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Writer's Chat: Jeonnam Dragons vs FC Seoul Preview

Two teams on opposite ends of the standings and in the midst of vastly differing streaks face off this weekend when the high scoring FC Seoul pay a visit to Gwangyang to face the winless Jeonnam Dragons. Our FC Seoul contributor John Emanuelson and Jeonnam contributor Ryan Walters discuss why the teams are moving in opposite directions, underrated players, and (inevitably) managerial shortcomings. 

Ryan Asks, John Answers

Ryan Walters: Since the opening day loss to Jeonbuk, Seoul has gone undefeated and outscored their opponents 11-2 through four games in all competitions. Which is the bigger factor of the offensive dominance: the return of Dejan Damjanović or a more acclimated Adriano?

John Emanuelson: Both are significant factors. Adriano was great in his half-season with Seoul last year, but has been even better as he looks more comfortable with his teammates. It was known that he could score goals, but I have been impressed with his passing as well. He set up Dejan in the Buriram game and in the two league games against Sangju and Incheon he probably should have had an assist or two.  

However, I think Dejan's reinvention as a play-maker is what has made Seoul so dominant offensively. He has great vision and the ability to dribble out of trouble. In the past when he played for Seoul, he usually never dropped deep to get the ball, but always stayed up high up the field near the defenders.  

What I think goes unnoticed is the contribution of the midfield though. Ju Se-jong (GIF), Shin Jin-ho (GIF), and Takahagi (GIF) have formed an effective trio and are an upgrade over last year's midfield. There is more movement and vision from those three, which is why Adriano and Dejan are dominating the competition so far.  

RW: Can the offense stay this hot while competing in three competitions (K-League, ACL, FA Cup)?

JE: Eventually, Seoul's players are going to hit a wall. As Matt Binns pointed out in his assessment of Choi Kang-hee, out of the four ACL teams Seoul has rotated the least and that fifteen different players have started and nineteen players have featured for Seoul in the seven games they have played this year.  Here's a chart from soccerway.com of nine of the ten outfield players who have predominantly featured in Seoul's games this year:

Player (Pos.)
Minutes Played/Total (%)
Osmar (CB)
630/630 (100%)
Ko Kwang-min (LWB)
630/630 (100%)
Kim Won-sik (CB)
630/630 (100%)
Ju Se-jong (DM/CM)
603/630 (96%)
Takahagi (CM)
593/630 (94%)
Go Yo-han (RWB)
593/630 (94%)
Dejan (FW)
588/630 (93%)
Adriano (FW)
540/630 (86%)
Kim Dong-woo (CB)
539/630 (86%)

I didn't include Shin Jin-ho because he's leaving at the end of April. Looking at the chart, most of the players are either young or at peak age, so the minutes shouldn't be a problem. However, with Dejan at 34 and Takahagi at 29 respectively, the minutes could eventually catch up with them. I think Choi has been smart this year in choosing his main eleven and running them out. It has created a consistency that has been lacking from the other K-League powerhouse.  

At some point though, every team hits the wall, goes through a dry spell, or has luck go against them (hitting the woodwork, phantom penalty calls, injuries, etc.) and I'm sure Seoul will run into at least one of these three, if not all of them.  Combine that with a large portion of minutes played for significant contributors, and I think the offense for Seoul will struggle at some point.

RW: It's still quite early in the season, but both in league play and the ACL I've been quite impressed with Japanese midfielder Yojiro Takahagi. Is he the unsung hero that makes this machine work or am I off base?

JE: You are definitely not off base.  Takahagi has been so much better this year than he was during his half-season as well (a bit of a theme?). Last year he had some good moments and scored some nice goals, but it seemed like he was not up to dealing with the physicality of the league. This year, however, he has really stepped it up with his regards to his defensive work load. I really enjoyed watching him against Incheon on Saturday, especially in the first twenty minutes of the match. He went at the Incheon players aggressively and deserved a goal for his efforts.  

That being said, he has shown great vision as well.  In the GIF above, his looping ball over the top for Adriano to score on was brilliant, but I really appreciate what he did in the build up to the goal (GIF).  After telling Ko Kwang-min to pass the ball, he ran into the box to set up the goal. It's moments like these that were lacking last year. Even in Tuesday's game at home against Shandong, Takahagi almost beat Shandong over the top (GIF) with a great ball, but unfortunately Adriano couldn't beat the goalie.  

Besides just playing well though, I think much of it comes down to Seoul's revamped midfield.  Osmar did well as the DM/destroyer, but he started as CB and Seoul are better right now with him in defense. Molina, who I don't want to bash, was great on set piece deliveries and had good vision, but Seoul played so much slower last year when he was on the pitch. I think the reason Takahagi is playing so well now is because he's gotten used to playing with his teammates and Seoul's midfield is vastly improved.  

RW: The 0-0 draw to Shandong Luneng in ACL was humanizing Seoul. Was there something Shandong Luneng did right that the Dragons can copy for Sunday or was it simply a case of Seoul missing opportunities?

