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Relegation Round Preview: Jeonnam Dragons

Team Rank: 2nd in Relegation, 7th Overall
Points: 42
Last Five Matches: LLLDD

Is Jeonnam's current spot an achievement or disappointment?

A bar not having your favorite beer is a disappointment, what the Dragons have done in the past six weeks is calamity on par with being stood up at the alter on your wedding day. Feelings of regret, self loathing, and oh so many questions of how it could have come to this. For a team that was in 3rd place and looking strong enough to challenge the league leader (albeit in a fantasy version of reality) to plummet this far is astonishing. The Dragons have gone winless since July 26th, picking up an feeble 5 points through 10 matches and missing out on Championship Round. After being decidedly mid-table last season at least making the cut into the top six would've been a positive step for one of the league's smaller franchises. However, all hopes are now pinned to the FA Cup and yet another Classic season will end with a decidedly uninspired feeling.

How does Jeonnam's current spot compare to pre-season expectations?

Sadly they're about spot on. As per usual the Dragons came into this season expected to be utterly mid-table and that's exactly how they've finished. Relegation is impossible at this point, but so is the respect of finishing in the top half. Again, after soaring so high in the summer this feels like a failure of a season, but looking at the long view shows they're where they were expected to be... for better or worse.

Why are the Dragons where they are?

Set piece defending and poor management. K-League's a bit difficult to track advanced stats, so the exact number is difficult to pin down, but the number of goals conceded off corners and other set pieces is dubious to say the least. Defenders often look confused and hapless leaving far too many free headers and shots on goal. Whether its the ageless wonder Kim Byung-ji, serviceable backup Kim Min-sik, or Gianluigi Buffon in his prime in net for Jeonnam doesn't matter. No keeper in the world can make up for the utterly appalling defensive work not being done by the Dragons.

A lack of organization on this scale over the course of a nearly complete season can be traced directly back to the manager. While Jeonnam's center backs haven't exactly been first-rate, an entire team not knowing their assignments for 33 matches comes from a lack of clear instruction. The September 19th match against Ulsan that saw Golden Boot leader Kim Shin-wook put in not one, but two amazingly free headers springs to mind. There is absolutely zero excuse for a defense falling asleep on the one guy you know to be the threat... other than confusion and poor assignments from the manager. Often times set piece defenders appear unsure if they're marking zonally, man-to-man, or perhaps they're actually being told to ball watch... because they're really good at ball watching. Whatever the case may be, the running about like a headless chicken is something that should've been addressed by Noh Sang-rae and sussed out in training sessions long ago.

Additionally, the Dragons fall from grace came from one of the most commanding offenses being thoroughly shut down. At its height the Jeonnam attack was a hyrda of Ristić, Oršić, Lee Jong-ho, and Ahn Yong-woo. If a defense was able to stall one, the others would simply take his place and terrorize goalkeepers. However, good management can overcome steady trends and the league caught on. The majority of the Dragons opposition in August and September played with a four man backline and often had a CDM roaming back there just in case. These teams would concede possession for the first half, allow Jeonnam to work themselves into a frenzy, and strike on the counter. The results not only put goals on the board for the opposition, it completely halted the Dragons offense. In their last 10 league games they scored eight goals and were shut out four times. Of the eight goals scored three came from set pieces, leaving a mere five scored from the run of play over 10 league matches. For an offense that has three of the league's top 11 scorers, it's clearly not a lack of talent that was keeping them off the board. The Dragons multi-headed attack pulled them up the ranks in June and July, the league caught on and countered, and Noh Sang-rae was unwilling or unable to adapt. Though the formation changed slightly from week to week, the strategy of 3-4 attacking players never did and Jeonnam continued to expect different results while doing the exact same thing.

What's the best Jeonnam can do in the next 5 weeks?

Finish first in the Relegation bracket. The reward for which I believe is a really fancy wooden spoon? Outside of the league play, the Dragons can still win the FA Cup and qualify for Champions League that way.

The worst?

Daejeon and Busan have all but officially ensured no one else in Relegation Round needs to be worried about going down, and it's a mathematical impossibility for Jeonnam at this point, so their worst has already been achieved when it comes to league standings.

Will next year be better or worse?

That will 100% depend on the FA Cup and the offseason transfer market. Kim Byung-ji may not have another season in him, Stevo Ristić's contract is up at the end of this season, and most importantly Mislav Oršić's loan from HNK Rijeka is up at the end of the year. Kim Byung-ji's mullet obviously contains magical powers, but even that may not be enough to see him through an entire season in his 46th year on the planet. The Dragons appear to be preparing for this by giving Kim Min-sik more of the minutes after Kim Byung-ji's 700th match milestone and the 29-year-old backup seems serviceable enough. He won't win many games for Jeonnam, but he won't be the reason they lose many either. The leadership and knowledge Kim Byung-ji offers is what the Dragons locker room will miss the most.

However, should the front office find itself unable to re-sign Ristić or Oršić, next season will be an extremely long and low scoring one. The two have combined for 20 of the Dragons 40 goals this season and while Lee Jong-ho remains an intriguing young striker, there's zero chance he can fill 50% of the team's scoring on his own. Again, pretty much everything related to Jeonnam right now hinges on the FA Cup. If the Dragons are able to pull off the improbable and win the tournament the lure of playing in ACL next season may be enough to keep Stevo and Oršić around, but even that may not be enough. From speaking with him, I get the impression Stevo misses playing in front of real crowds and that's something Jeonnam simply can't offer while averaging 4,734 per game in the 14,284 capacity Gwangyang Football Stadium. He likely has another season or two left in him and would be a perfect fit off the bench and spot starting for one of the big clubs like Suwon or Jeonbuk. He has emotional ties with Suwon and the team's currently lacking an out and out striker, so the fit seems a bit too good to pass up. As for Oršić, I'm not sure what his incentive to stay would be. Like Stevo, one of the big 3-4 clubs in the country would be wise to make a bid for his services and offer HNK Rijeka a transfer fee to get the young Croatian. At age 22, Oršić already knows the league relatively well and has shown an ability to absolutely destroy any K-League defense and change games on his own. Should Jeonbuk, Pohang, Seoul, or even Suwon come knocking with their near guarantee of Champions League every season it could be enough to persuade the youngster and his parent club to part ways.

As things stand right now, next season projects to be worse than this year. However, by setting the bar at 6th-7th place annually, it won't take much to improve on this season as far as league standings go. Again, should Jeonnam hoist the FA Cup and secure ACL for 2016 they could have a strong showing in the winter transfer window and come into next season much stronger. The next five weeks will indeed determine what the Dragons future holds, unfortunately that determination won't be made in the meaningless league games.

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