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Preview: FC Seoul vs. Ulsan Hyundai

(Hwang Sun-hong probably should worry more about winning and less about looking imperious.  From FCSeoul.com)
In an epic clash of the titans, the wounded warriors of FC Seoul attempt to stop Ulsan Hyundai's insurgency towards the league title as they match the levels of Brazil in 1970, AC Milan in 1989, and Spain in 2008.
After FC Seoul's third loss in a row, I was ready to throw in the towel last Saturday night.  Of course, as Miroslav pointed out on Twitter, there is a lot of time left in the season for Seoul to make a run and win the league.  They are only six points behind the champions and Jeonbuk, for whatever reason, cannot seem to pull away and keep dropping points when they should be wrapping up their third title in a row.

However, I do stand by my statement.  At this point, Seoul should not be looking to win the league and instead, trying to secure their top three status.  They are tied on points with Ulsan, but ahead due to having scored more goals, and Seongnam FC are now just one point behind.  In fifth and sixth place, two points behind Seoul, are Jeju United and Pohang Steelers.

The top of the table is really competitive and is no longer the two team race that many thought it would be when the season kicked off.  Seoul need to take things one game at a time and somehow recapture their early season form.  This Saturday's opponent would be a great team to start the process against.

Ulsan 2016

Ulsan have been one of the surprise teams of the season.  They were awful last year, finishing at the top of the relegation round, underachieving and disappointing throughout 2015.  With top scorers Kim Shin-wook and Yang Dong-hyun leaving to Jeonbuk and Pohang respectively, Ulsan were dark horse candidates for a top six finish at best.  After a slow start, they have recently picked up the pace by winning a lot of close games and now find themselves unexpectedly in third place.

Looking at the table, it defies reason how the team is so high.  They have only scored 19 goals (1.06 per game) this season while conceding 21 (1.17 per game).  Seongnam, Jeju Utd., Pohang, and Sangju Sangmu have all scored more goals and sport better goal differentials than the Tigers, yet Ulsan sit above them in the standings.  Whether or not their standing is a statistical aberration or a measure of their true quality is debatable.

The team has won nine games this year, which is great considering they only won 13 in 2015.  Of those nine wins, four have been by the score of 1-0, so this demonstrates Ulsan's ability to defend well and hold leads.  Only the Pohang Steelers, with 18 goals allowed, have had a better defensive showing this season.  Conversely, Ulsan have failed to reach the score sheet in a third of their league games this year as well, but four of the six shutouts happened in the first ten weeks before the team rounded into form.

In those first ten weeks, Ulsan struggled and were mid-table at best.  They won three, drew three, and lost four, scoring only seven goals (0.7 per game) while conceding 10 (1 per game).  Since then, the team has done a 180, winning six of eight games while scoring 12 goals (1.5 per game) and conceding 11 (1.38 per game).  While Ulsan's goals against average has increased 38%, I would argue that it is not the result of Ulsan's defense becoming poor and instead, it is because the team had two bad games against Jeonnam and Pohang, allowing seven goals.  Take away those two games, and the average amount conceded is 0.67 per game, which is in line with my statement that the team knows how to defend well and close out games.

I think the reason that Ulsan's fortunes have improved so much is their manager Yoon Jung-hwan's personnel decisions.  On defense, he sat error prone Kang Min-soo and Kim Chi-gon, replacing them with Lee Jae-sung and Jeong Seung-hyun.  During their best run of form, the latter two have featured in all six of their wins while the former two both started the 3-1 loss to Jeonnam and 4-0 loss to Pohang.  With Lee Jae-sung and Jeong Seung-hyun becoming the first choice center backs and working in tandem with DMs Masuda and Ha Sung-min to form a impenetrable square, there seems to be more stability in the defense now and Seoul will have difficulty attacking down the middle.

What interests me most though is the changes in the midfield.  Kovacec has been a mainstay on the leftwing, but Yoon's decision to move Kim Seung-joon from the right wing into the center, Kim Tae-hwan from right back into Seung-joon's position, and inserting Jeong Dong-ho into Tae-hwan's postion have paid immediate dividends.  This was Yoon's choice when Ulsan visited Suwon in late May and eviscerated the Bluewings 4-2 by putting on a clinic in how to counter attack.

The front four of Lee Jung-hyub, Kovacec, Kim Seung-joon, and Kim Tae-hwan is as deadly and lethal as any other team's in the league right now and Seoul's back four (god I hope that they play a back four and not a back three) will have their hands full all day.

FC Seoul 2016

With regards to Seoul's season, you can read about it here.  Seoul will be without the best player and leading scorer Adriano for five or six games because of the red card he incurred against Seongnam.  Granted, I am biased, but I really do not think he elbowed the player.  At best, it was a love tap and at worst, the Seongnam defender should get the same penalty for bringing the game into disrepute through his acting.  No matter what, the suspension is a draconian one and it could have hurt Seoul's chances in the past.  That being said, strikers are one of our strengths this year and I am sure that Dejan, Park Chu-young, and Yun Ju-tae are more than capable of picking up the slack.

