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Choi Kang-hee's Roster Roulette (aka When is Squad Rotation Necessary?) - Part 1

After a winter of high-spending, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors manager Choi Kang-hee is yet to find a reliable starting eleven for his current team (Photo Credit: FootballAustralia.com.au)
Saturday's third round of K-League fixtures saw Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors come out of another unnecessarily testing encounter unscathed against a determined Jeju United side. Choi Kang-hee's men have now played four games at home this campaign and have left each occasion with a full three-points haul, placing them top of their Champion's league groups and joint-top of the K-League. It is still early days but the results would suggest all is well down at the Jeonju World Cup Stadium.

What the score sheets mask is the continual issue of who is the manager's best team. Choi has opted to field a different starting line-up in every fixture this season. These changes have also been far from a few. The Jeonbuk manager has always made a minimum of four changes from the previous line-up. In fact, the only two players not to have been subject to this drastic rotation policy is goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae and central midfielder Lee Jae-sung.

Anyone who has read one of my previous posts knows that I am far from happy with this situation. Jeonbuk went out this winter and splurged on a vast array of exciting signings in a bid to arrest what seemed to be a late-slump last season. A fairly logical move and one I applauded despite the lack of investment in the squad's defence. I thought this decision would also see some rotation as and when necessary, allowing for quality back-ups to be brought in when a chosen first eleven were tiring with fixture pile-up. It would also allow for a degree of tactical flexibility that was not there before.

Instead, manager Choi has opted to operate a policy of what sometimes feels like two starting elevens, seeing players shunted to the sidelines for no reason other than that they played the last game, despite a lack of fixtures. I am slowly beginning to wonder if the Jeonbuk manager has purchased too many players and is now having to placate them all.

With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to see whether his constant changes have been drastic this season when compared with the other three league teams competing on all fronts. While I am fully aware squad rotation cannot be attributed to all the issues with the team, I felt there was reason to here.

Jeonbuk tend to operate with four at the back, five across the midfield (either with a defensive or attacking midfielder) and one up front. Players thus far have mainly been integrated into a similar formation and system (excluding against FC Seoul), so I feel there are some grounds, albeit a little shaky, to start looking into this. The same is true of title contenders FC Seoul and Suwon Bluewings who have implemented the same formation for nearly every game so far and look set to do so when the Champions League returns this week. 

Finally, as the sample size is only small at the moment, I have marked this as Part One because I want to come back to this as the season progresses and see if any conclusions can be drawn from it, or should it all be disregarded.

Below I provide a summary of all six Jeonbuk line-ups thus far. I then look at how other K-League squads in the Champions League have managed their starting roster.


Below is the line-up for each game with a brief explanation of how each game played out. I have also listed the players who were subjected to the changes between each match.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs FC Tokyo (Feb 23rd, Jeonju World Cup Stadium)

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs FC Tokyo Lineup (AFC Champions League 2016, Feb 23rd, Jeonju World Cup Stadium)
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs FC Tokyo (AFC Champions League 2016, Feb 23rd, Jeonju World Cup Stadium)
Final Score: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 2-1 FC Tokyo

The first glimpse of how the new players would be integrated saw six starting debuts handed to Lim Jong-eun, Kim Chang-soo, Erik Paartalu, Kim Bo-kyung, Ko Moo-yeol and Ricardo Lopes as well as debuts for Lee Jong-ho and Kim Shin-wook from the bench. The team offered a more than convincing performance with the promise of more to come. A slight negative was the defensive lapse leading to a late consolation goal for FC Tokyo and a bizarre appearance from attacking winger Leonardo when he was brought on with five minutes to play in exchange for a defender.

Full recap here.

Jiangsu Suning vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (March 1st, Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre)

Jiangsu Suning vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors lineup (AFC Champions League 2016, March 1st, Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre)
Jiangsu Suning vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (AFC Champions League 2016, March 1st, Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre)
Final Score: Jiangsu Suning 3-2 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

One week later saw Choi Kang-he opt for an all Korean line-up against AFC group favourites Jiangsu Suning. The defence was left exposed and lone front man Kim Shin-wook under supplied. It was not until the introduction of Lee Dong-gook and Erik Paartalu did Jeonbuk begin to turn the tide in the game and attempt to mount a comeback.

