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Writers Chat: Busan I'Park vs Jeonnam Dragons Preview

Two teams with both eyes already on 2016 square off in Busan's return to Gudeok Stadium where the home team hopes to find any semblance of form heading into their upcoming relegation playoff. Busan contributor Jae-Hyeok Lee and I discuss how each team got to this point and what lies ahead.

I Ask, He Answers

Ryan Walters: There wasn't too much expected of Busan heading into this season, but given the fact they've never been relegated in their history this has to be something of a surprise. Would relegation be a death blow for a team struggling to compete against baseball or would it allow them to regroup and come back stronger?

Jae-Hyeok Lee: Certainly relegation was not predicted by most for Busan this season, although it was also never expected to be a very good season. A "death blow" is probably too strong a word, but I also have doubts about whether they would be able to bounce straight back either. The thing is that relegation is quite new for Korean football, and promotion is even newer. That makes it hard to really say with any certainty how Korean clubs react to the shock and change of going down. Sangju has been relegated twice, but may be they will get promoted for a second-time this season. Sangju, of course, is also a special case. Daejeon got promoted after a couple years in Challenge, but will go straight down. Gwangju took longer to come back up, but they managed to stay. The added thing about Busan is that they are a "chaebol" club. A corporate-owned club has never been relegated with the others (Gangwon, Daejeon, Gwangju, Sangju, Daegu, and Gyeongnam) all being government backed. If Busan was relegated, it'd be a first in Korean football history for a chaebol club to go down. How the powers-that-be react to it are hard to predict. On the one hand, they'd have the financial resources to keep the team together, plus add a foreigner or two that are good enough to beat up on the Challenge (think Jonathan or Adriano). On the other hand, they could see it as a massive waste of money and an excuse to further reduce the costs of running the club. My guess is that if Busan was relegated it'd be somewhere in between. Some players would be allowed to leave, but not all. The club would not throw the towel in on the team, but they wouldn't go all out to get them straight back up either.

RW: Will they be relegated?

JHL: Busan is, like I mentioned before, chaebol backed. More than that they are owned by an arm of the Hyundai corporation. For those new to Korean football, Hyundai is woven throughout Korean football. They own three teams (Jeonbuk, Ulsan, and Busan), are the primary sponsors of the K League (Hyundai Oilbank K League), and are the financial force that has just about driven modern Korean football. To top it off, Busan's technical owner is none other than one Chung Mong-gyu. If the name sounds familiar, it should be, particularly to Korea NT fans. Chung Mong-gyu is the current Korea Football Association (KFA) president. He also happens to be the cousin of one Chung Mong-joon (former KFA president and FIFA presidential candidate). Suffice it to say, there is certainly power behind the scenes. Now, one (myself included) would hope that the days of powerful owners and officials fixing matches is a thing of the past. But to be completely honest if half-decisions went in Busan's favor, I wouldn't be shocked.

More to the point. Will they be relegated? It's a bit of a cop out, but I really don't know. Despite what new coach Choi Young-joon and Lee Jeong-hyeob have said, I think the mood and spirit in the team is very down. It does feel reminiscent of Gangwon and Gyeongnam in years past when they went into the playoffs and lost. That being said, positive results (wins) against Jeonnam and Ulsan in the final two rounds would be big morale boosts. Sangju, Suwon FC, and Seoul E-Land seem to blow hot and cold, so in a two-legged tie Busan could see it out and avoid the drop.

RW: You recently wrote a great comparison between Gudeok Stadium and the Asiad in which Gudeok comes out on top overall. How much do you think the Asiad has played into low attendance and overall fanfare for IPark?

JHL: Like with much of Korean football and stadiums, being in the cavernous Asiad has certainly played a part in the decline of Busan football, but it certainly isn't the only, or even main, reason. The size of the Asiad certainly does no favors to anyone trying to create an atmosphere. And while it's debatable, in my opinion, being next to Sajik (baseball stadium) does not help matters either. I think the original decision to move was that the stadium was more modern, and that people could go to Sajik and either go to the baseball game or football match. However, most opted for baseball given that Lotte games (even if the team is poor) have a very fun and upbeat atmosphere while the Busan games are generally dire (even if they win).