JE: As I mentioned in my recap, I think that Shandong spent the last three weeks practicing for that match. I think they knew that a loss would be devastating and set out to get a point on the road.   They did well to get bodies in front of shots block shots as though their lives depended on Seoul not scoring.  That being said, Seoul had numerous chances such as here, here, and here to score and if Osmar's shot hadn't hit the bar and gone in, it would have been a different game surely.

I think if you want to stop Seoul, then following Choi Kang-hee's game plan works the best.  Play with a three man defense, two to watch Adriano and Dejan, and a spare to help out.  Maybe Jugovic or someone else mark Ju Se-jong and pressure whenever he has the ball to make his life difficult.  If Jeonnam can control the midfield and limit the space that Seoul can operate in, they then should have a damn good chance to hit them on the break and get a goal. 

RW: Regardless of the Shandong game, FC Seoul's offense has been on fire and Jeonnam's defense has been woeful this season. How many goals do you see being scored in this one?

JE: Truth be told, it's hard to say. Seoul don't always travel down South very well and often lose or draw against teams they shouldn't. However, Choi's record against Jeonnam is quite good. He has won 8, drawn 1, and loss twice for an average of 2.27 points per game. His teams have scored 21 goals (1.91 per game) and conceded 9 goals (0.82 per game). In other words, Jeonnam is one of the teams that he cleans up on. 

Still, I remember Seoul getting destroyed last time they played down in Gwangyang, so I don't want to predict something too outlandish. I think Jeonnam will have a better defensive showing, but in the end they'll be undone by some of Noh's decisions.  I see two goals being scored. 

Score Prediction: Jeonnam 0-2 FC Seoul

Lineup Prediction:

John Asks, Ryan Answers

John Emanuelson: With only three goals in four games, it feels as though Jeonnam are struggling in attack.  Do they miss Lee Jong-ho or is it something else?

Ryan Walters: Like a Venn diagram from hell, it's a bit of both. Obviously the man tied for the most goals in 2015 is going to be missed and there isn't a like-for-like replacement for LJH currently on the roster, but the talent is still there for this team to score goals. Stevo, while admittedly a step slower, still offers up a target and takes a lot of attention from the defense, Oršić seems to be rediscovering some of his better form from last year, Jugović has not only proven to be a tremendous facilitator, but has also led the charge offensively, and that's just the foreigners. Ahn Yong-woo has proven pacey down the wings and capable of holding the ball up, and Cho Suk-jae scored within his first 40 minutes in the top flight. So the attacking options are there, it's just a matter of who actually sees the field, what formation they're played in, and who's getting them the ball. 

Manager Noh Sang-rae's been tied to the 4-2-3-1 this year, which is fine in theory, but in practice it's been overly defensive and has looked more like a 4-2-4 with the CDMs sitting far too deep and resorting to simply booting it into the offensive half and hoping for a miracle. In order for this formation to work and use the middle of the pitch there needs to be an out and out general in the middle of the field transitioning the ball from the defensive half up to the forwards. Luckily for the Dragons, they have that exact player on the roster in the form of Vedran Jugović... but he's never played there. Instead, Noh has routinely thrown the midfielder out onto the wing where he struggles to outpace the opposing defenses. Don't get me wrong, he's not exactly slow, but he'd be much better utilized in the center of the pitch flanked by Oršić and Cho Suk-jae or possibly Ahn Yong-woo. Unfortunately I just don't see that change coming, so the offense will continue to sputter without a general to lead the attack. Well... that and leaving Cho Suk-jae on the bench, but more on that later.

JE: Last year, I felt like the defense made too many mistakes and held the team back from finishing in the top six and based on your recaps, it seems as though this area has yet to be fixed.  What can Jeonnam do to improve defensively?

RW: The defense was bad last year and after an offseason spent doing almost nothing to improve it the results have been unsurprising. Right back Choi Hyo-jin and Lee Ji-nam (who's position is seemingly yet to be settled) have been the lone bright spots on the back line, but there are concerns with both. Mainly whether or not they'll see the field. Lee Ji-nam had a tremendous home opener vs Suwon FC (a large part in holding the clean sheet that day) and didn't even make the trip with the team for the next game. Choi is rightly the team captain, stout defensively and bombs up the flanks like nobody's business. However, for reasons I'll likely never know, he was not only left out of the starting XI last weekend, but never even saw the field. Injuries were not an issue in either of the defenders' absences. Instead Noh has fallen in love with the remarkably bumbling Hong Jin-ki who continues to see the field even after having an absolute howler vs Suwon Bluewings and literally falling all over himself vs Ulsan.

