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Good Bye Choi Yong-soo

Choi Yong-soo leaves to join Jiangsu Suning and Hwang Sun-hong will take over.  It is time to appreciate Choi for his time at Seoul.  

File this under "I can't f-king believe it!"  In the understatement of the year, Choi Yong-soo's departure has caught most by surprise.  I think I saw something on the Internet about a Chinese club wanting him when I was trying to confirm the veracity of the rumors about Ha Dae-sung's return. However, I thought there would be no chance that he would move on from Seoul, especially after turning down Jiangsu Suning/Sainty last year and with Seoul in contention to win the K-League Classic and AFC Champions League (ACL).

Last year, around this time, it was confirmed that Choi Yong-soo would be moving on to Jiangsu Suning, but citing loyalty, Choi turned down 5 billion Won a two and a half years to remain Seoul's head coach. Seoul were mired in another spell of mediocrity- failing to score goals or protect leads, flailing about mid-table, and playing football that was far from fun to watch.  However, Seoul hit the jackpot and were able to acquire Adriano and from there, things started to improve as Seoul began to pick up wins and finished the season as FA Cup winners.  The season ended on a positive note and Seoul picked up where they left off last year.

Starting 2016 with a bang, Seoul looked like a juggernaut for the first two months of the season.  Even though they have faded somewhat since then, Seoul are in second place only one point behind Jeonbuk.  Likewise, after an epic two-legged fixture win over the Urawa Reds via penalty kicks, they have drawn Shandong Luneng as their opponents in the quarter-finals of the ACL.  While nothing is ever a given, a more favorable opponent could not have been asked for as Shandong sit in 14th place in the Chinese Super League currently and Seoul outplayed them in their prior two ACL fixtures. Therefore, this is why I am surprised that he would elect to leave the club when things are going so well.

I guess the money must have been too good to pass up and I am sure that Jiangsu Suning offered more than 5 billion Won this time out, otherwise I do not think he would have agreed to left.  Initially, when I first heard the news, I did not believe it.  I thought that Choi would have a change of heart and would decide to stay with Seoul in the end.  However, since Seoul have already named his replacement, former Pohang Steeler manager Hwang Sun-hong to take his place, then it must be a done deal.  Before bidding him farewell, let's look at Choi Yong-soo's record.

Choi Yong-soo K-League Record

GF (per game)
GA (per game)
Pts (Avg.)
Leading Scorer
50 (2.17)
28 (1.21)
49 (2.13)
Dejan  24 
76 (1.72)
42 (0.95)
96 (2.18)
Dejan  31 
59 (1.55)
46 (1.21)
62 (1.63)
Dejan 19 
42 (1.11)
28 (0.74)
58 (1.53)
Yun Il-lok 7 
52 (1.37)
44 (1.16)
62 (1.63)
Adriano  15 
32 (2.13)
19 (1.27)
30 (2.0)
Adriano  9 

After winning the league in 2010, Nelo Vingada and Seoul could not agree on terms and split after only one season.  In their wisdom, Seoul decided to appoint Hwangbo Kwan to be the manager. From the first kick of the season, it was evident that he was over his head as he resigned after a scant seven games in charge.  Choi Yong-soo was then appointed as the caretaker and Seoul immediately rebounded from being at the foot of the table to finish in third place and he helped guide them to a quarter-finals in the ACL.

Based on that performance, Choi was awarded the job full-time in 2012 and did not disappoint, guiding Seoul to the championship as they destroyed the league.  In 2013, Seoul got off to a terrible start, which began to become a recurring theme under Choi, but still managed to qualify for the ACL and made it to the championship only to be denied on the away goals rule as the two fixtures between Seoul and Guangzhou Evergrande finished 3-3.  On my death bed, I will still piss and moan about this being the way to decide a championship.

After 2013, Choi Yong-soo decided to change the focus of the team away from being attacking and towards defensive solidity since stars Dejan and Ha Dae-sung departed and Adi retired, leaving a gaping hole in the team.  Switching from playing 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2, Choi adopted a 3-5-2 that became part-and-parcel of every team he coached afterwards.  Even though Seoul struggled to scored goals and were generally abysmal in 2014, the team reached the semifinals of the ACL (where they failed to score in both fixtures) and somehow finished in 3rd place that year even though they failed to start well for the second year in a row.

Last year, Seoul were even worse as they failed to get out of the gate, struggled in the ACL and were put out in the round of 16, and often times I was critical of Choi because Seoul were terrible when offensively and defensively.  When Seoul had the ball, they were absolutely predictable with their sideways and backwards passing, as the team did not have the personnel to play tiki-taka.  On defense, Seoul were much weaker with Kim Ju-young's departure to China.  Yet somehow Choi was able to convince Adriano to join Seoul and slowly the team turned their season around and I think this is one of Choi's strengths.

When the chips were down, and often they were in the last five years, Choi was able to motivate the team.  I remember how awful the team was that started the season in 2011 and how much better they got when Choi took over.  This theme would be repeated in 2013, 2014, and 2015 as Seoul started slowly but would eventually finish strong.

Critiques of Choi Yong-soo

Critics of Choi Yong-soo will argue that it was time for him to leave Seoul and cite the following:

  • his record got worse as the years progressed
  • he drew too frequently and did not win enough
  • he could not win unless he had good players
First, it is true that his record got worse as his career at Seoul progressed, but so did the team.  Dejan left and he was replaced by a hobbit, Kim Ju-young left and he was not replaced, and the list goes on. Next, while I do agree that Seoul did draw too much between 2013 to 2015, that was again down to personnel.  Finally, this last point is ridiculous because no coach could win unless they have decent players.  Alex Ferguson needed Eric Cantona to help him get over the hump and he was lucky to have been employed before the Internet became a part of every day life.  

One aspect of Choi's talent that was underrated was his ability to recruit.  I have been told that he was able to convince Ha Dae-sung to forego signing with a European club to chase the ACL.  Cha Du-ri was old when he joined Seoul, but to get him to do so is still a feather in his cap.  Likewise, the same is true about Park Chu-young, the return of Dejan, and Adriano.  Seoul are a big club, which makes recruitment easier, but nonetheless, the manager has to be able to make some sort of positive impression to convince the players to join and Choi Yong-soo was able to do that.  

Good Luck in China

Even though I was critical of him at times and I was not always a fan of his favored formation, I wish him well in this new endeavor.  He has given us a great 5 and a half years full of memories and was able to deliver a championship in 2012, an ACL finals appearance 2013, and an FA Cup in 2015 along with qualifying for the ACL every year except 2011.  That is a respectable CV for any manager and it is understandable why Jiangsu Suning would be so keen on bringing him to the club.

However, the management for Jiangsu Suning will not be nearly as patient as the GS group was with him.  If Choi Yong-soo gets off to a poor start that was similar to 2013, 2014, or 2015, I expect that he will be handed his walking papers just as Dan Petrescu was in the beginning of June.  With more money comes greater expectations and if he found the pressure to be too much in Seoul, I cannot imagine how he will handle it in Nanjing.

That being said, generally Korean footballing greats are usually welcomed back with open arms when they are done with going abroad.  If Hwang Sun-hong falters, which is not necessarily unlikely and things are not going as well for Choi Yong-soo as the Jiangsu Chairman would like, he could always return to Seoul.  If there is not a place in Seoul, I am sure a K-League club would welcome him back as well.

In the next day or two, I will look at Choi Yong-soo's replacement Hwang Sun-hong.

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