The Gudeok could help reverse the negative shift in attendance figures. While Seo-gu isn't close to those that live out west in Haeundae or folks in the northern or eastern parts of the city, the southern part of town does have a large amount of people. And, many may not want to make the 30 minute or so trip up to Sajik, but may walk over the the Gudeok or take the short ride. The Gudeok is also near the always popular Nampo-dong shopping area and the famous Jagalchi seafood market.

RW: The recent news of Stevica Ristić and Mislav Oršić re-signing with Jeonnam gave a bit of hope around here by forming a core of players to build around for 2016. Do you think Busan has a similar set of core players? If not, is a complete roster overhaul needed?

JHL: Busan potentially has a core group of players, but with potential relegation looming it's difficult to say if they'll keep it together. They have two quality keepers in Lee Bum-young and Lee Chang-geun. Lee Kyung-ryeol is a solid centerback. Joo Se-jong is a good midfielder, while Kim Jin-kyu has the potential to be very good as well. Lee Jeong-hyeob may not really be international quality, but he's certainly a serviceable K Leaguer, and once Lim Sang-hyub returns from his military service he adds another dimension to the attack. It's not a group that'll win the league, but it certainly is good enough to keep them out of the relegation fight and potentially challenge for a top half spot.

A complete overhaul is probably not needed, but Busan does need to really figure out who is there to fight for the shirt (cliche I know) and who is just there to collect a paycheck. Choi Young-joon seems like a manager with more modern ideas, but a softer personality. He'll need to see who can cope with those ideas and methods, and who cannot.

RW: Having not watched too much Busan this year, I was a touch surprised to see a team with Lee Bum-young in net has a -24 goal difference. Has the defense been that bad or has Korea's #3 lost a step? What's with the split time with Lee Chang-geun?

JHL: While I like Lee Bum-young, I think he is no longer Korea's #3. Stielike seems to clearly like a few other keepers ahead of him. Anyway, he has lost a step, but the defense has also gotten worse. To date Lee Bum-young has conceded 34 goals in 25 games (an average of 1.36 goals per game) while Lee Chang-geun has let in 18 goals in 11 games (an average of 1.64 goals per game). A nod in the favor of the senior. However, it feels like the coaches (all 3 of them) have started to see it as time to start making the shift to the younger keeper. The split time also probably stems from Busan's habit of conceding late goals. While defense is obviously a team thing, it's easy to pinpoint the goalkeeper, and so Lee Bum-young has probably taken a hit for that.

RW: The Dragons pulled off a win in their last home match of 2015 and finally ended a winless run that went back to July 26th. Unfortunately for Busan, their winless run started the same day and hasn't ended yet. What do they have to do to pick up all three points in their "last" home match on Sunday?

JHL: Hope that Jeonnam's players are well and truly "on the beach". Even an average Jeonnam is probably too much for a completely demoralized Busan side. It's a bit sad to say, but yeah, hoping that Jeonnam really don't care and are just showing up is probably the only way Busan wins.

He Asks, I Answer

Jae-Hyeok Lee: Jeonnam went from fighting for an ACL spot to floating near the bottom sides. Just what went wrong?

Ryan Walters: A number of things really, but three big ones. Mislav Oršić returned to Earth, Kim Byung-ji's age caught up to him, and the rest of the league caught up to Jeonnam's tricks. After the majority of the league got lit up by the three-headed attack of Mislav Oršić, Stevo, and Lee Jong-ho during the summer months, they changed their tactics to play with an extra defender and often deeper. The extra numbers behind the ball made it a lot tougher for Jeonnam to hit on the counter and for whatever reason (more on this later), the Dragons rarely changed their approach to go more direct. On the other end of the field, the defense that started the season so strong fell to pieces. Choi Hyo-jin couldn't get healthy for a few months, no center back pairing worked, and Kim Byung-ji let in some weak goals. I'll throw in the obligatory "he's a legend and defies age" comment, which is true, but he was also solely responsible for a number of goals and often in head-scratching positions far from the net. Throw in an inability to properly defend set pieces and you have the recipe for a second half slide on par with the one the Dragons just went through.

JHL: Jeonnam has a number of talented young players like Lee Jong-ho, Ahn Yong-woo, and Lee Chang-min. Can Jeonnam hang onto them and which do you think has the brightest future?

