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Writers Chat: Urawa Red Diamonds vs FC Seoul

FC Seoul got their ACL campaign off to a rough start losing 1-0 at home to Shanghai SIPG. Urawa Red Diamonds had no such issues pummeling Western Sydney Wanderers 4-0 in Australia. To preview another edition of the Korea vs Japan rivalry I spoke with Urawa Reds supporter and professional football coach Ryan Steele about Tuesday night's match up, if Seoul can fill the gaps left by recent departures, potential game breakers on Urawa, and why K League's done better than J League in ACL. 
(header images via japantimes.co.jp and facebook.com/fcseoul)

Ryan Walters Asks, Ryan Steele Answers

Ryan Walters: In their first ACL match this year Urawa traveled to Australia and wrecked Western Sydney Wanderers 4-0. On paper the scoreline suggests near perfection from Urawa, but taking a look at the highlights would suggest the Wanderers questionable defending was equally responsible. Do you see the victory more as a show of the Reds strength or the Wanderers weakness?

Ryan Steele: Given a number of things, I’d have to say it was some combination of both. The first half scoreline (0-0) suggests a more evenly matched encounter with a few attacking moments from Wanderers as well without really creating much in the way of chances, while Urawa wasn’t really able to capitalise on their attacks around the penalty area. The second half, though, was a much more comprehensive performance from Urawa, a lot more clinical and that was reflected in the quality of the goals scored within that 45 minute period. The quality of the Wanderers’ lineup suggests that they may have not been appropriately prepared for the match after their Sydney Derby from that weekend, but the game was already lost before they could start to make substitutions to swing it towards their favour.

RW: This midweek clash comes just four days before Urawa kick off their home J League campaign vs newly promoted Cerezo Osaka. With a seemingly weaker opponent scheduled at home to start the season, do you think the Reds will field a stronger lineup Tuesday night and play more reserves Saturday? Who are the key players manager Mihailo Petrović will center the lineup around?

RS: The first home game of the season is an important one for the club, but this season’ ACL has become equally important for all of the Japanese clubs. The defence will likely not be rotated, but this season’s signings have strengthened their attacking depth and it would be safe to expect some small changes between the matches up front and along the wings. Some of the key players will be the captain, Yuki Abe, and Shinzo Koroki, one of the talismans spearheading the attack.

RW: In a somewhat odd move, these two sides met in a friendly back on February 12th and saw it end in a 1-1 draw. What did Urawa learn about Seoul in that match and how do you think it will help them on Tuesday?

RS: The match was crucial for that last bit of fitness-building and to work out the connections between the players (noted by the mass changes at halftime from both teams). The biggest thing to take out of the match is that FC Seoul are strong starters capable of posing a threat to the back line and Urawa needs to be on their toes in the first half. A more aggressive start, like Urawa had in the second half of that match, will benefit the team immensely in trying to push Seoul into their defensive half and have more control over the proceedings.

RW: Though Seoul lost their opening ACL match 1-0 to Shanghai SIPG, they dominated possession 62%-38%. How important is maintaining possession to Urawa's offensive strategy? Are they fine absorbing pressure and hitting on the break? Is there one player on Urawa capable of winning a game for them like Hulk did for Shanghai last week?

RS: Possession is extremely important to Urawa’s attacking play, as the team likes to be able to circulate the ball through the lines while looking for an avenue to play forward. The one problem they have with that, however, is the difficulty in defensive transition and they can be hurt quite easily with a direct counterattack.

With less possession, so long as it’s not on the break, they have a specific structure that can slow down the opponent’s ball circulation and they will look to absorb pressure particularly through the centre of the pitch and can do so relatively effectively. One of the biggest questions will be how FC Seoul sets themselves up against Urawa, as they have the opportunity to dictate the play should they decide to do that.

One of Urawa’s newest signings, Rafael Silva, is probably the one player that would be tagged as somebody that could take the game by the scruff of its neck and get something out of it. He had an impact in his first outing with the team, scoring the fourth goal in Sydney, and is known in the J.League as one of the more threatening players with his pace and direct approach. He’s a tricky player and, when the team is struggling, will be likely to seek mistakes from defenders to earn free kicks and penalties.

RW: Score prediction?

RS: Given the home advantage and a more-integrated side since the friendly earlier this month, I’m optimistic Urawa could get a 2-1 result similar to how they edged Seoul in the first leg of last year’s Round of 16 encounter.

FIFA 17 Preview

Here's a look at what Marc Guay's FIFA 17 simulation predicted.

Ryan Steele Asks, Ryan Walters Answers

Ryan Steele: FC Seoul were competitive across each competition last season, making it to the final and semifinal of the Korean FA Cup and AFC Champions League respectively and winning the K-League Classic by virtue of Jeonbuk’s points deduction. Do FC Seoul fans and K-League supporters in general believe the team can go further this year?

Ryan Walters: Going further would require multiple trophies and I don't think many of us following K League closely think this Seoul side is capable of that. Namely because goal scoring is a huge question mark for the team right now. Adriano, who led all scorers in Champions League last year with 13 goals, departed for Chinese League One side Shijiazhuang Ever Bright FC and that gaping hole has yet to be properly filled. In the four matches Seoul has played in 2017, they've mustered all of one goal. Granted, three of those matches were in the preseason friendly Lunar New Year Cup and didn't mean much, but being shut out at home in ACL didn't alleviate any concerns. Luckily for Seoul, they're still strong at the back with newly minted captain Kwak Tae-hwi anchoring the backline with help from the steady Kim Chi-woo and Spaniard Osmar sitting right in front of them. Should Seoul make another move this transfer window and bring in a proper striker, then they're well setup to repeat 2016's successes and possibly push further. However, without reinforcements up top, they likely won't find their way out of this ACL group of death.

