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Recap: Ulsan 1-2 FC Seoul

(from SPOTV via youtube.com)
FC Seoul are flying high this year.  They have made it through their AFC Champions League group with a game to spare and are sitting atop the summit of the K-League Classic with a five point lead over Jeonbuk, their nearest competitor.  Seoul have scored the most goals (16) in the K-League along with the highest average (2.3) per game.  Concomitantly, they also have allowed the fewest goals (5), along with the lowest average per game (0.71).  As far as starts go, this has been the right up there with 2012 and maybe even better.

After pissing and moaning all winter about the importance of starting well, Choi Yong-soo has addressed this one way by signing Shin Jin-ho, albeit temporarily.  Dejan and Adriano have combined well to form a lethal partnership and Takahagi looks much more comfortable this season than last.  With the signing of Ju Se-jong, the midfield looks much more fluid and Osmar has moved back into the defense while Kim Won-sik has become the primary sweeper, helping to solidify Seoul's defense.  Things are great and Seoul feel, at times, like a juggernaut.

However, the teams that Seoul have beaten in the K-League Classic prior to their match-up with Ulsan were as follows: Sangju Sangmu (9th), Incheon United (12th), Jeonnam (11th), Gwangju FC (7th), Suwon FC (8th).  None of these teams are in the top of the table and the one team they did lose to in the league was Jeonbuk, who are 2nd right now.  In the AFC Champions League, Buriram United would struggle against Incheon and Jeonnam, Shandong Luneng cannot seem to find any consistency in the Chinese Super League, and Japanese Champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima have been less than stellar in the J1 League at times this year.  Therefore, one could argue that the quality of opposition has not been very high and that is why Seoul have done so well so far.

Of course, Seoul are not at fault for the lack of quality that their opponents have provided, nor are they at fault for the schedule.  As I said before, to win the K-League Classic, they need to beat up on the weaker teams and they have done that so far.  This weeks match up against Ulsan though, I felt would be Seoul's first real K-League test since the Jeonbuk game.

Choi Yong-soo has not done well against Ulsan in the past and even though Seoul have won on their last two trips to Munsu World Cup Stadium, I felt like this game would be a struggle for Seoul due to their past history.  Also, Seoul have played seven games in 22 days, so I was worried that fatigue might take its toll, especially with the aforementioned Shin Jin-ho off to fulfill his military requirements.   However, even though it might not have been the best display of football, Seoul were able to ride their luck and come away with all three points.

For the neutrals, this game might have been considered less than stellar as the first two goals scored will not go down as classics at all, but rather defensive miscues.  Both teams had a lot of shots, but none required super saves from the keeper.  I felt as though the first half was quite open at times, with a some good end-to-end attacking, but the second half seemed labored at times as both teams tried not to concede while struggling to find openings to shoot.  In the end, Park Chu-young scored the winning goal and the Seoul Theater returned.  Here are the stats from the game.

(from kleague.com)
Rather than write about every facet of the game, I will highlight four things that stood out.

1.  Keeper Errors

Neither keeper will look back on the first half fondly.  Seoul scored the first goal of the game in the 9th minute as Dejan was able to finish easily after Ulsan's keeper Jang Dae-hee failed to claim Adriano's pass across the goal.  Instead, he dived for the ball and whiffed.  I circled the ball to show how close Jang is to getting a hand on it.  He really needed to get to it or stay in his box and let his defenders deal with it.  However, the goal is not completely his fault since it was initiated by a woeful Kang Min-soo back pass (more on that later).

(Jang will never be a shortstop- from SPOTV via youtube.com)
To help take the spotlight off of his compatriot, Yoo Hyun struggled throughout the first half  as well.  In the 20th minute, Yoo Hyun's rough day or his Yoo Hyuntastrophies, would begin.  A simple back pass was played to him, but Yoo was way too casual and his touch much too strong, which allowed for Han Sang-woon to nick the ball off him.  From there, Han tried to chip his shot into goal and Yoo was damn lucky that the ball hit the side, and not the back of the net.

(What Yoo Hyun and Kim Won-sik were thinking/saying when a Yoo Hyuntastrophy was in the making- from SPOTV via youtube.com)
Yoo's decisions to punch rather than catch also put Seoul in a lot of danger. His first poor clearance happened in the 26th minute and in all fairness, the initial clearance by the Seoul defender on the corner was not great and it allowed for Ulsan to reset.  From there, Kovacec sent the ball back into the box, Yoo tried to punch it out but failed, and Seoul were lucky that Han Sang-woon's header landed on top of the net.  The decision by Yoo to punch it out rather than catch it was probably the right one, but his execution was poor.

However, Yoo was rightly punished for his second poor punch.  This time, I think should have caught the ball rather than punching it away because he hit it straight to Kim Chi-gon who made no mistakes and cooly dispatched it into the net.  Ulsan's goal came right at the end of the first half and with Seoul having survived their opponent's onslaught, the team must have been feeling pretty good to be up 1-0 at the half, so to concede like that must have felt like being punched in the stomach.  Nonetheless, it is a team game and Seoul as whole defended poorly for large stretches of the first half, which meant they were in danger of conceding and I guess it is fair to say that the score should have been tied.

