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Lee Jong-ho Out, Cho Suk-jae In for Jeonnam

In 24 hours the Dragons lose Lee Jong-ho to Jeolla rivals Jeonbuk and bring in Korean U23 International Cho Suk-jae as replacement.

After five seasons in a yellow shirt, "Gwangyang Rooney" is leaving Gwangyang. The Dragons leading goal scorer from 2015 has decided to leave the only team he's ever known in favor of the perennial title contenders up North. Though there were rumors of teams in China, Japan, and even a few in Europe (namely the Netherlands) interested in the 23-year-old's services, Lee Jong-ho instead elected to stay close to home while still taking a step up. After the collapse of last season, it's no wonder the youngster wanted away from Jeonnam. It's a team he quite literally grew up with, but has proven year after year that it's not going to challenge him at the next level. He was always going to be guaranteed a starting spot and adoration while wearing a Dragons jersey. Now on a new team, Jong-ho will have to prove he's the guy to start up top every game against some serious competition. He'll join a midfield/attacking corps that currently consists of Leonardo, Lee Jae-sung, Han Kyo-won, Jeonbuk legend Lee Dong-guk, the newly acquired Ricardo Lopes, and most likely Korean International and former Cardiff City & Wigan Athletic midfielder Kim Bo-kyung. How on earth manager Choi Kang-hee is going to get all of (or even most) of those guys on the field is beyond me. There are rumors Lee Jae-sung may well leave, but that's still a lot of highly skilled and highly competitive players Lee Jong-ho now has to battle for a starting spot.

Even though it's a crowded roster, the move utterly makes sense for everyone involved. After turning in OK performances in 2012 and 2013 with six goals each season, Jong-ho scored 10 in 2014, 12 this year, and can likely keep that upward projection going on a much more attack-minded and higher scoring Jeonbuk squad. He may well have scored 13 or more for Jeonnam in 2016, but after failing to drag them into the top six for the umpteenth year in a row, it's become quite clear he's reached his ceiling with the club. As a player on the fringe of Uli Stielike's National Team plans, bumping up from perennial Relegation Rounders to the much higher profile Jeonbuk makes sense to get on the manager's radar more easily. Not only are they always near the top of the table, but Jeonbuk is a near guarantee of AFC Champions League every season and that alone may have been enough to convince him to move. Playing against J-League teams and the ever-increasing might of Chinese Super League squads is an opportunity to test himself he wasn't going to be given in Jeonnam. A level of play that will accurately hone his skills in the domestic league and for the international game. Even as a Dragons fan, it's tough to be upset with Lee Jong-ho for making the decision he did.

So it makes sense why he went, but what's Jeonbuk's angle? After winning back-to-back titles, Jeonbuk's next step should be to claim the ACL crown again and Lee Jong-ho could go a long way to helping them do that. He's still amazingly young and will undoubtedly benefit from swapping manager Noh Sang-rae for Choi Kang-hee and picking up some knowledge from Lee Dong-gook as well. Jong-ho's proven he has the raw talent to compete at the next level, and Jeonbuk think (rightly so) that they have the people in place to groom him into an elite attacker. In this signing, Jeonbuk have guaranteed themselves a highly marketable (hopefully) Korean International player at the very beginning of his prime years. Being a Korean player is especially important not only from the marketing standpoint, but also because he's a high value player that doesn't take up one of the four international roster spots. Though the transfer fee hasn't been disclosed as yet, there's the assumption that he didn't exactly break the bank for the Chaebol-backed team, which leaves them the option of a foreigner "mega-signing" that could help their squad and raise the profile of the league in one fell swoop.

Lost in this seeming love affair for my team's bitter rival is the question of why Lee Jong-ho elected to stay in Korea instead of testing the waters in Europe. In an interview with Naver (in Korean), it could be inferred that he was a bit scared of that drastic of a move. Goal.com's Steve Han suggests those quotes aren't quite trustworthy, and that Jeonbuk simply outbid their European competition for the young striker's rights. Regardless of the reasoning, I think it's a smart move for Lee JH. He's still only 23 and there's no reason to make the leap off a cliff style transfer that Jeonnam to any European team would be. Eredivise seemed like the likeliest landing spot, and while that's definitely a league he could thrive in, it'll still be there in two or three years after his run with Jeonbuk. In the short term, Lee must earn his spot in the starting XI, prove he can stay on top of K-League scoring, and push himself to perform at the next level in ACL and hopefully internationally. If he can do that, and maybe even help Jeonbuk to an ACL title in the next 2-3 years, then move over to Europe, he would be doing so as a much more tested and equipped 25 or 26-year old. Still leaves plenty of time for him to have a career in Europe before having to serve his military time (edited: Gold in Asian Games excludes him from military service).

Regardless of why he moved, where he chose to go, or if it's the right decision to stay in Korea, the inarguable fact of Lee Jong-ho's departure from Jeonnam is that it left a monstrous hole to fill. Previously buoyed by the unexpected re-signing of Stevica Ristić and Mislav Oršić, this was a gut punch of legendary proportions. While I still feel Ristić and Oršić can have strong seasons to Jeonnam, the glue that made them work was Lee Jong-ho. He was a decent supplier of the ball to Stevo, but more importantly drew the attention of defenders away from the target man and Oršić on the opposite wing. Ahn Yong-woo is serviceable, but nowhere near strong enough offensively to carry the 12 goal sized hole left by Lee JH departing. Without Lee JH, the 4-3-3 just doesn't work.

