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Preview: FC Seoul vs Gangwon FC


Coming off a shock home loss to second division side Busan IPark in the FA Cup, Seoul welcome the team directly below them in the K League Classic standings, Gangwon FC. Having already been knocked out of two competitions and currently five points off the top spot, the capital club is in desperate need of a win. 
(image via fcseoul.com)

Overview

(form in all competitions via soccerway.com)


And Then There Was One

Having been mathematically eliminated from the ACL long ago and now out of the FA Cup after a shocking 8-7 Penalty Shootout loss to Busan IPark, Seoul are down to just one competition for 2017. It could be argued the lack of matches and squad rotation are a good thing, but this is a team that's failed to find its footing in any competition and is still in need considerable adjustments to even break back into the top three in the league. Manager Hwang Sun-hong fielded what was essentially an A Squad in spite of facing a lower division opponent on home soil and made his team's intentions very clear: Seoul wanted this one. Veteran striker Park Chu-young was given the keys to the offense and was flanked by K League assist leader Yun Il-lok and Lee Sang-ho. Ju Se-jong was in the middle of the pitch to cover defensively and spread the ball around, Osmar anchored the back line, and (regrettable) usual number 1 Yoo Hyun was in net. The spine of the night's team seemed more than capable of handling even the best of Challenge sides in the comfort of their own building... but they just never got up for it.

Seoul defended corners and set pieces better than they had in recent league matches, and held a clean sheet through 120 minutes, so the blame can't really be placed on those in the back. Instead, in what's become a notoriously regular occurrence, the midfield and attackers looked utterly and completely bereft of ideas. The late substitutions of Dejan in the 65th and promising youngster Yoon Seung-won
in the 89th showed again how badly Seoul wanted to advance in this tournament, but were unfortunately too little too late. The team simply couldn't find the cohesion needed to break down the resolutely defensive tactics put in place by Busan manager Cho Jin-ho and the Challenge side got exactly what they wanted: an ugly road win after forcing Seoul to extra time.

Identity Yourself

If Dejan looks tired in the photo at the top it's not because he was winded. It's because the entire weight of this team rests on that man's shoulders and it's becoming too much. The Macedonian striker remains tied for the lead in the Golden Boot race and is trying his best to drag this team up the table, but what's been clear from the off season is now on full display: he can't do this alone. And aside from Dejan doing Dejan things and being the target man he's always been, there is absolutely zero identity to this team.

The armband being tossed around from Kwak Tae-hwi to Osmar to Park Chu-young has left the squad directionless and in search of a leader. The opportunity was given to Park when he could have (and should have) taken a lower division team by the scruff of the neck in FA Cup and proved why he's the man to lead this team through a tough 2017. Instead the former Monaco standout was almost entirely invisible. He never looked interested in his defensive responsibilities and instead shrugged them off onto the midfield. He jogged for several balls over the top he could have chased down. Most importantly, he failed to frequently - if ever - hold the ball up and control the pace of play as the lone striker in a 3-4-3. Combine his inability to fit into the system or even look interesting in attacking the ball with just two converted penalties and a lucky bounce against Sangju serving as his only K League tallies this year, and it may well be time to ship him out. This is a team continually being forced to play to Park's abilities (or apparently lack thereof) and it's not only hindered the offense, but it's left them wanting some sort of identity of who they are. For a short time they appeared to be the team that won ugly, but won nonetheless. Now that they've crashed out of ACL and FA Cup, and have just two wins in eight in the league, that status has been removed. Which begs the question: what is this team? They need to figure it out soon, or they can forget about Champions League in 2018.

Formations... Again

One of the things that can help clarify things is switching formations from the undoubtedly ineffective 3-4-3 Hwang just won't move away from. Yes, it's worked for Antonio Conte at Chelsea. Bully for him. Seoul isn't Chelsea. It's time for Hwang to stop looking to the EPL champions and look at his own locker room and line his men up based on the skills they have. Seoul doesn't have a N'Golo Kanté to dominate the midfield and keep things moving between the two halves of the field, and forcing the team to play like they do is destroying movement. Like most K League teams employing the 3-4-3, Seoul's more often plays like a 5-2-3 with the wingbacks regularly pinned too far behind the ball when defending. Their defensive responsibilities then leave them too far back to truly be involved on the break unless they run the ball all the way up themselves. And as much as Kim Chi-woo may want to do that, it simply hasn't worked.

I'm well aware I'm beating a dead horse here, but it's beyond time for Seoul to switch to a four man backline and close down the center of the pitch with a CDM playing directly in front of them. The change would help close down the wings where Seoul's been burned for pace and would also put a permanent body in the middle to shore up the shoddy defending on crosses and set pieces to the middle. Additionally, a 4-3-3 can still have five back nearly at all times, but the two wide midfielders won't have nearly as much defensive responsibilities and can not only take place in counterattacks, but actually lead them. More importantly it would better play to the team's strengths. Both Lee Seok-hyun and Ju Se-jong's strengths in the midfield allowing them to roam forward more freely. It also allows a three pronged attack to continue, but one with some actual support behind it. I'd love to see the change happen... but I won't be holding my breath for it.

The Adversary

The other Classic side eliminated from the FA Cup by a Challenge team, Gangwon won't be heading to Sangam in the best of moods. After fielding questions of their ill fated foreign signing "Serginho" having what turned out to be a fake Syrian passport for weeks, Gangwon then went and lost to Seongnam FC, the team that dragged the whole debacle back into the light. The bears will be looking to quickly move on from that bitter defeat and get back to league play, where they've been faring quite well of late. After suffering from its truly poor conditions early in the year, Alpensia Ski Jump Stadium has actually treated Gwangwon well recently and seen them pick up back to back 2-1 wins in the shadows of the jumps. The back to back wins were their first since April and have been good enough to bump them up to 7th, just one spot behind Seoul and the coveted Championship Round spots. We're a long way off from the split, but a rare road win for Gangwon would see them leapfrog Seoul and potentially into the thick of the ACL places. Moreover, a win at Seoul World Cup Stadium could be the spark this team needs to truly kick their season into gear and cause the ruckus they were hoping to when they made so many splashy signings in the winter.

Who To Watch

While there are others like Lee Keun-ho and Diego Maurício who will likely be in and around the goal, I'm personally keeping an eye on 22-year-old Vietnamese international Lương Xuân Trường. He's yet to log a single minute for Gangwon in the league this year, but got the nod Wednesday night in FA Cup and should be primed for at least a sub spot this weekend. Once hailed as the potential "key to Korea and Japan becoming the intermediate step for Southeast Asia's top talent" by Asian football expert John Duerden for FourFourTwo, Trường has fallen on hard times injury wise and simply being selected. With Gangwon slightly stagnant in the midfield, this could be the chance the youngster's been waiting for since coming to Korean shores. Aside from wanting to see K League become a logical next step for ASEAN talent, it would also be great simply to see a promising young star come good. The kid can tear apart a midfield on his day, and while I hope he doesn't do that well this weekend, it would be nice to see that potential realized in a league needing as many dynamic players as possible.

Prediction

Not one for the casual fan, this match promises to be an ugly, low scoring affair. Both Seoul and Gangwon came into the season with a lot of hype and high hopes only to have them dashed by poor performances on the field. At this point in the season, they both just need a win, no matter how ugly. Unfortunately, I don't see either of them walking away too happy.

FC Seoul 1-1 Gangwon FC


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