RW: Up until a week ago I may have had a different answer about Jeonnam's ability to keep their youngsters. However, given the club's dedication to Oršić and Lee Jong-ho it would seem they indeed have years beyond 2016 in mind already. Every team needs a few veterans to control the locker room and help guide the team, but I think Jeonnam would be wise to play the kids next season and see where it takes em. Given the signings thus far and apparent exit of Kim Byung-ji, it would seem the front office is sharing that opinion.

As far as who has the brightest upside, it's difficult to pick against Lee Jong-ho. He's already had some time with the National team and is likely to get more next year. He has tremendous pace on and off the ball, strikes it well, and is strong enough to get himself into desirable positions. 2016 will be a telling year for him because he's certainly no longer an "up and coming" prospect and should be entering the prime years of his career. He has the tools to put together a magnificent K-League season, it's just a matter of pushing past the type of mistakes young players often make. If he can get his temper and flopping under better control and improve his dribbling, he'll be even more of a force to be reckoned with.

JHL: This is actually the second season in a row that Jeonnam started very well, and then fell off the wagon down the stretch. Is there a reason you see for this? Fitness? Lack of motivation? 

RW: I wasn't around for last year's run, so it's hard to say what the similarities between the two seasons are. I will say it's a rather long regular season and playing half of the games in a mostly empty home stadium may weigh on the players a bit as far as motivation goes. There's also the fact that this is a decidedly mid-table team that honestly seems to shoot for the middle. So when the season's half way over and they're almost 100% assured of avoiding relegation, I think that's good enough for some. This may not go all the way down to the player level... but maybe it does. Jeonnam had the FA Cup to keep their hopes alive longer than usual this year, but it didn't seem to matter in the second half of the season as they tanked in both competitions. Motivation may well be the culprit for a lackluster second half... but my more sincere opinion lies in answering your next question.

JHL: This was Noh Sang-rae's first job as a full manager. How do you think he did?

RW: I think the team's trajectory answers that question quite well. Coming into the 2015 season, his tactics and approach were unknown to other managers around the league. As you'd expect a former striker to do, he came out guns blazing. An attack-minded 4-3-3 anchored by a veteran target man in the middle with speed on the flanks served the Dragons well through 15 or so games. Then the rest of the managers figured out his approach and countered accordingly. Watching game tape on the Dragons would take about 15 minutes to figure out what they were trying to do and putting a stop to it. For a while Oršić's in-human run of form meant the Dragons could play more direct, go up the middle, and pretty much do whatever they wanted offensively. Yes, the system fit him, Jong-ho, and Stevo well, but it wouldn't have mattered much which system Oršić was in this summer, he would have excelled. When he faltered a bit and needed to rely more on tactics to pick him back up, Noh Sang-rae came up empty. Instead, the Dragons frantically played the same style again and again and again hoping the repetition would lead to something. No significant change in formation, no significant change in tactics, and no change in results. This led to an August in which the Dragons scored all of two goals and sealed their place in the Relegation Round.

Beyond his on field tactics falling off, Noh Sang-rae has made a slew of questionable lineup choices. The prominent example of this was benching Stevo, Oršić, and Choi Hyo-jin vs FC Seoul in October for a game that was book-ended with bye-weeks. The theory was undoubtedly to have key players well rested for the big FA Cup final in front of them. However, benching them meant an entire month without going the full 90 right before the biggest match of 2015. There's a gigantic difference between being rested and being rusty, and the lengthy time off put those three into the latter category and Jeonnam bowed out of the FA Cup.

The FC Seoul lineup choice was a single mistake and I suppose could be forgiven. What can't is his continued choice to sub off Oršić and Stevo in dying minutes of close or even tied games. Not only are they two of the team's best attacking options, but Oršić is easily the team's best free kick taker. Removing them in an attempt to win a close game makes less than zero sense. This was never more evident than in a crucial late season match up vs Seongnam in which the manager subbed in Kim Pyung-rae for Stevo Ristić in a tied must-win game. Kim Pyung-rae stands at 182cm and has scored zero goals this year. Stevo's 188cm and leads the team in goals. Who would you choose to have attacking the net and standing in the box for corner kicks in the final 15 minutes?

Honestly, I could go on and on about Noh Sang-rae's weaknesses as a manger, but I'll stop for now. Suffice to say I think Jeonnam would be a stronger team next season with someone else at the helm.

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