Enter Cho Suk-jae. The Korean U23 International just completed his first full season of competition for K-League Challenge side Chungju Hummel FC and bagged an impressive 19 goals. It wasn't enough to move Chungju from the cellar of Challenge, but it was good enough for 4th place in the Golden Boot race and a 0.53 goals per game average. For comparison, Lee Jong-ho led the Dragons with 12 goals and a 0.39 goals per game average. The drastic difference in goalkeeping abilities from Challenge to Classic shouldn't be overlooked, but it's still an appealing stat to be carrying into your second year.

Full disclosure, before Steve Waddell brought him to my attention, I knew less than nothing about Cho Suk-jae. A brief interwebs search and some YouTube videos later and it seems we have a poacher on our hands. And there ain't a damn thing wrong with that. A handful of the his goals could be chalked up to dreadful goalkeeping, but even in those instances he has to be in the right place at the right time and bury the chance gifted to him. It's a cliche to say so, but it's an instinct that can't really be coached and has served him well enough times that it can't really be considered luck anymore. For as much attacking prowess as the Dragons had last season, they never did have a true poacher always lurking around the goal to clean up a mess.

Aside from his instincts, Cho seems positionally sound both receiving and distributing the ball. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest he be the CAM of the offense, but he seems to read the game well and picks out smart passes. This mentality plays well on the other side of the ball as he reads passing lanes well enough to pick off a pass or two and start a counter attack. He likely won't need to track too far back into his own half, but it's nice to know he won't be a liability defensively.

With Cho's aggressive runs and intelligent positioning, I'd like to see the Dragons abandon their usual 4-3-3 from last year in favor of a 4-4-2 with Cho playing just underneath Stevo. With Chungju, Cho was able to occupy space in the box and found an amazing amount of free headers for someone that's only 180cm. That space is going to be occupied almost 100% of the time by Stevo for the Dragons, so Cho will have to adjust a bit. Instead of being the target man in the box, playing just underneath Stevo will allow Cho to sneak onto the back post on crosses and corners should they miss Stevo, or stay near the top of the box and wait for any rebounds off the keeper or defense. While abandoning the 4-3-3 would mean pushing Oršić slightly behind the offensive line, it wouldn't be a tremendously different role than he often played when Stevo was joined by Ahn Yong-woo and Lee Jong-ho up top. Oršić tracks back amazingly well, so the defensive responsibilities of being on the wing wouldn't be much of a concern, and he'd have enough coverage with a four man midfield to play most of his time moving forward anyway. Furthermore, moving from a 3-man to a 4-man midfield would allow the Dragons to play a CDM to provide more coverage for the leaky backline should no defensive replacements arrive. So, really it'd be something more like a 4-4-2 diamond with the CDM shaded slightly to his left to help cover Oršić's runs. Jeonnam could simply plug Cho into Lee JH's former spot in the 4-3-3, but given his skill set and the need to put a few more bodies behind the ball defensively, I'm really hoping they consider a 4-4-2.

Speaking of defensive formations, the other good thing about Jeonnam signing Cho is that he doesn't take up one of the coveted international spots on the roster. It's tempting for many teams to fill the skill positions with these slots, but I'm hoping the Dragons choose to shore up their backline with a lockdown center back. As Jeonbuk proved year after year with Australian Alex Wilkinson anchoring their defense, investing in your own half of the field can pay large dividends. While I have a preference for the highly physical (and honestly very cheap) center backs from the USA, an Australian CB would fit onto the current roster as an Asian player. Looking to American shores would require dropping midfielder Leandro Lima, but that's a move that may well already be in the works.

Signing Cho was a smart, fast move to fill in a little bit of the gaping hole Lee Jong-ho left with his departure. Now the Dragons can focus their January transfer plans on solidifying the goalkeeping position and picking up a center back or two. Who those players could or should be will be discussed more in the upcoming Transfer Talk series, but at least the positions needed has been narrowed with this move.


  1. L.Lima should play behind CSJ and Stevo in that 4-4-2 diamond formation.The Brazilian was a great wonderkid in FM, but the reality is another one in these days.

    1. I'd be OK with him taking up a CAM role if they keep him. The issue last year was that they never found a decent spot to play him and just chucked him in wherever. I went to two games where he was playing CDM... which... went as you'd expect. But, if he's at the top of a diamond, that'd still allow Oršić to play on the wing, though not quite as aggressively.

      Should have a clearer picture of what they'll do after the January window. Nothing against Lima, but I'd rather see the international spot taken up by a CB. Dragons backline was just terrible last season.

    2. But your team has a foreigner spot available. True, should be a player from AFC, maybe an Aussie player in the heart of the defence?

    3. Rumor has it Cornthwaite's available, maybe he'll dawn the Dragons yellow again. Like I said in the article, it definitely worked for Jeonbuk to have Wilkinson at the back for so many years, so hopefully Jeonnam follows that lead.


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