2016 Season Review: Jeonnam Dragons
An astounding summer run saw the Dragons claw their way into the Championship Round and guarantee their best overall finish since the 2009 season. For a team mired in the relegation battle as late as July, their 5th place finish is nothing short of astonishing. A late season collapse left a sour taste in the mouth, and pointed to plenty that needs to be worked on, but taking the long view the Dragons are on the rise.
What Went Well
Jeonnam's 8-4-3 run to end the season saw them leap from 11th place up to 4th on the backs of tremendous summer signings Jair and Mrčela, and the formation shift the two facilitated. In the back, the Dragons at long last had a lock down defender that allowed them to shift from a four man backline with no true CB to a 3 man line anchored by the towering Aussie. This allowed veterans Choi Hyo-jin and Hyun Young-min to move further out onto the wings and lessened their defensive responsibilities when frequently bombing up and down the channels. More to the point, Tomi's presence and organization stopped the glut of goals the Dragons had been conceding, and had goalkeeper Lee Ho-seung facing fewer and more predictable shots. On the offensive end, Jair was a man possessed upon his return to K-League. In just 20 appearances the Brazilian led the team with 10 goals playing both from the outside and as the false nine in the 3-4-3 the Dragons became taken with by season's end.
More than either player though, that formation (the 3-4-3) was the true star of Jeonnam's surprising season. The shift away from a target-striker-centric offense to a three man attack built on speed and keeping the ball on the ground made it much easier for the manager to plug and play with almost anyone off the bench. Relying on this consistency, manager Noh Sang-rae finally stopped trying to outsmart himself in a Jürgen Klinsmann-esk obsession with playing players out of position and constantly rotating the backline and settled into a formation that played to the team's strengths. Unsurprisingly, the team played better than the sum of their parts and provided a surplus of drama and excitement for the Gwangyang faithful.
What Didn't Go Well
I grew up with a few older siblings and more older cousins. When I would go out into the yard to play soccer, hockey, or whatever the sport of the day was and inevitably got walloped a bit, my mom would always tell me "if you can't play the big boys game, then don't play with the big boys." And aside from an affinity for striped socks, that's possibly the biggest thing Jeonnam and I have in common: an inability to play with the big boys without getting walloped. In four league matches vs the Champions (FC Seoul), the Dragons lost three and tied once. Jeonnam were outscored 9-4 over the four matches. The Dragons couldn't manage to do any better against their Jeolla rivals Jeonbuk, who they also went 0-1-3 against getting outscored 11-4. They did pick up a win vs 3rd place Jeju, but lost the other three meetings and were outscored 11-5 over four games. Make no mistake, those three teams are top of the table for a reason and they'll rightly represent Korea in next year's AFC Champions League, but if the Dragons are to make any strides domestically, they need an occasional win against the big boys to prove that their time at the top will not go unchallenged.
Three of those nine losses came at bitter end of the Dragons season when they couldn't get out of their own way long enough to take a shot on net. An indicator of a much bigger problem for Jeonnam: consistency. Continually losing to the top three clubs in the league is a problem, sure, but draws and even losses to the bottom feeders while in a prolonged slump is more alarming. Much like last year, Jeonnam's 2016 season was a pendulum that started ridiculously low with just one win in their first 13 matches. It then swung to amazing heights with the aforementioned summer run of eight wins in 13 before falling off a cliff in Championship Round. The talent is there for Jeonnam to compete for an ACL spot in 2017, but they'll need to find much more steady footing before making such a push.
An argument could be made for Mrčela and the changes he allowed the backline to take. Or for Jair and the offensive spark he provided. But the player with the most value to the 2016 Dragons was unquestionably the captain, Choi Hyo-jin. At 33 years of age the 12 year veteran led Jeonnam with 2,787 minutes played and tied for 4th most team goals with 3 to his name this season; his highest total since 2006. Obviously any goals a defender scores should be considered a bonus, but they come as little surprise from Choi who is the motor of this team both offensively and defensively. His work rate up and down the right touchline is unparalleled by any in the league and nearly nullify's an entire half of the field for opposing teams. With the switch away from a four man backline, Choi was given the freedom he deserves on the right side of a five man midfield. He was more freely able to roam forward and ping in pinpoint crosses or provide a much needed outlet for the speedy and talented, but often unwieldy Ahn Yong-woo. But, for as often as he bolted over the halfway line, Choi was rarely (if ever) caught out of position defensively and consistently provided a much needed shield in front of the three man backline that had a lot of ground to cover. Whether deployed as a true fullback or wingback, Choi continues to prove versatile and practically impossible to slow down. Additionally, the man has won every trophy on offer for a Korean side and simply knows how to win. It's a mentality that Jeonnam needed throughout their improbable summer run that had a slew of last minute come-from-behind victories from a club that easily may have hung their head and packed it in with a lesser leader at the helm.
Park Gi-dong was woeful in his short stint in a Dragons uniform in 2016. After netting 9 times for Sangju Sangmu this season while finishing up his military duty, the 28-year-old returned to Jeonnam and promptly scored zero. To be fair, Park only had 5 appearances for Jeonnam and that's a small sample size to judge. Additionally, coming into the team as late in the season as September and being expected to pick up where he left off in Sangju is absurd. However, Park simply looked lost. Bereft of ideas, clumsy with his first touch, and seemingly unaware that passing the ball was even an option. Perhaps more alarmingly, his return to Jeonnam after two years away allowed manager Noh Sang-rae to return to the seldom successful, but often used target-forward-centric offense that stalled with Stevo earlier in the season. Instead of sticking with the short passing ground game built around speed and controlling the midfield, Noh chose to center the offense around Park and the entire team fell off a cliff because Gi-dong simply wasn't up to snuff. The 1-1-4 run to end the season can't entirely fall on the Park-centered shift in offensive strategy... I mean... they allowed 15 goals in six matches, but that's where a lot of the blame needs to lie. Park's inability to hold the ball in the attacking half allowed opposition to counter almost at will and almost guaranteed the Dragons would lose the possession battle they were so frequently winning before his return. Additionally, by forcing the offense to hoof the ball to the big man and hope for a miracle, the entire midfield had the ball taken away from them and had far fewer chances to create anything on their own. Park will undoubtedly be on the Dragons opening day roster next season, but after his performance to end 2016, that spot should be firmly at the end of the bench until he proves otherwise.
Most Important Decision of the Off Season
It's not a matter of whether or not the Dragons should extend Jair after his one year contract expires at the end of this month, but how much it'll cost them. Arguably the signing of K-League's summer window, Jair's value to the team can't be questioned, but Jeonnam's ability and/or desire to pay him that value may be. With Stevo, Jeonnam proved they're not afraid to splash cash on a key offensive player, but those were different days for POSCO, the steel company that owns and operates the Dragons. The company isn't doing so hot right now and may well look to shave some salary by avoiding a big pay day this off season much like they did last year in dealing Gwangyang's own Lee Jong-ho to Jeonbuk before losing him on a free.