RS: With the K-League still a week from kickoff and only one competitive match over the month in their first round ACL match against Shanghai SIPG, is match fitness a concern going into this encounter? How much did that play into the result in round one?

RW:  The lack of proper match fitness was something Paul Neat and I discussed quite a bit during our pregame chat and during the match itself vs Shanghai. It was always going to be a big ask for Seoul to hit the ground sprinting having their first competitive match of the year come against one of China's strongest teams, and it showed on the field. Though they were set up in their usual 3-4-3, both Osmar and Kim Chi-woo play far more defensively and resulted in the shape feeling more like a 5-2-3 with little cohesion in the midfield. This time of year is usually about sorting out that issue in midfield and how to get the new attacking core to work together, but playing in ACL doesn't allow that luxury. I wouldn't say it's match fitness so much as the old cliche of "gelling" that will still be affecting Seoul when they head to Saitama Stadium Tuesday night.

RS: FC Seoul’s activity has seen some changes to their attacking stock, with Adriano and Yojiro Takahagi leaving and Lee Sang-ho and Maurinho coming in seemingly as direct – or as close to direct – replacements. How does this change FC Seoul’s approach and does the loss of the two foreigners leave the big shoes to fill that many believe to be the case?

RW: For me Adriano and Takahagi were Seoul's best players last year and two of my favorite to watch in the league. Adriano fell off a bit both domestically and in ACL later in the year as his desire to be on the pitch noticeably wanned, but he was still a goal machine. As previously mentioned, he led all ACL scorers last year with 13, and he led Seoul domestically with 17 to his name. Additionally, he would've had more had he not been slapped with a deserved six match ban for elbowing a player in the face. I'm sure he wasn't always a ton of fun for manager Hwang Sun-hong to deal with, but he produced on the field at a rate few can in K League, so his presence up top is going to be sorely missed. Especially when considering former rival Lee Sang-ho came over from Suwon Bluewings having only scored 18 in his previous five seasons combined. Granted, Lee is more of a winger and not expected to be the type of goalscorer Adriano was, but it again begs the question of where the goals are going to come from.

In the midfield, I've scarcely seen a true general like Takahagi on any continent. Whether playing more of a true number six, or taking on an attacking role, Takahagi nearly always found himself in the right place at the right time and making the correct decision (aside from his red card in the FA Cup Final... but we won't focus on that). One of the main reasons the 3-4-3 worked so well for Seoul last year was because of Takahagi's presence in the midfield and his ability to either shield the defense from attacks or shuttle the ball up field to the strikers. Having watched him closely at Jeonnam last season, I can assure you Maurinho is not that type of player. He's quite good with the ball at his feet, but was unable to find his way into 5th place Jeonnam's starting XI with any regularity due to a lack of versatility. If Seoul's plan is to play him as more of an attacking winger opposite of Lee Sang-ho, then he may find a groove up there, but if he's being tasked with replacing Takahagi's role from 2016, he's doomed to fail.

With Lee and Maurinho failing to be like-for-like replacements for two of Seoul's most crucial players from last year, Hwang may be forced to shift the team's formation to the 4-4-2 they occasionally used last year. This would likely see Dejan Damjanović and Park Ju-young taking on the offensive load while Lee and Maurinho dropped back into more of a true midfield role. It will be interesting to see how Seoul takes the field vs Urawa and if Hwan sticks with the 3-4-3 for another match or switches things up after failing to score with the newcomers in the lineup.

RS: K-League teams have won a number of ACL titles over recent years, while 2008 was the last year for a Japanese side, who have been criticised heavily as not taking the tournament seriously for a variety of reasons. With this year showing a serious state of intent from the Japanese clubs and the JFA putting pressure on them to be more successful in the tournament, what could they learn from the Korean teams? Is it just a matter of showing intent?

RW: Intent is all well and good, but I think the number of Korean teams that have taken home the title has more to do with financials than anything else. In a recent debate on Twitter, fellow columnist Jae Chee tweeted out a screenshot of the rewards each K League trophy earns.  The 2016 K League title netted FC Seoul ₩500 million, or roughly $435,000. Meanwhile, Jeonbuk lost the league title but netted $3 million for winning ACL. That $2.6 million difference in revenue would certainly be enough for me to prioritize ACL over K League if I were in the front office this year, and I think it's the same for a lot of the bigger clubs here in Korea. Other than getting a star above the crest, there really isn't anywhere near as much incentive to win the league as there is to win ACL.

By this logic, the recent Japan Times article that revealed the J League winner will receive roughly $14 million won't do much to incentivize J League teams. Sure there's a lot of pride to be had being the champions of Asia, but as ESPN FC's Michael Church rightly questioned with this much money on offer at home will Japanese teams prioritize ACL? The $11 million difference is enough to fund an academy for a few years, build new facilities, or bring some truly big name players to Japan. Unless they're well out of the running for J League, I just can't see many Japanese teams truly prioritizing ACL over the domestic campaign with that large of a financial difference.

RS: Score Prediction for Tuesday?

RW: After seeing them in person I'm still not convinced Seoul has many goals in them at the moment and Urawa has been scoring them by the bunches of late. Would love to see Seoul turn it around, but being on the road and still unsure of their current lineup seems too much to overcome.

Urawa Red Diamonds 2-0 FC Seoul

What are your thoughts and predictions? What do you think about J League and K League's incentives to win ACL? How do you see Tuesday night's affair playing out? Feel free to leave a comment below or join the conversation on Twitter.  

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