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Writer's Chat: Ulsan Hyundai vs Jeonbuk Hyundai

It's the battle of the Hyundai clubs in Ulsan's home opener of the 2016 K League season. Matthew Binns, K League United's Jeonbuk columnist, and I set up a Writer's Chat to preview this promising encounter.

Tim asks, Matthew answers

Jeonbuk obviously played a very defensive 5-3-2 system against Seoul last weekend. Is it fair to assume that they will return to their more conventional 4-3-3 (or 4-1-2-2-1, anyhow) against Ulsan this weekend?

I would be very surprised if Choi Kang-hee decides to set his men up as he did against FC Seoul. The players purchased in the winter transfer window point to playing a more attacking formation so I think we can expect something similar in shape to the FC Tokyo and Binh Duong games. He cannot sign so many exciting new players, only to stop them from taking part every weekend with defensive-led tactics. 

The only way he could have both these tactics and attacking players is to remove one of the two strikers for someone with more pace, so the break away attacks are not just left to central midfield who are required to run most of the length of the pitch. Overall though, the FC Seoul strategy was most likely a one-off to deal with a very formidable team with very dangerous threats. I expect a 4-3-3.

Jeonbuk had a 51% passing completion on the weekend. Is this only a one-time occurrence because of the nature of Choi Kang-hee's tactics?

I would hope it is a one-time occurrence. I would expect tactics did have a role to play in that statistic. Emphasis was placed on man-marking FC Seoul and breaking up their play. Rather than keep possession, they waited for Seoul to make the mistakes. 

It’s just a pity that usually the other part of playing these kind of tactics is that a quick counter is required, which Jeonbuk did not set up to do. Starting with your two slowest strikers, even if they are your biggest names, was frankly bizarre. Choi Kang-hee initially wanted a draw from that first game I felt. The win was just a bonus.

Jeonbuk seemed at times to run out of ideas against Binh Duong's defensive set up midweek. Could this be a way for weaker teams to take the sting out of Jeonbuk's attack?

I can imagine it was a useful example for the opposition scouts. That being said, Binh Duong are still an AFC team that have ground out a draw with 10 men against Jiangsu a few weeks ago, and Jeonbuk still managed to breakthrough twice. It’s a model I can see many following, but it does not guarantee success. 

I think the manager will be looking at more effective ways to unlock a team playing in such a formation as the season progresses, especially when Jeonbuk’s players gel further and are a lot more fluid in their movement. 

Jeonbuk seems to be trying a lot of things at centreback. The loss of Kim Ki-hee is still plaguing them, surely. They've tried Kim Hyung-il, Lim Jong-eun, Choi Kyu-baek, Lee Ho... Is there a number #1 central defensive pairing for you and do you consider it to be a spot of weakness that other teams can exploit?

It often seems the manager is unsure of who his best team is, with the only mainstays across the four starting elevens this year being keeper Kwoun Sun-tae, central midfielder Lee Jae-sung, and wingback Kim Chang-soo. The cliche response to having so many options at your disposal is that “it’s a nice problem to have”, which it can be, but it would be beneficial to run out similar teams once in a while in a bid to build some consistency.

The centre of defence though is a revolving door forced through lack of quality options. Lim Jong-eun has come in, only to be dropped for arguably the biggest of the four games, showing little faith from the manager. Against Binh Duong, a game that by no means should have been considered a walkover, the manager decided to run out Choi Kyu-baek for his first appearance since moving from Daegu University. Choi Chul-soon has also been involved in this defensive Hokey-Kokey, and may find himself back in by the weekend.

I would like Lim Jong-eun to come good and earn his place in the team. Of his three appearances, Tuesday night was perhaps his most convincing. Whether he’s the best choice Jeonbuk have right now though is another question. I am not sure I want any of them, but Kim Hyung-il and Choi Chul-soon look our best bet for Sunday based on their effective performance against Seoul (which was admittedly aided by Lee Ho). Choi Kyu-baek looked solid in his first game on Tuesday. If he were to get some minutes then I would be surprised, but I would not begrudge it him.

Who do you think will lead the line for Jeonbuk this time around?

It’s Kim Shin-wook’s turn isn’t it? I imagine the manager will just flip a coin prior to the game, or first weigh up who the media will berate him less for choosing. 

In all seriousness though, I can imagine Lee Dong-gook would be rested. The impression from the signings made is that the team needs to look for other reliable options. How a 36 year-old (albeit a very good one) is still the only reliable goalscorer on the team is beyond me. Kim Shin-wook started in the massive games against FC Seoul and Jiangsu Suning, and having been rested against Binh Duong, you can assume he was being prepared for his Ulsan return.

If he is selected, I do hope Jeonbuk refrain from pumping the ball mindlessly into the box. Whilst they struggled to break down Binh Duong, they did play some good football and it would be a shame to resort to route one football.

I would like to see more of Lee Jong-ho as well. I felt he linked up well with Lee Jae-sung throughout the midweek game and it was a pity that he had to be the victim of a tactical change, being removed around the 55th minute mark. Kim Shin-wook did not play well in his one outing as a lone striker (versus Jiangsu), having always played up-front with someone else during his other minutes on the pitch for Jeonbuk. He is not the quickest striker in the world either, with Jeonbuk being unable to break effectively with both him and Lee Dong-gook leading the line last week. I can therefore see Lee Jong-ho being the man to assist him (either in an attacking midfield or supporting striker role) in taking the Ulsan defence to task.