You're right that the defense was a large reason Jeonnam missed top six last year, and they may well be what keeps them in a relegation scrap this season. One of the more immediate fixes would simply be to play the best players in their best positions. While Noh hasn't reached Jürgen Klinsmann levels of lineup frustrations, he's not exactly keen on trotting out the same 11 in positions they know and are comfortable in. The center back pairing of Lee Ji-nam and Hyun Young-min was good enough to hold a clean sheet in the opener, but they've yet to be paired together again. In fact, Jeonnam has yet to play the same CB pairing through three games this season. It's a rotation simply for the sake of rotation and it's not surprising the lack of cohesion has led to some pretty easy goals for the opposition. A more long term solution to this problem would be to go out and sign a true CB during the next window. Ideally an Australian CB from A-League could come in and be a brick wall at the back. The Dragons currently have three foreign roster spots taken, but the Asian player spot is wide open. If not an Aussie, at least a true defender from another team in K-League. Surely Jeonnam has enough attacking options to part ways with one of them to make room for a proper CB. 

JE: On a positive note, two weeks ago Jeonnam came back from a two goal deficit to draw against Suwon Bluewings.  Was that a great team performance or Suwon shitting the bed?

RW: For Suwon's part, they could've pressed more in the second half, but ain't that the curse of K-League? Get a lead and then park the damn bus to protect it. They invited too much pressure for too long and it bit em. However, as for Jeonnam, I'd love to say it was a gritty team performance... but it wasn't. The game truly was a tale of two halves and the Dragons came out much stronger in the second, but it was really just two magnificent individual moments from Oršić and Jugović combined with a touch of luck. Oršić wisely caught the Bluewings keeper wrong-footed and put the ball on the near side from a long way out. He then combined with Jugović a few minutes later on a 1-2 that saw Jugović's shot deflect off a defender and in. Tenacious plays to be sure, and it showed that Jeonnam had some fight in em, but neither goal was the result of a long string of passes or team chemistry, it was just two dudes deciding they didn't want to lose that day. 

JE: Lee Seung-ho played as the keeper against Ulsan.  Before that, it was Kim Min-sik in the first two games.  Why did Noh change keepers and do you think the team should have gotten Kim Yong-dae or kept Kim Byung-ji's mullet?

RW: Attempting to figure out Noh's thoughts on lineup selections is an 11th dimensional chess level mental exercise that I've decided to spare myself of. I understand wanting to rotate in the backup keeper every now and again, but why on Earth would he do it on the road the week after an international break? Lee was untested and thrown into a tough situation which was made even worse by another poor defensive showing. Instead of waiting until a home game (or even more wisely an FA Cup matchup vs a lower division team) Noh threw his keeper to the fire and paid the price. Now Jeonnam not only has to deal with dropping the points on the road, but have to attempt to recover at home against a high scoring FC Seoul side with a keeper who hasn't played competitively since March 20th. (Assuming Kim Min-sik's back in net.) It's just the latest in a long, long line of dreadful and baffling lineup choices from the manager.

As for Kim Yong-dae or keeping Kim Byung-ji and the fabulous hair that comes with him, I think the Dragons front office made the right choice handing the team over to Kim Min-sik. I pegged him as the team's Key Player in the Season Preview and still stick with that. He's looked confident, comes off his line far better than Kim Byung-ji did, defends corners well, and organizes the ragtag backline as well as anyone else would be able to. However, much like Choi Hyo-jin and Lee Ji-nam, he'll only be able to help the defense if he sees the field. In other words, the team has the right keeper, but they don't seem to know how to use him.

JE: Jeonnam sit in 11th place right now, with only two points from three games.  With Noh Sang-rae at the helm, is relegation a possibility?

RW: Absolutely. It's a near certainty they'll be in the scrap heap as long as he maintains control of the team. With Incheon playing so poorly right now it's tough to say the Dragons will be relegated straight off, but their current form and lack of any semblance of a plan will keep them in contention for the 11th place playoff series. I went into Noh's mismanagement of substitutes in more detail in the Ulsan recap, so I'll spare that here. What I'll reiterate is that he doesn't seem to know how nor have a desire to win. He continually lines the team up too defensively, selects the wrong personnel, and truly seems clueless how to adjust tactically. His obsession with rotating players seemingly for the sake of it is not only frustrating, but is costing the team points. More importantly, the revolving door that is the starting XI will never get a chance at true cohesion and will continue to be lost as to what they're supposed to be doing. The talent is there for this team to compete within the league and is a true CB away from being able to compete for an ACL spot. I honestly believe that. However, they'll only be able to reach those heights if the man in charge puts them in a place to do so by creating consistency and getting the maximum out of the players at his disposal. Instead they have a manager that routinely handcuffs them from success by shelling up and over-managing. 

Score Prediction: Jeonnam 0-3 FC Seoul

Lineup Prediction: 


  1. Shin Jin-ho: I meant he was leaving at the end of April, not August.

  2. Replies
    1. Jeonnam allowed 2 goals apiece to Suwon Bluewings and Ulsan. Seoul outscored Sangju Sangmu and Incheon a combined 7-1 in their previous two league matches. Not outlandish to think they could put 3 by an unsettled Jeonnam backline.

  3. I agree with Ryan. Seoul will score at least 2 goals. I'm optimistic guy, but I can't see Jeonnam getting a draw with Noh on the bench. Worst coach in the Korean football. Terrible man

    1. You have clearly never heard of Choi Moon Sik.


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