Players out: Park Won-jae, Erik Paartalu, Ricardo Lopes, Lee Dong-gook
Players in: Lee Ju-yong, Choi Chul-soon, Lee Jong-ho, Kim Shin-wook

Full recap here.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs FC Seoul (March 12th, Jeonju World Cup Stadium)

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs FC Seoul lineup (K-League R1, March 12th, Jeonju World Cup Stadium)
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs FC Seoul (K-League R1, March 12th, Jeonju World Cup Stadium)
Final Score: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 1-0 FC Seoul

This game was the only moment this season where I felt Choi Kang-hee was faced with a potentially insurmountable opposition and made a bold tactical decision in response to it. Matching Seoul's favoured 5-3-2 formation, moving defensive midfielder Lee Ho to central defence saw Jeonbuk set up to frustrate the opposition. A late corner saw Kim Shin-wook steal all three points for the men in green, justifying the manager's controversial team selection. Though the game was fairly underwhelming for the neutral, I cannot fault his strategy, especially given FC Seoul had previously, and since, gone onto score at least three goals against each team in their way.

Players out: Lim Jong-eun, Kim Bo-kyung (injury), Ko Moo-yeol, Lee Jong-ho
Players in: Lee Ho, Erik Paartalu, Luiz Henrique, Lee Dong-gook

Full recap here.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs Becamex Binh Duong (March 15th, Jeonju World Cup Stadium)

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs Becamex Binh Duong lineup (AFC Champions League 2016, March 15th, Jeonju World Cup Stadium)
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs Becamex Binh Duong (AFC Champions League 2016, March 15th, Jeonju World Cup Stadium)
Final Score: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 2-0 Binh Duong

The following midweek game at home to Binh Duong saw the manager attempt to develop the attacking team he was expected to create based on his winter signings. The game very much reflected the FC Tokyo game, with Jeonbuk dominating. They were not as threatening in front of goal as fans would have preferred, but at least the tactics seemed to be working. If this team is given more of a run-out it could develop into something special.

Players out: Choi Chul-soon, Lee Ho, Kim Hyung-il, Luiz Henrique, Kim Shin-wook
Players in: Lim Jong-eun, Choi Kyu-baek, Lee Jong-ho, Ko Moo-yeol, Ricardo Lopes

Full recap here.

Ulsan Hyundai FC vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (March 20th, Munsu Football Stadium)

Ulsan Hyundai FC vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors lineup (K-League R2, March 20th, Munsu Football Stadium)
Ulsan Hyundai FC vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (K-League R2, March 20th, Munsu Football Stadium)
Final Score: Ulsan Hyundai FC 0-0 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

With an international break to follow, and only two of his players required for their countries (Lee Jae-sung and Kim Chang-soo), the Jeonbuk manager was afforded an opportunity to further cement the team that had played so well midweek against an Ulsan Hyundai who had lost 2-0 to a newly promoted Suwon FC side the week prior. It also offered him the option to rest the players for a longer period afterwards. Instead, Choi decided to keep his two international players in the squad for another ninety minutes and make sweeping changes elsewhere, dropping players like Erik Paartalu who had played well in Jeonbuk's previous wins against Tokyo, Seoul and Binh Duong, as well as attempting to let Kim Shin-wook play on his own up front again despite it's ineffectiveness against Jiangsu. The game saw Jeonbuk as fortunate to earn a point as Ulsan sat back and looked to counter quickly, with one attack clearly crossing the line but for the linesman to disallow it.

Players out: Park Won-jae, Choi Kyu-baek, Erik Paartalu, Lee Jong-ho, Ko Moo-yeol, Lee Dong-gook
Players in: Choi Chul-soon, Kim hyung-il, Lee Ho, Luiz Henrique, Han Kyo-won, Kim Shin-wook

Full recap here.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs Jeju United FC (April 2nd, Jeonju World Cup Stadium)

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs Jeju United FC lineup (K-League R3, April 2nd, Jeonju World Cup Stadium)
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs Jeju United FC (K-League R3, April 2nd, Jeonju World Cup Stadium)
Final Score: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 2-1 Jeju United FC

After impressing on a number of occasions from the substitutes bench, Leonardo was finally given his first start of the campaign, repaying the managers decision by firing in an exquisite effort from outside the box to open the games scoring. Lee Dong-gook doubled the lead only for a Jeju to quickly equalise after four Jeonbuk players conspired to impair their keeper's own view. 

After a few more chances before ineffective and predictable change was introduced around the manager's favoured 65th minute mark (Kim Shin-wook on for Lee Dong-gook and Lee Jong-ho on for Luiz Henrique), Jeonbuk decided to haphazardly defend for the final 25 minutes and hold on to a one-goal lead, offering their attacking players little to no support and allowing Jeju wave upon wave of attacks. Again, the effective goalkeeping of Kwoun Sun-tae and the woodwork kept Jeonbuk's 100% home record intact.

To spend so much money on attacking talent only to then have them regress into defending for their lives for a third of the game, will not get the fans coming back in their droves for more. As a spectator, I feel this team has been given the benefit of the doubt for a while, even extending to the end of last season where they were "tired", and improvements should slowly be becoming visible. The refusal to field the same team twice though is just one of the reasons hindering this from happening.

