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Vedran Jugović and Tomislav Mrčela Interview Part 2

In Part 1 Vedran Jugović and Tomislav Mrčela talked about life off the field, and touched a bit on the shift in mindset at Jeonnam. Here in Part 2 we'll dive head first into the specific formation and tactical changes that have affected the team, Choi Hyo-jin's leadership, the 2016 Dragons ceiling, how K-League prepares players for the international stage, and a bit about the 2018 World Cup.

One of the biggest changes of late was the shift from a 4-2-3-1 to the current 3-5-2, which has been working quite well. Jugo, how’re you enjoying the 3-5-2? How much of a difference has that made for you in the midfield?

Vedran Jugović: It’s ok. We play some good games with the last formation, but now we play 3-5-2, and it’s really good because we have more chances to make build up. We start with build ups. Before we had 4 men and we played only long balls to target men. Now we play more build up, passing game. So now it’s more easy to play. Because now when you have the ball you’re not so tired. When you’re playing defense you run a lot. You let the opposition make all the passes, and you’re really tired when you get the ball. Now we are a team who leads the game. Who leads the situation on the field.

Tomi, how comfortable are you in playing on a 3-man backline and is it something you’ve done before?

Tomislav Mrčela: Well, I’m used to it. I played it in Croatia too, the 3-5-2. My style of play, I like to do the build up from behind. I don’t like long balls. I like to bring the ball to the midfielders. I like playing the wider one. Sometimes if we switch from the other side quickly, I have space to go into, to make an extra man in the midfield. So we have possession, and we’re more dangerous to bring the ball to the attacking line. So, for me, I like to play 3-5-2, and I feel comfortable.

One of the absolute workhorses making the 3-5-2 work has been Choi Hyo-jin. What’re your thoughts on the Jeonnam captain?

TM: He’s our leader. He’s our captain. He’s a powerful right back. He goes up down, up down. I’m enjoying playing with him. I’m enjoying training with him. He’s a really top guy. He doesn’t speak too much English, but we can speak enough, and [he] really takes care of us. He’s really a true captain. Whatever we need, he’s there for us. So, for me, as I’ve seen other teams we’ve played, I think he’s the top right back for K-League for sure.

VJ: I’ve been here from the beginning of the season and he’s really helped me a lot as a person and as a player. He’s a real captain. He and [Hyun] Young-min really help us with their experience. They’re our leaders and they’re really good players. You can see with every touch on every ball in every minute. We have really good sidebacks.

I mean… damn those guys run for someone over 30.

TM: Yeah! When [Jugovic] told me that Young-min is 36, it was unbelievable. And such big motivation. I mean… probably more than every one of us. He’s so motivated. Like he’s 18 years old. It’s unbelievable.

Speaking of captains, you both seem to have taken on a leadership role with this team. Especially since the departure of Stevo and Oršić. You both have very visibly dictated the pace of the game or directed traffic. Were you instructed to take on that role as the team’s prominent CB and central midfielder or is it something that kind of comes naturally to you?

VJ: I think that came naturally. Of course I got this responsibility to help new guys to adapt, because I’m the longest here now. That came very suddenly. Oršić's transfer, and Stevo’s goodbye. So Jair, and [Tomi], and now Maurinho, they came suddenly and I now I’m the one who’s giving help, not getting help. So it changed me and changed my style. It’s working good now. It’s been seven months I’m here and I’m ready. I’m always ready for this part, because in Croatia I’ve also been captain of some teams, so it’s normal for me.

TM: That’s my habit. To lead the defense, even from small ages. Now when I came here, the president, the director, the coach clearly told me what they expected from me. They really wanted me to improve the team, especially the defense. I’m giving my best to do that, and thank God we really have a good result for now. About me yelling on the field, that’s something we need to do. We need to get the ball quicker from the outside to the midfield when the ball it at our feet. That’s something we need to improve.

Has that been an awkward transition being the new guy and giving instructions right away?

TM: Well, it’s not like I’m the boss, ya know? I’m giving instructions and then [Go] Tae-won or [Lee] Ji-nam are giving instructions to me. We’re helping each other. If I’m behind him, I see more than him, what’s behind his back, so I’m going to help him. Same way he’s going to help me. That’s normal in football. That’s something you need to have in the team. Everyone helping each other.

VJ: And it’s easy here because of their culture. They’re not angry if he’s a new guy and he says “come on, come one, let’s do this.” They really respect, from the first day, him, me, every foreign player, they really show respect. And in some other countries, maybe when you’re the new guy maybe you should take a little bit of time with the team.

TM: Like “you’re the new guy, why’re you telling me what to do?”

