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Writers Chat: Jeonbuk Motors vs Jeonnam Dragons Preview

K League Match Preview and Prediction: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs Jeonnam Dragons The first Jeolla Derby of 2017 sees both sides come in with a litany of question marks ahead of the new season. Can the promising young talent on Jeonnam lead them to the top of the table? Are Jeonbuk's newcomers strong enough to keep them in title contention despite so many departures this off season? Jeonbuk columnist Matthew Binns and I go over this and some off-field issues ahead of Week 1.
(header images via hyundai-motorsfc.com and facebook.com/dragonsfc)

Matthew Asks, Ryan Answers

Matthew Binns: Jeonnam’s post-summer surge last season saw them gatecrash the top half in time for the split and then quickly run out of steam once their top flight status was secure. Do you think that the team can go one step further this time and be the outside pick to claim one of the elusive Champions League spots?

Ryan Walters: This year's edition of Classic is easily the most difficult to pick in my time covering the league and nearly anything seems possible... so... sure, why not? Of the four teams that finished above the Dragons in 2016 (Ulsan, Jeju, Jeonbuk, FC Seoul), two arguably took a step back. Seoul look a shell of their 2016 selves thus far in ACL, and Jeonbuk lost a ton of quality. Add in the fact that Jeonnam managed to beat both Ulsan and Jeju last year and on paper it certainly seems possible to finish in the top three and earn an ACL spot. It's a cliche in football for a reason, and I'll repeat it again: consistency will be key for Jeonnam. They can't afford their usual slow start to the season and depend on a summer surge to propel them to relevance yet again. If they're serious about ACL this year, then they need to come out strong and beat the top teams. Sunday provides a perfect opportunity to get the season kicked off properly with a win over their Northern rivals.

MB: In your season preview, you spoke about Jeonnam having moved on some of the players that were impeding the progression of younger, brighter talent. Of these starlets, who are you hoping shines the most this season?

RW: There are a few to pick from in the midfield, but Han Chan-hee is at the top of the list. A central attacking midfielder is key to Jeonnam maintaining the 3-4-3 they had so much success with last season, and that spot is there for Han to take over. Veteran Vedran Jugović is returning to anchor the midfield and is capable of playing CAM, but has told me multiple times he prefers to play more of a defensive midfield role while only occasionally moving forward. Add this to the fact that veteran defenders Hyun Young-min and Choi Hyo-jin man the wings and the 3-4-3 can often wind up playing like a 5-2-3 with a deep lying CDM. Han's pace and vision could be the key to break out of this overly-defensive setup and shuttle the ball to the attacking line. His ability to go directly at defenders or pick out the smart pass will keep the ball on the ground and make it easier to utilize the team's overall strength of speed. Han will likely split minutes with fellow young attacking midfielder Heo Yong-joon to start the season, but that's fine. Han is still only 19 years old and will have growing pains, but with 1,100 minutes already under his belt expect him to make strides in his sophomore season.

MB: How do you envisage Jeonnam lining up to accommodate some of their new acquisitions?

RW: Though they broke away from it at the very end of the season, but I'd expect the Dragons to revert back to the 3-4-3 they had so much success with and for it to look like this:
Look for them to exploit the wings with Jair and Ahn Yong-woo's pace or a Choi Hyo-jin overlap and then get in crosses to newcomer Feczesin.

MB: Are there any areas of uncertainty coming into this match that may cause a problem for Jeonnam?

RW: This is a largely unchanged side from the regular starting XI that got Jeonnam their 5th place finish last season, so there aren't a ton of question marks surrounding them. However, whether or not 37-year-old Hyun Young-min still has it in him to cover the ground necessary on the left side of the 3-4-3 is yet to be seen. He did well enough last season, but tended to go overly defensive which meant Kim Young-wook would often get pulled too far outside leaving the middle exposed. Youngster Lee Seul-chan is the heir apparent for this position, so it will be interesting to see how long that transition takes and whether or not Hyun's legs force the move sooner than later.

MB: The last time these two teams met here, neutrals were treated to an exciting 2-2 draw. What can we expect this time around?

RW: Unlike years past, Jeonbuk didn't have ACL for the team to gel and get their shooting boots on before the start of the K League season. Additionally, Jeonnam didn't take their usual trip to Thailand for preseason and instead played against the likes of Guangzhou Evergrande and showed well. Those two things combined should help the Dragons and level the playing field a bit against a team they truly struggle to beat. I'm going to say it won't necessarily be the most beautiful football we've ever seen, but considering both teams are leaning on the offense to carry the load, there should be some goals in it.