Players out: Kim Hyung-il, Kim Chang-soo, Ricardo Lopes, Han Kyo-won, Kim Shin-wook
Players in: Choi Kyu-baek, Park Won-jae, Leonardo, Ko Moo-yeol, Lee Dong-gook

Match highlights here. The exasperated expletives are still being deleted from my drafted recap.

How Do Other Teams Compare?

After six competitive fixtures, Jeonbuk have started twenty different players. I now look at the other three K-League teams in the Asian Champions League to see how they have handled the number of fixtures.

For this I looked at the line-ups of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Suwon Bluewings, Pohang Steelers and FC Seoul. I then calculated how many line-up changes between each match were made, and then took an average to see how many players are rotated per game.

The table illustrates squad rotation across all 2016 competitions from Febuary 9th to April 2nd

From the table, Jeonbuk and Suwon have both rotated the most between games, implementing 4.8 and 4.6 line-up changes per match respectively. What is worth noting though is Suwon have kept a similar line-up for their league games and have had zero rotations between their last two outings but had made sweeping changes prior to their Melbourne game. Jeonbuk are more consistent, implementing between 4 and 6 changes per match.

The major difference between these two teams is in terms of results, with Jeonbuk in a far more favourable position in both competitions than Suwon. The table above is oversimplified and obviously overlooks the current quality of teams and the opposition they face (as well as off-field issues in Suwon's case), but still makes interesting reading considering these four teams are supposedly representatives for the K-League in Asia's premier club competition.

Pohang Steelers have played one more game than the other three ACL competitors, having had to go through the qualifiers prior to the group stage. As this took place in early February, transfers were still taking place and some players may have been ran out due to weaker opposition. On average, Pohang have made 3.17 changes to their line-ups between games and are perhaps doing as expected, especially given it is still early days.

FC Seoul provide the most interesting reading, having made 0.8 changes to their starting line-up between matches. What the table cannot demonstrate is FC Seoul's only changes this season came prior to their last game where they made four, possibly in anticipation for a busy fixture schedule over the next three weeks. Seoul have won more, scored substantially more and would be first in the K-League as well were in not for the one goal they conceded against Jeonbuk, causing them to lose points. Seeing as FC Seoul are rightly being tipped as title contenders, it is interesting to see their manager does not feel to fix their line-up accordingly, which could very well be interpreted as an "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" strategy.

As noted, there are many more factors that come into play than just the number of players rotated. FC Seoul and Jeonbuk are both favourites for the title yet have taken very different approaches to squad management so far. By carrying out this exercise though, it helps to eliminate one of the potential problems which is, "Does constant squad rotation affect results?". 

It is fair to say that on paper, rotation is not presently affecting Jeonbuk's title chances, but you would have known that already. It may not be affecting results, but it does seem to be affecting performance. Anyone who has watched Jeonbuk this season would know that a lot more is expected of this team and they could be considered to not be reaching the quality levels expected of them. Rotation could be affecting this inability to reach their potential, but when you keep winning games it is difficult to aim criticism. There may also be a problem with tactics (in fact I am pretty certain there is) which also requires further research another time.

As mentioned, I have marked this article as part one as I do hope to return to it in another 6-8 games and perhaps see some eventual correlation between rotation and performance amongst these four teams. I would also like to see if Choi Kang-hee's average will drop with time once he finds a suitable starting eleven, or whether he will continue his pattern of rotating 4-6 players per game as the season progresses. 

Other Notes

Looking at the line-ups again, it is also possible to see that, excluding against FC Seoul, Choi Kang-hee prefers to deploy Kim Shin-wook as "the big man up-top" away from home, with a defensive midfielder to help cover the back four. It is also worth noting that these two away fixtures have seen a loss and a fortunate draw. 

With only two away games to sample though, keeping an eye on who the manager deploys this week week away to Binh Duong and Pohang Steelers will be interesting, potentially giving further insight on the method behind his rotation as well as hopefully leading to another line of enquiry on why Jeonbuk seem to be just getting by.

Concluding Remarks

Admittedly, the run of games sampled is only small, but with further squad overhaul expected ahead of Jeonbuk's next fixture away to Binh Duong, it would surely seem more beneficial to play a team capable of winning the tie, rather than ensuring everyone receives a fair amount of playing time. I am not naive enough to think one starting eleven should play every game though (although it seems to be causing FC Seoul no problems so far), squad rotation is a very effective policy when implemented correctly and it is necessary for any big team, but I do feel rotation needs to be reasoned. With so many new winter acquisitions, I am still of the opinion these players should be given ample time to gel together and operate in a system for more than just ninety minutes.

In the meantime, Choi Kang-hee will most likely continue to chop and change his squad. I just hope he can do so without a more detrimental effect further down the line.

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