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Jeonnam Dragons vs Suwon FC Preview

(image via dragons.co.kr)
The Dragons look to start 2016 on the right foot hosting the newly promoted and largely ambiguous Suwon FC.

After a busy off season that saw "Gwangyang Rooney" head off to Jeonbuk, the third international roster spot taken by Vedran Jugović, and Kim Byung-ji's magical mullet fade into the sunset, we're finally ready to raise the curtain on the 2016 season. As I mentioned in the Season Preview, there are a lot of unknowns about this Dragons squad heading into the first game. How will Kim Min-sik handle being the outright number one? Can Mislav Oršić find his mid-summer form again? What does Ristić have left in the tank? How does Jugović fit into the formation? Can Cho Suk-jae transition 19 K-League Challenge goals into Classic success? Is Noh Sang-rae the man to be leading this team? Certainly none of these questions will be answered with certitude on Sunday, but the game should offer a glimpse for what lies ahead. One game won't determine the success or failure of the Dragons this year, but the significance of starting well and especially winning this game shouldn't be overlooked. As FC Seoul columnist John Emanuelson went over in detail, starting well in this league is amazingly important. Last season Jeonbuk started hot and coasted to the title. By contrast, the Dragons stumbled out the gate winning just one of their first six and finished in 9th place.

For a team looking to erase the bitter taste of last season and get off to a positive start, there are few better opponents Jeonnam could be welcoming than first division debutantes, Suwon FC. This is a team coming off a surprising Challenge playoff run that saw them top Seoul E-Land, the heavily favored (and honestly probably a bit better) Daegu FC, and a beleaguered Busan IPark squad. It was the proverbial Cinderella run that was intriguing, fun, and damn entertaining. However, unlikely runs through the post season don't mean much when you're bumped up to the first division. Plus, this is a side with some very serious question marks. Gone is their 21 goal scorer Japa, who left to play for second division side Meizhou Kejia in China. Their second leading scorer Lim Seong-taek is off to Sangju for military duty, and playoff hero Sisi took off to Lech Poznań in the Polish top division. Even midfielder Kwon Yong-hyun, who led the team with 3,138 minutes played last season, left for Jeju United. Other teams taking notice of talent on a newly promoted roster is nothing new, and unfortunately for Suwon they fell victim too. They may be able to sort things out and stay up, but now's the time to pounce for Jeonnam. Suwon FC is a team so completely and utterly in transition, they still don't even know which fan-voted crest they'll be donning on their yet to be unveiled kits. If there's ever been a time to play these guys, it's now.

One of the key men Suwon's hoping will gel with the team quickly is former Belgian International Marvin Ogunjimi. With only seven caps to his name Ogunjimi hasn't played for Belgium since 2011... and really hasn't showed much of what got him there since then either. After solid back to back seasons for KRC Genk in the Belgian top division in 2010 and 2011, Ogunjimi made stops at five different clubs in three different countries with little success before finding his way to Suwon. A quick look at some YouTube highlights suggests he knows how to position himself in the box and can handle a cross rather well. Undoubtedly this is why Suwon picked him up for their first season in a division obsessed with crosses from the wings. Should Jeonnam's newly formed backline fail to stick to their assignments and lose their heads when defending in the box (as they often did in 2015), it could be a glorious day for the 28-year-old Belgian looking to turn his career around. However, a touch of rust and adjusting to his first time playing in Asia will likely take Ogunjimi a bit longer than the first week to sort out. If the Dragons can play smart, they should be able to contain him.

The far more intriguing Suwon signing for me is Australian center back Adrian Leijer. If for no other reason than being a big fan of teams building from the back and using one of their international spots on a lockdown defender. The longtime Melbourne Victory man previously had stops at Fulham and Norwich in England, so he certainly has a physical aspect to his game and more than a touch of talent. Having spent the majority of his career in A-League, Suwon can rest assured he'll have no hesitation going into tough challenges and forcing a player off the ball when necessary. Additionally, he's already spent one season in China with CSL side Chongqing Lifan, so the risks of huge culture shock and adapting to the NorthEast Asian game shouldn't be nearly as strenuous as someone first playing up this way. What makes him a man to watch on Sunday is the fact that he'll likely be tasked with slowing Ristić down. Should Stevo play his usual target man role, getting as close to the line as possible and dragging Leijer in with him should leave space for speedsters like Oršić or Cho Suk-jae to exploit. Whether or not Leijer gets dragged into that, flat out beat, or simply shuts down the Dragons attack will be one of the keys to Jeonnam's offense.