Predicted Score: Jeonbuk Motors 1-2 Jeonnam Dragons

Ryan Asks, Matthew Answers

Ryan Walters: Let's start with the important stuff: kits. There's been quite a bit of upheaval about this year's Jeonbuk kit and the addition of so much blue. The Mad Green Boys have gone as far as to boycott the kit all together and refuse to buy it. Where do you weigh in on this? Is it a smack in the face to tradition or is it simply a team trying something new with their design? 
Matthew Binns: The kit has been ridiculed mostly because of it's pandering to Jeonbuk's parent company Hyundai Motors and the automotive firm's marketing department. Not only does it incorporate it's blue from the Hyundai logo, it is also a corporate, cookie cutter design with its V-shape styling on the back being a replica of the 2017 kit for Korean baseball side KIA tigers (also owned by Hyundai Motors). The fans rightly feel this is a move away from the traditional green, a colour Jeonbuk has written all of it's history in, and thus ignoring the club's identity with the aim to sell the latest cars. For me personally, I think it's one kick in the teeth too many. As a Jeonbuk fan, I feel I have not been properly apologised to for last year's bribery debacle and the subsequent exclusion from the ACL. Supporters have also had to accept the sale of key players with underwhelming replacements coming in. Hyundai Motors should be doing everything they can to keep the only people who have continued to back them on side, yet this kit is a hideous misjudgment and takes the fans support for granted.

RW: Right or wrong, the decision to exclude Jeonbuk from this year's AFC Champions League is obviously quite final. This isn't the club's preference, but with fewer match days and much less travel, will their K League campaign be easier this year? How will this affect Choi Kang-hee's squad rotation?

MB: It was a personal gripe of mine last season that Choi Kang-hee let the title slip in the final six games thanks partly due to playing a significantly weakened squad for two of the fixtures. Jeonbuk did win the Champions League however, although I still think the players could have handled a couple more matches and claimed the title also. With less games, there certainly should be less reason to change things so team cohesion should benefit. That said, the K League title winners are nearly always competing in the ACL during a chunk of the season so its questionable how much of a difference no continental football makes.

RW: You touched on this in your Season Preview, but there were a lot more notable names in the "out" section of the Transfer Tracker. ACL hero Leonardo, team captain Kwoun Sun-tae, Lee Jong-ho, and Lee Ho all hit the exit. Are their replacements strong enough to keep Jeonbuk at the top of the table?

MB: Jeonbuk decided to focus their spending on bolstering their defence and they have done well in regards to this. If they had won the title last season, they would have done so being the champions with the most conceded goals in the last five years, despite having the best defensive record last season. Given how many leads they lost as well which resulted in draws (11), it was an area that needed addressing. However, it is the lack of attacking options brought in that concerns me most. Eder Luiz is probably the stand out buy and was a key figure in Daegu's promotion bid last season. Mazola does not inspire me with confidence though, with his CV reading like that of many failed K League Brazilians who have come before him. Hopefully we see players on the edges of the squad step up, such as the promising Ko Moo-yeol who had an underwhelming season last year when compared to standards he set himself at Pohang, in addition to Lee Seung-gi who also returned from the army towards the end of last season yet had no space to squeeze back in to the line up.

RW: Going back to non-player issues, what's going on with the horrible patch work field at Jeonju Civic Stadium? How much do you expect these dreadful conditions to affect the game on Sunday?
MB: It is quite embarrassing frankly. Following on from your first question, Jeonbuk launched their new kit at a fan day, also inviting supporters to take a look at their temporary home. Fans were immediately angered to see that turf had not even been laid despite the season kicking off in two weeks time. This week, photos of the pitch's development have leaked and it seems that old, darkened grass has been poorly laid in squares. I am not a groundsman so I cannot say with conviction that it will not be fine, but it certainly does not look good and the uproar seems justified. As for the game itself, fortunately Choi Kang-hee has the personnel to deploy an ugly aerial game plan so Kim Shin-wook should be in his element. I am more concerned that players from both sides may get seriously injured across the ninety minutes due to the club's oversight.

RW: On paper the Dragons have quite the potent offense heading into this match with Jair and Ahn Yong-woo returning to man the wings, and new striker Róbert Feczesin up the middle. Add in the creative and occasionally threatening Han Chan-hee to the midfield and Jeonbuk will have a lot to handle. Our KLU comrade Duncan Elder thinks Hong Jeong-nam is going to win the Golden Glove this year, but I personally have my doubts. How do you see Hong playing in this match and how will he organize his defense to stall the Jeonnam attack?

MB: I think the manager will likely set out his stall in a similar manner to that which we saw in the Club World Cup; a 5-3-2 formation relying on the wing backs to supply the crosses and three centre backs to keep it tight. Shin Hyung-min will also play DM and will likely drop back to help out when the wing backs advance. Choi also deployed this tactic in pre-season, although since then he has signed Mazola and Eder Luiz so does have the personnel to switch back to the successful 4-1-4-1 from last year if he so chooses. As for the keeper, Hong Jeong-nam managed to show flashes of quality in his unanticipated Club World Cup adventure, but he was also responsible for conceding Club America's winning goal that saw Jeonbuk have to make do with a 5th place play-off. For all his faults, Choi Kang-hee has shown faith when it comes to keepers, as evidenced by Kwoun Sun-tae. With all the quality K League keepers at the start of the window either now taken (Shin Hwa-yong) or apparently not moving anywhere (Kim Dong-jun), Choi Kang-hee is probably right to play and develop his reasonable reserve keeper than go out and panic buy.

RW: Prediction?

MB: I think that, considering the poor quality of the pitch, Jeonbuk's unconvincing attack, and Jeonnam's strengthened squad, the Asian champions could find it difficult to overcome their local rivals. With that in mind, I will go for an ugly yet entertaining score draw. 1-1

Jeolla Derby Meet and Greet

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