2.  Both Defenses Struggled

Seoul started out pressing strongly again and in the fifth minute, Adriano made a great steal to start a break.  After a a great weighted ball over the top by Ju Se-jong, Adriano's cross hit Kang Min-soo's outstretched arm.  Is that a handball?  I remember Ryan mentioning something in his recap about rule change regarding handball, so maybe that applies.

(from SPOTV via youtube.com)
Not to be deterred, Adriano helped set up Dejan's goal in the 9th minute with some great hustle.  From a Seoul clearance, Adriano ran onto the ball and managed to get Kang Min-soo (he had a tough day at the office) to make the worst back pass in history.  Kang really should have put it out of bounds rather than trying to keep possession and his mistake was the start of a chain of events that led to Seoul scoring.

(Kang Min-soo's backpass disaster.  He could have put it out for a throw-in.  From SPOTV via youtube.com)
I thought that Kim Dong-woo and Go Yo-han did a relatively decent job against Kovacec throughout the game, but nonetheless, Ulsan's tactic of playing long balls to bypass Seoul's press and their midfield worked very well in the first half.   Here was a nice route one play from a defensive clearance with Lee Jung-hyub providing a looping header for Kovacec to run onto.  Kovacec probably should have done better with his opportunity, but luckily for Seoul, Kovec ran into a bad angle and hit it straight to Yoo Hyun.  Finally, Lee Jung-hyub and Han Sang-woon were allowed too much space or too much time to shoot by Seoul's CBs in the first 45 minutes also.

The winning goal came off a defensive miscue as well and once again Ulsan defender Kang Min-soo was involved.   Park Chu-young hit a great shot, but Kang Min-soo probably should not have backed off so much and instead closed Park down sooner.  However, Kang did not and Park's low finish to the far post was perfect, securing all three points for Seoul.

3.  Starting Lineup and Substitutions

Some might still disagree with me, but I think manager Choi Yong-soo has been great this year and he is a big reason why Seoul are in first.  The team is motivated and he has not messed around with the rotation, but instead has picked a strong 11 every week and stuck with it.  This game was no different as Seoul lined up in their standard 5-3-2/3-5-2 formation.  The only change from Wednesday night's game was Ju Se-jong taking Lee Seok-hyun's place in midfield.

Unfortunately, I think the manager made a mistake in choosing Yoo Hyun to start and obviously Choi agreed since he brought on Yu Sang-hun to start the second half.  Maybe it was a lack of height or confidence, but Yoo and subsequently the defense, did not seem comfortable in the first half.  It was a bit harsh to pull him, but the right choice by the manager in my opinion.   Yu Sang-hun seemed to help restore a sense of security to Seoul's back line.  Also, it is good to see Choi being ruthless because then hopefully the players will not become complacent and it is this that will give Seoul a strong chance to win the league.

I thought the combination of Adriano and Dejan linked up well during the game and were always a threat, but Seoul's midfield on the other hand, seemed to lack bite.  Ju Se-jong did well, running, shooting, and looking to make passes over the top, but I am not sure if he is the answer to Shin Jin-ho's departure.  His crossing was woeful at times and I think Seoul's defense is much more stable when he is the DM rather than Park Yong-woo.  Park Yong-woo is more than an adequate DM, but I see him as being a squad player right now rather than someone who is in the first eleven day in and day out, especially when Ju Se-jong is the much better player at his position.  

I thought Choi Yong-soo waited too long bringing on Park Chu-young in the 85th minute.  At first, I thought it was going to be a like-for-like substitutions with either Dejan or Adriano receiving the hook, but instead, he took off Ju Se-jong who appeared to be quite gassed at the end.  I was happy with this substitution since it demonstrated a desire to get all three points rather than leave with a draw.  The manager's choice came through and it is a big reason why Seoul have a five point lead in the league.

(Ju Se-jong looking exhausted- from SPOTV via youtube.com)
4.  Seoul Struggled Again but Still Get a Result

The second half of the game was less exciting as neither team could generate much offense.  Seoul managed to find some spaces to shoot but an Ulsan defender was always there to put a body in front of the shot.  Ulsan's best chance came in the 82nd minute but Lee Chang-yong's shot was straight at Yu Sang-hun.  Neither team was creating much and a draw probably would have been a fair result.  

Yet, just as with the games against Jeonnam and Gwangju, Seoul found a way to win even though they may not have deserved to do so.  In the Jeonnam game it took a blatant dive by Kim Chi-woo to win a penalty to secure all three points, but Seoul were the better team and a draw would have been harsh.  In Seoul's wins against Gwangju and Ulsan, they were outplayed by both teams at times, but did enough to come away with all three points rather than draw or a loss, which I think would have been the most likely result in 2014 or 2015.  

Seoul were not at their best on Sunday, yet they did enough to grind out a result and win.  Some will say this was another lucky win for Seoul, and maybe they are right, but how long can it be called luck if it continues to happen.  Champions find ways to win at the end and Seoul continue to do that.  

I said earlier that this was going to be a big challenge and Seoul have succeeded by winning the game.  In the past they have struggled to get a result against Ulsan and Munsu World Cup Stadium has not been the most hospitable environment for them to play in.  Next week though brings an even bigger challenge as Seoul travel to take on their arch rival and nemesis the Bluewings in the Super Match on Saturday.  I cannot wait for that game and hopefully there will not be a repeat of last year's shitshow loss.  Seoul have the momentum right now and while a draw would be respectable, a win  would send a message to the rest of the league.  

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