VJ: Yeah. But, here is really good. Really family to us from the first day.

Tomi, at 193cm your physical stature is hard to miss and you have a knack for what I like to call the “dark arts,” but you don’t really play overly physically. You seem to have more of a focus on the technical side of the game. It’s an attribute that would garner a lot of attention from an attacking player, but can often go unnoticed for defensemen. Does a game saving clearance or perfectly timed challenge feel as good to a defender as scoring a goal?

TM: Yeah, of course. My goal is to keep the sheet clean. That’s like I score a hat trick. Last two games, zero goals, yeah? That’s my job. That’s the job of the other defenders, that’s the job of the goalkeeper, and the entire team. Not conceding goals. If you’re not conceding goals that’s one point for sure. And we have the quality on the team to score at least once. So, the most important thing is not getting a goal conceded.

So, if given the choice, would you take a 2-1 win where you score the winning header, or a 1-0 win with a clean sheet?

TM: Both are awesome. But…

VJ: When you score the goal, man!

TM: Yeah, probably.

Similarly, Jugo, you’re much more of a facilitator of the offense and not an out and out goal scorer (though you clearly have it in your game). A lot of times when there’s a goal it’s a direct result of the passing and off the ball movement players like you do, but that doesn’t always show up on the scoresheet. What’s your favorite part of that kind of role?

VJ: I really like to start the attack. The attack starts with me. The defense gives me the ball, then I like to find some solution that’s really good to play forward. And I really like looking at the situation on the field to talking with my teammates about where to be, where to go, and… I also like scoring and to make assists, but that’s not the most important thing for me. The most important thing for me is the team looks good and we win the game.

Something else that doesn’t necessarily show up on the team sheet is attitude. In the early season, the Dragons were notorious for giving up late goals and finding defeat when a draw or even a win seemed inevitable. However, in recent games there’s been a lot more fight late on to push for the win or to hold onto the lead. Has there been an attitude shift within the locker room?

VJ: Maybe a new mentality, but the mentality comes out with results. With a good atmosphere with the team, we have really good relationships through the team, and we really believe in each other. We believe we can do something good. Because when you lose so many games in the last 10 minutes… you really get pissed off. So, now it’s kind of different. Now we’re happy. We have confidence and we are now playing better than before. We have more concentration in the last ten minutes. Before maybe we are tired in the last ten minutes and maybe concentration goes down. Now, we are tired, but whole team working together and whole team rising up.

With that newfound confidence what do you think is this team’s ceiling this year?

TM: There’s no pressure, but I think seeing the team qualify in the fall. We’ve talked about why not get in there? The top six position. It’s not too far. It’s six points I think. I mean, the second position is nine points, it’s not too far as well. We need to start with Ulsan now. Getting closer with them, and six points are really really not too far. So why not get into the top six and enjoy football in the last part of the season, playing in those last five games? But, if not, let’s be close to that sixth position. Let other teams battle for relegation and enjoy our football.

Is a AFC Champions League place out of the question?

TM: Who knows? If we reach the top six, anything’s possible. I mean, if we get into the top six, why not?

VJ: When I look at the start of the season and what happened then, for me [avoiding] relegation is the most important thing. From now, we’re playing good, we’re rising up. When you win three or four in a row, you make a really big difference. So, I think we have a chance. If we stay on this level and we play good with Ulsan and the next game, we can really go up and do the fighting for the top six. It’s really interesting. With many teams and many games until the end, I think anything’s possible.

Was it the idea of this kind of a turnaround project that brought you to Jeonnam?

VJ: No. No no. For sure not. Because when I came I was thinking maybe we fight in top six and maybe there’s a chance we pick up the places that leads to Asia Champions League and that was my goal when I came here. But, as I said, when I looked at the beginning at the first 10 rounds and everything that happened, in that case the most important thing is not be relegated. But, now our situation is a little bit different and I hope we can continue to play like this on this level. I think we can go up and maybe there’s a chance we can end up in top six. My goal now from this position is to get to the top six.

When you signed, you had played a little bit of Europa League. So, was the hope to stay in a Champions League and to bring this team to Champions League?

VJ: Yeah, because for me in my time playing in Croatia the most different time was when we played in Europa League. So, I suppose here when you play Asia Champions League it’s also really good and nice and a really good experience to play against the best teams in Asia. So, I hope if not this year, maybe next year if I stay in Jeonnam. So, we will see.

TM: I didn’t play as Jugo did, in the group stages, but I played in qualifications for the group stage and it’s a really nice and big experience. Especially for our team at Lokomotiva where it was really young players. If I didn’t come here, I would play that again, so I’m used to playing in Europe. Fighting for those top positions on the table. And that’s what I want to do here. This year started as it started, so we have to be satisfied with the middle table, or the top six. But next year… we’ll get our impact.