The amount of space Jeonnam can create and who's there to fill it will largely depend on who manager Noh Sang-rae decides to run out for the first match and, more importantly, what formation he lands on. Though the Dragons website did a decent job of reporting scores from the team's time in Thailand, exact lineups and formations were hard to find. Almost certainly there'll be a standard four man back line, but beyond that it's an educated guessing game. Noh loved the high pressure, fast paced 4-3-3 last year, but aside from losing Lee Jong-ho's crucial presence in that system, the simple fact is the Dragons just don't have the personnel to defend with only three in the middle. Attack is indeed our strength, but the 4-3-3 leaves a largely unknown and often permeable back line far too exposed. With Oršić, Stevo, and Cho Suk-jae (or Ahn Yong-woo) up top, there's not a ton of defensive coverage. Oršić's fantastic at tracking back, but his best defensive games often came as a more true LM playing behind Lee Jong-ho and Stevo last season. If he's going to be up top then he needs to stay higher up, put pressure on the backline, and create turnovers. The same would be true for whoever's deployed on the opposite side. Being caught in two minds of pressing high or having to track back leads to counter opportunities with the three man midfield exposed to an odd man rush. At an average age of 25, the midfield has plenty of energy to cover counters, but it's just too much ground to canvas with odd numbers. The 4-3-3 especially heaps a ton of pressure on the new presumptive center mid, Jugović. He'd be expected to determine and maintain the flow of the game, transition from defensive to offensive possession, and take risks running forward to create odd-man situations. All while attempting to provide defensive support and service to the outside mids. Who all speak another language. In his first proper game with the team and his first time playing outside of his home country. It's a big ask.

A much better way to utilize the team's energy, still use strengths, and shore up some weaknesses might be a 4-4-2 diamond. With the diamond formation the back four plays flat and in comfortable roles. They know their assignments, they know the space they have to cover, and the midfielders playing slightly more towards the middle opens the possibility for outside backs (namely Choi Hyo-jin) to make an occasional run up the flanks. More to the point, the diamond offers a strong spine for the team to build around from the keeper all the way up to Stevo. With an additional CDM helping cover defensively not only would the Dragons be better protected on the counter, but simply by positioning they'd largely eliminate the opposition no. 10 from being a factor. This could be where Suwon decides to deploy their new Spanish midfielder, Jaime Gavilán, and shutting down the former La Liga stalwart will be key. Even if Gavilán should play in his customary role out left, the CDM will help slow him tremendously. Furthermore, the CDM helping cover defensively leaves more freedom for Jugović to become an attacking mid and the command post for the offense.

As I mentioned when he first signed, playing him alongside Oršić in the midfield allows for better communication between the two Croatians and provides the opportunity for some lethal 1-2 combinations. It's a role that would also allow Jugović to find the space between defenders and create chances for the strikers in the final third by playing through the middle. Instead of constantly trying to push out wide like Jeonnam did last year, running the ball directly up the gut with a capable CAM like Jugović would ensure more possession with shorter, smarter passes as opposed to the "hoof it over the top" strategy that showed its ugly face so often last year. The wide areas would still be in play, but through Jugović moving the ball across the width of the pitch waiting for the defense to open gaps to exploit. Last year, the strategy was to immediately get the ball to the wide areas from the defense and then attempt to burn by with speed. It works a few times, sure, but smart teams will adapt quickly and shut it down. Moving the ball more effectively in the offensive half of the field will also allow for more off the ball runs by Cho Suk-jae to find space for himself and be in the right place for a Stevo pass or rebounded shot. Cho may have the speed to play wide, but he's an instinctive poacher and wasting that by playing him outside would be a mistake. A 4-4-2 diamond would require prioritizing patience to find the right opportunities for breaking down the opposing defense, and that's not always in great supply with the Dragons, but it's a system that better fits the current roster.

With all of that said, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see a 4-3-3 trotted out on Sunday. It did work at times last year and it may work again this year. Especially against Suwon FC in their first game in Classic. Whether the three-pronged attack comes from Jugović as CAM with Cho and Stevo in front of him in a 4-4-2 or from Oršić, Stevo, and Cho all playing full on attack in a 4-3-3, I think it'll be too much for an unfixed Suwon backline to handle.

Prediction: Jeonnam 3-1 Suwon FC
Predicted/Hopeful Lineup: 


  1. R.I.P Kim Byung-ji' mullet. I hope that somewhere out there he is enjoying a nice warm can of Coors Light.

    1. You know a man that classy won't settle for anything less than the Silver Bullet.

    2. Damn, my East Coast W.A.S.P. pretensions are showing again.

    3. Damn, my East Coast W.A.S.P. pretensions are showing again.

  2. 2-0. Orša and Stevo. Let's go Jeonnam


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