Which player must perform or what needs to happen for Jeonbuk to win against Ulsan? Will sheer firepower be enough?

I have only seen the highlights from the Sangju game, both the impartial and the official one uploaded by Ulsan Hyundai (which strangely features none of the goals conceded, just Ulsan attacks! - https://t.co/UePoWm0Efj). From what I have seen, I think its safe to to say Ulsan did not have the best of days, with their two best shots being a long range thunderbolt from Masuda and nearly a freak own goal. It may be a different matter on home turf and perhaps they will not aim to come forward as much as they did against a recently promoted team.

With recalled national striker Lee Jong-hyeup most likely featured, and also making his home debut, it will take a robust defence as well as firepower. I do however see Jeonbuk’s lineup (if not massively rotated from the Binh Duong game that is) being set up to attack and create chances. Whether or not we score them is up to the forwards. If all else fails, bet on the Wookie to bag a header from a set piece.

Predicted score: Ulsan Hyundai 1-2 Jeonbuk Hyundai

Matthew asks, Tim answers

Last time out against newly promoted Sangju Sangmu, Ulsan suffered a surprising defeat with new signing goalkeeper Kim Yong-dae not having the greatest league debut. A player of his experience should surely have coped better. Is this just a blip or is there cause for concern?

Kim Yong-dae was pretty terrible. In case you didn't catch the mistakes - he had a positioning error on the first goal, horrific mix-ups with the difference and a lack of concentration on the second. I'm wondering if it's just a bit of rust. He didn't feature in many matches for FC Seoul last year (not many more than 10) and perhaps the moment got to him. I'm hoping it's simply a blip, and that he'll recover. After all, he is a veteran member of the squad and the last thing you need from a side who's brand new is a lack of leadership from one of the league's most experienced players.

Were there any other factors elsewhere on the pitch that you can pinpoint which led to this defeat?

Well, it was a collective failure, and many players underwhelmed. But this I'm not entirely surprised by. This is a very new squad, a lot of new players. Kovacec's touch was a bit heavy. Seo Jung-jin didn't show much. Lee Jeong-hyeop didn't really turn up. Only Masuda really had much of a performance. I guess ultimately the heavy turnover in this squad is inevitably going to be a problem for the first few matches and although the result is embarrassing, it's not entirely surprising. There isn't a better time than now to play Ulsan, and I say that with optimism for later on in the season.

Can you see a change in formation or lineup to counter any particular threats posed by Jeonbuk?

I guess the obvious answer hinges on how Yoon Jung-hwan will approach the match. He can try to set up a robust defensive side that looks to break quickly - which would make Kim In-sung and Seo Myeong-won useful on the wings (though the latter is just a personal favorite of mine, he doesn't seem too high in the pecking order as of now, unfortunately). However that game plan could be worrying. If we sit deep, Kim Shin-wook can (eventually, after many lost aerial battles) wreak havoc.

That being said, I feel as though Ulsan right now needs to focus on the performance and then hope for the result. They have a strong team, but the pieces will take falling into place, so although Jeonbuk may boast multiple threats, I don't expect Yoon Jung-hwan to tinker with his team selection this weekend, though there certainly will be different instructions against a far more threatening opponent this time around.

Which Ulsan player do you see as being key to bringing success on Sunday?

Obviously Masuda and Koo Bonsang are going to have their hands full. Like you mentioned above, Jeonbuk are probably going to revert to their more aggressive 4-3-3 shape this weekend and the attacking midfield duo of Kim Bo-kyung and Lee Jae-sung will cause any team in the K League fits. Obviously Kim Bo-kyung is still injured, which might mean Luiz will feature again. Nonetheless, Ulsan's two defensive midfielders will need to be on their game. They can't get caught flat footed - rather, they need to make every touch laborious and ensure that their markers won't receive or give balls to dangerous positions, though that's certainly easier said than done.

Otherwise, I'd like to see a solid game from Kim Yong-dae, centre backs that know what they're doing (Kang Min-soo was particularly poor against Sangju) and good ideas on the counter attack. I did say that the performance is primordial, and the result is bonus - but as this is the home opener, perhaps from a spectator's point of view, a victory would bide far more positive signs for the transition phase from last year's squad to this year's.

This match sees the return of Kim Shin-wook since his transfer to Jeonbuk. How big of a loss to Ulsan will his absence be this year?

I'm no fan of Kim Shin-wook, and I strongly disliked how Ulsan played with him up top this year. I don't think Yoon Jung-hwan knew how to use him, and I don't think Yoon wanted his "pragmatic" brand of football to be the never-ending long ball strategy. If Lee Jeong-hyeop continues to develop and bang in some goals for the Tigers this season, I don't mind the departure of Kim Shin-wook at all. He's much better off with Choi Kang-hee, a manager who craves this kind of player, The loss of Yang Dong-hyun is was more troubling to me at the time, and those fears unfortunate seem to have been concrete ones, as he's been a very impactful sub for Pohang at the moment, and I feel like it would have been better to have given Lee Jeong-hyeop a bit of pressure.

Final question, what is your prediction for this match?

Ulsan Hyundai 1-2 Jeonbuk Hyundai. We'll score at home but Jeonbuk are too much and I don't think our defensive core is presently strong enough to repel Jeonbuk's numerous attacking options.

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