So it was more of a long term goal for you?

TM: To be honest, the last year or two I had some chances to come to Asia. That was my goal to be honest, I had the Asian passport and that’s really important. This was a good opportunity. Sometimes maybe it’s better to come to a smaller club with no big pressure to adapt to the style of the football, of the league, of the continent, and to make a step forward from that club to maybe one day, a year or two or three years, getting up to a bigger club.

What other options were you weighing before making the move to Jeonnam?

TM: The last few months there were some options for A League, but nothing as concrete as Jeonnam. When I heard from Jeonnam I said let’s go. I didn’t want to wait for some other options, I was satisfied with everything I heard about it. And I knew I’d have someone here. I mean… I wanted to play with Jugo… (laughs). It’s easier to adapt in Jeonnam than in some other K-League clubs. I chose Jeonnam, and I’m not regretting it for now.

VJ: There were some options in Europe, but in Europe there are so many talks, but you can't rely on talks. Many agents call and say you can go here, you can go there, but nothing serious. So, there was an option for me to come here, and this is a new challenge for me, new culture. OK… we will not lie, the money is better than in our country. Because I may not come here because it’s really far away from our country if there’s no money. But I’m the type of guy when I have a contract I want to deserve every penny I get. On the field, on the training. [Tomi] is also the same. Our mentality is the same. We are from a country which is not rich, not many people are rich, and we know how it is fighting every day. For us, for our family. We must fight to live, and we like that style of living.

Now that you’re both here and building your careers, what’s your personal goal in the next 2 years? Champions League? International competitions? World Cup?

VJ: My goal is to improve, to go to a new level of play. Every year I want to be a better player, so this is about personal [goals]. About clubs… I don’t know yet. Because in December my loan ends here, so we will see what happens. I really like it here. This style. I think I could play at a high level here, I think I’ve showed many good things here, so we’ll see if I will stay here, if I will go to another league, another club maybe. We’ll see in December. But if you asked me, I’m really feeling good here, and would like to stay.

TM: Well, I have a contract for two years, so the main goal is to finish that contract. That means they’re satisfied with me and I’m satisfied with them. Also, improving every day as a player and as a person. And my goal is to stay here in Asia as much as possible. Maybe getting back to the Australian squad. I think I have a good chance playing here. I think K-League is the strongest league in Asia. Stronger than the Australian league, and many players are in the national side from the Australian league, so why not? Who knows… maybe playing in the World Cup. That would be awesome. But, yeah, play here and continue to build my name here in Korea.

Did you talk much with Alex Wilkinson or any of the other Aussies who played in K-League?

TM: I was on the national team with Alex when he was playing here, but at that time I wasn’t too close to coming to Korea. But I’d heard really good stuff about it. About Asian football. I know many Australian players who were and are playing in Korea, Japan, and China especially, so I know Asia loves Australian players.

When it comes to Asian leagues, would you guys rate K-League above J League?

VJ: In my opinion it depends on what I feel. So many people say to me Japanese players style is more passing, more build up, maybe less mistakes, but they cannot play against Korean aggression and Korean speed. So I think K-League is the top in Asia.

Obviously the Chinese league is getting a lot of attention with the money they’re splashing around, how would you guys rate that league?

TM: I’ve heard [things] as well, when you look at the whole package, the Korean league has the most quality. Because in Chinese Super League, it depends on what foreign player you have. Demba Ba or players like that are the center of the team. But in Korea it’s more like a team. About J League, I really didn’t watch too many games, but I’ve heard [about it]. And you can see it with the national side. Japan has a good national side with possession and technique, but Koreans are really tough to play against. The intensity’s really high here.

You’ve both talked a bit about that next level, do you think K-League does a good job of preparing players for that? For the international stage?

TM: Of course. Professional trainings are good, the league is good, it’s challenging.

VJ: I think that also. Because you have everything at a big level here. The stadiums are great, the clubhouses, everything you have is really nice, and the players also are very professional. I speak a lot with Oršić now in China, and he said Chinese players are not half as professional as Korean players. They’re a little bit fatty, they don’t run a lot. So, this is a really high level of working hard. Preseason is really long and the player gets a good level of condition here, so it’s up to them and their quality if they can player a level up. International players, and Champions League, or something like that.

Don't forget to check out Part 1 to hear Jugo and Tomi's thoughts on FIFA likenesses, moving away from home, K-League's reputation in Europe, not having an official translator on the team, an over-reliance on Oršić, and what's caused this summer's surge.

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