, there are no other plausible options in left-back. Kim Jinsu has to show up and track back effectively against Iranian counters and not be shaken by the Iranian press. We saw how much Shin liked to use his fullbacks to build up in the 2016 Olympics – things may not be that different here. TL

Choi Chulsoon’s performance against Qatar was shaky. He struggled with Qatar’s pace, failed the offside trap, and looked just really lost. Matthew Binns from K League United says this: Despite his underwhelming performances in previous national team call ups, Choi Chul-soon is a fairly inoffensive and reasonably reliable right back, with the ability to play in other defensive positions and midfield if called upon. He tends to play in an overlapping wing back role, and has a decent enough cross on him. The 30 year-old boasts a wealth of ‘big game’ experience with Jeonbuk, having featured heavily in the majority of their successful campaigns and should unlikely be phased with the pressure of these qualifiers. You would be hard pressed to find supporter in Jeonju who would criticise him as he is well-thought of amongst the fanbase. That said, his twenty-four appearances this season are misleading as they have either been to make up part of rare three man defence as a centre back or, most commonly, as a replacement for injured recent signing Lee Yong at right back. Regardless of this though, I still feel he is a useful player to have in this national squad. MB

The most expensive Asian-based Korean – much ado about nothing?

I know literally nothing about Kwon Kyungwon. A little known prospect with Jeonbuk, Kwon made the unusual career move in 2015 of becoming Al-Ahli Dubai’s designated AFC players. (Middle Eastern sides love our centre midfielders). Nothing was heard of him until earlier this year, when he became the most expensive Asian-based Korean player on a move to Tianjin for a fee of 12.3 million USD. Scout reports have him playing a deep distributing role in the CSL, so much so that Korean media even rumoured that Kwon could start as the central centre-back in a 3-at-the-back system. I don’t expect we’ll see Kwon, but this is his first national team call-up. We might have more  to hear from this product of the Jeonbuk academy. TL

Despite the Korean national team putting in a consistent goal-scoring haul, there’s much to be desired about both the creation and the conversion of goals from this side. Three current Jeonbuk men will be fundamental for the side’s success in the coming week, and yes, one of them is rather old.

The K League’s star sensation Lee Jaesung

Given all of the injuries to key players such as Ki Sungyueng and Hwang Heechan, we’re going to need a player to drive the offense forwards. Lee Jaesung is incomparable in this regard when on form, and even on his worse days can put in a fresh moment of playmaking excellence out of nothing. Despite having his debut under Stielike, Lee never really played a high-pressure game under Uli, and this could be his first major opportunity to show whether or not he’s the real deal. A very different player from Lee Chungyong, Lee Jaesung will be more interested in combining with the whole midfield structure and bring back Shin’s “flowing attack”. TL & JY

Wookie: Our best player in qualifiers?

Forever considered Korea’s backup plan as an unsightly battering ram for when a locksmith is unavailable, Kim Shin-wook’s reputation seems to have been founded on finding ways of winning the ball in the air, causing havoc amongst opponents’ defences and bundling balls over the line to slightly-excessive celebration. That said, his performances have been improving for Jeonbuk, most notably when he switched from being a target man to a more supportive role for the wingers in the latter half of last season. Furthermore, 2017 has seen the best from him in a Jeonbuk shirt, scoring ten goals of different variety, in addition to becoming arguably Jeonbuk’s strongest attacking option to start on match day (not that it says much given the competition at the club). I do not expect him to be in eleven, and I doubt he will score if he comes on, but the loose balls he may create through just being a nuisance may be enough for more attack minded players to capitalise upon. MB

The Return of the Lion King…

If last season started to see the Lion King’s powers wane at Jeonbuk, this season has seen them deteriorate at a quickened pace. Having finally achieved the elusive Champions League medal that he long desired, 38 year old Lee Dong-gook decided that there was still enough in the tank for one last hurrah, making what then seemed unrealistic noises about going to the Russia World Cup from the start of this season. Despite his heightened ambitions, his recent role at the club has become one of a bit part player; a supposed super sub whose impact on proceedings has often been unnoticeable.

While local media may look to the recent matches against Seoul and Pohang for justification of his inclusion, it overlooks the numerous spurned opportunities and lacklustre displays earlier in the year which better reflect his whole season. His place in the team means that the highest scoring Korean scorer in the K League at present, Pohang’s Yang Dong-hyun misses out. While a case can be made for experience, there are enough players in that team (e.g. Yeom Ki-hoon and Lee Keun-ho) who could provide it while also offering something meaningful on the pitch as well. As much as I appreciate Lee Dong-gook as a Jeonbuk fan, and there’s little doubt of the sizeable contribution he has made to Korean football throughout his career, I cannot help thinking his inclusion could turn out to be a costly mistake. Let’s just hope that for Korea’s sake, form is temporary and class really is permanent. MB

The national team depends on many players, but seldom has it depended so blatantly on the success of one group of players. In the most strange, peculiar of ways, the most disliked Korean national team manager of the new millennium still has some indirect, removed-but-not-totally-so role in whether or the Taeguk Warriors will grace the pitches of Russia 2018. Perhaps Choi Kanghee might even have an emotion or two if Shin Taeyong’s side, propelled by several Jeonbuk men, do make it past this historic impasse.

(I left out Lee Keunho, because he just played half a season on loan at Jeonbuk, and Kim Bokyung, because I don’t watch the J.League and he doesn’t seem likely to start.)

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The maple syrup guzzling kimchijjigae craving Korean-Canadian, eh?