Hwang has abandoned the 3-5-2 formation.  Against Sangju Sangmu last week, the team played a 4-4-2 with mixed results.  Seoul limited the kinds of attacks on the counter that opponents had been killing them with recently, but they struggled to create as well.  Seoul played fairly well in the first half.  Dejan had two great chances to score and was unlucky with both.  On the first, in the 7th minute, he received a terrible back pass, but opted for power rather than guile and hit it straight at the keeper.  On the second, after a wonderful break by Cho Cha-ho, Dejan did well to sidestep his defender, but his shot crashed off the crossbar.  Yun Il-lok almost went close twice as well and I feel as though Seoul deserved to get something from that half.

Unfortunately, the team's level dropped in the second and they were dominated by Sangju.  Hwang opted to bring off Kim Chi-woo and inserted Sim Sang-min to start the second half.  I do not know why he chose to do this and I thought the team was much worse in attack and on defense because of it.  In the end, Sim's foul cost them a chance at a much needed point as well.

Park Gi-dong fell much too easily and should not have had a penalty, but this sort of shit is karma for Kim Chi-woo's dive earlier in the season against Jeonnam.  At that time, I agreed with Ryan Walters about how Choi Jin-hyo should not have lunged at Kim Chi-woo and the same can be said about Sim Sang-min grabbing at Park Gi-dong.  At this level, he should know better, especially on the road.  So, in sum, Hwang should not have subbed him and maybe the whole damn fiasco could have been avoided.


God, I have really come to hate this fixture.  The last time that Seoul beat Ulsan at home was in November of 2012.  I had to look this up to make sure, but it is true.  I remember this game quite well.  It was on Thursday and I was lucky enough to get off work and go see it.  Adi, Hyun Young-min, and Dejan all scored that night as Seoul won 3-1.  Since then, I have watched Seoul lose or blow two goal leads to draw against Ulsan.

It is no secret how Ulsan will line-up.  In 16 of the 18 games, the team has played in a 4-2-3-1 formation.  In the other two matches, it was a 4-5-1 with a flat midfield, neither of which was very successful.  Normally, former Seoul keeper Kim Yong-dae would be manning the goal, but I am not sure if he will play.  He did not start in the last fixture these two teams played, so maybe he will not play again.  Defensively, the CBs will be Lee Jae-sung and Jeong Seung-hyun most likely.  I am hoping the lesser duo Kang Min-soo and Kim Chi-gon will start instead, but I would not count on it.  In the last two games the latter duo featured, they were both losses and Ulsan conceded seven goals while only scoring once.  The full backs will be Lee Ki-jae on the left and Jeong Dong-ho on the right and in the midfield will be indefatigable Masuda and Ha Sung-min.  The attacking quartet of Kim Tae-hwan on the right wing, Kim Seung-joon in the middle, and Kovacec on the left will be complemented by the hold up play of Lee Jung-hyub.

The man that Seoul will have to watch out for is Kovacec.  He leads the team in both goals and assists, with four and six respectively.  What stands out for me most is the number of shots he has had this year.  Looking at the kleague.com, it says that he has shot 73 times, which seems like a lot, but I guess that averages out to about four a game.  Still, I would say that whoever is playing on the right-side of the field is going to have to keep an eye on him.  He is capable of individual moments of brilliance such as this.

I am going to assume that Hwang Sun-hong will most likely run out a 4-4-2 formation again and if so, I hope that Ko Kwang-min is the right-side full back and Go Yo-han plays on the right wing.  Ko is better than Go defensively, in my opinion, but the two can work together to try and neutralize the threat of Kovacec, who will be looking for pockets of space behind the full back to run into and work from in an attempt to isolate the center backs.  Still, Seoul will need to be cognizant of Kim Tae-hwan on the right, who has really excelled since being moved forward from the full back slot (sort of like Gareth Bale when he played for Tottenham).

I would say the most critical thing for Seoul to do is to make sure that they do not concede an early goal this time out.  In the six out of nine victories, Ulsan scored a goal in the first 30 minutes and from there, set up in a counter attacking shell and ran out winners.  If Ulsan are able to get an early goal again, I expect Seoul to have another loss at home.   However, if Seoul can score first like they did back in April when these two teams played, then they just might end up winning.  In games where Ulsan have had the majority of possession, they have not fared nearly as well.

Based on how well Ulsan have done in Seoul the last three years, Seoul's current lack of form, Ulsan's great form, particularly among Kovacec, Kim Seung-joon, and Kim Tae-hwan, I honestly cannot predict a Seoul victory.  I think eventually Seoul will recover their form and do better, but unfortunately, that probably will not be until sometime in August.

Final Score: FC Seoul 1-3 Ulsan

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