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Writers' Chat: FC Seoul vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

2016's title contenders face off this Sunday at Seoul World Cup Stadium in very different circumstances than last year. While Jeonbuk are the number one team yet again, Seoul have fallen farther than any preseason predictions could have placed them. Another lackluster home performance Sunday may push them too far from contention for the final 2018 Champions League spots. Can Seoul pull off a shock win and get their season going? I spoke with our Jeonbuk columnist Matthew Binns about this weekend's marquee matchup and what will happen. 

Ryan Asks,  Matthew Answers

Ryan Walters: Having played the first half of the season in a temporary home stadium, Jeonbuk have proven amazingly versatile and road matches don’t seem to phase them in the slightest. Aside from the shock loss to Gwangju FC earlier this year, Jeonbuk have gone undefeated away from Jeonju. How much of that has to do with Choi Kang-hee’s lineup tinkering?

Matthew Binns: Choi Kang-hee has only drastically changed the usual line up away from home twice, employing a 5-3-2 formation both times, and coming away with two underwhelming draws against Incheon United and Gangwon FC. For most of their trips elsewhere, Jeonbuk have stuck to primarily a 4-1-4-1 (or the similarly shaped 3-4-3 vs Suwon). There has not been too much rotation as, for most of the season, there has been too many injuries to do so, although not having additional commitments has certainly made this situation more manageable. So to answer your question, I think a combination of consistency, a counter attacking set up and a sturdy defence have helped Jeonbuk look so strong on both home and away fronts. To his credit, the manager's surprising lack of tinkering is perhaps one of the biggest factors assisting this team at present.

RW: With Yoon Bit-garam now on his way back to Jeju instead of Jeonbuk and the likely departure of Lee Jae-sung, who are the key players to watch in the midfield? 

MB: If reports were to be believed, Jeonbuk did well to steer clear of Yoon Bit-garam given the absurd fee he and his club was requesting for a half season loan. He is a good player, but he has not exactly been playing European football like Kim Bo-kyung or Kim Jin-su had before. As for Lee Jae-sung, it would not be a transfer window without rumours of him heading to pastures new and shiny. However, if rumours are to be believed, Kim Bo-kyung's departure finally frees up funds to offer Lee a lucrative new contract from the relative pittance he is on compared to a number of his teammates.

Other than Lee Jae-sung, Lopes is now on the mend and beginning to get minutes once more. He is a player that FC Seoul will be all too familiar with after him and Leonardo tore them apart on several occasions last season. Whilst he regains match sharpness though, it is worth also giving a nod to Jeong Hyeok, who has been doing an admirable job in the centre of the park when Lee Jae-sung was injured, and seemingly so now that Kim Bo-kyung has left.

RW: If Jeonbuk wasn’t already starting to distance themselves from the rest of the pack enough, Edu has had a resurgence of late and is yet another attacker for Seoul to consider. Is this a true rejuvenation or a flash in the pan?

MB: Some misinformed fool on this website had been claiming his goals were all tap-ins until Wednesday night. I hold my hands up and admit I may have been too hasty to write his recent goals off as giftable. Given Jeonbuk have struggled for an attacker, it is evident that no striker had been finding those kind of opportunities easy this season. He is finally getting in the right place at the right time, which has bred the confidence within him to pull off a goal like he did against Pohang on Wednesday; shaking off his defender, dribbling the ball into the box and driving it low under the diving keeper. The Edu who returned last season did not have the belief in himself to do something like that. It's hard to tell if its a full rejuvenation yet but, if he is scoring, then long may his run in the team continue. I doubted that I would ever say it again, but I genuinely hope to see him start on Sunday. 

RW: With Jeonbuk having only two games conceding two or more goals this season, it seems Seoul will have to make it three if they want a win. Are there any weaknesses in Jeonbuk’s otherwise remarkable defense?

MB: Quite frankly, no. Last season I bemoaned a number of players in the back line, but this season they look incredibly well drilled and versed. Besides the regrettable Jeju match, the rest of the teams in the top half have only found the net three times against this Jeonbuk side, and even two of those were penalties. For Sunday, three of the four defenders will be Choi Kang-hee's first choice, with wing back Lee Yong still injured and likely to be replaced by Choi Chul-soon, a man who AFC Champions League Player of 2016 Omar Abdulrahman still sees stalking him when he closes his eyes at night. Even our youngest defender, 20 year-old Kim Min-jae, has had a remarkable season at centre back and is a player the manager has praised as the best youngster he has seen at the club since Lee Jae-sung a few years ago.

That said, if there will be any weakness, it will be when Jeonbuk are going forward as they rely heavily on the participation of their wing-backs in their attacking build up. Shin Hyung-min does admittedly drop back to cover, but if Jeonbuk slip up in their attack, a quick counter could catch them disorganised.

RW: Prediction?

MB: This match is always one I dislike predicting as it is hard to separate my emotions from the occasion, but in this instance I feel quietly confident. FC Seoul look dire by their own standards, with what I feel is mostly their manager to blame. They are still putting up a fight when the players deem it matters (see Suwon Bluewings), and may have some eager debutants on Sunday, but for too many players their heads looked to have dropped at the lack of silverware on offer this year, making them potential easy pickings for Jeonbuk. The visitors are always up for this clash, none more so since the gut-wrenching climax of last season. I imagine Jeonbuk to smell blood and go for the kill, much to the home support's dismay.

Matt's Predicted Score: FC Seoul 0-2 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

Matthew Asks, Ryan Answers

Matthew Binns: Well this is certainly a contrast from last season’s title race! Even with a faltering start to proceedings, no one would predict that the reigning K League champions would be in such a lowly position in the table come July, as well as out of the all other competitions. Do you think the manager’s position should be called into question?

Writer 1: When Seoul's hapless Champions League campaign finally came to a close, I said Hwang would and should get some time. After all, he had the capital club in contention for three trophies last year and managed to bring home the league title. However, as you said, they've now been eliminated from both ACL and FA Cup, and in rather exasperating circumstances both times. While some of the players have fallen flatter than expected (Park Chu-young), we're far enough into the season to question the man steering the ship over player performances. Seoul have won just two of their last ten, and had a number of shock losses to Daegu and Sangju in that mix. Based solely on the talent on each team's roster, Seoul should have won both of those matches, but there's a lack of grit on this team that seems to be stemming from the top down. As I said in the Jeonnam preview, it doesn't seem as though there are many on this team that even care whether they win or lose. And that is definitely something that falls on the manager's shoulders. All of this before even getting into his poor tactical choices that exploit the teams weaknesses instead of promoting its strengths. The three man back line experiment lasted for far too long and cost the team far too many points. So, long story short, if Seoul lose yet again at home this weekend, then Hwang should be feeling the pressure. If not just let go before an ACL place is out of reach.

MB: FC Seoul have been busy however, bringing in two signings from the Middle East in a bid to arrest their fall. What do you believe Lee Myung-joo and Khaled Shafiei will bring to the table?

RW: If K-League fans didn't already know Lee Myung-joo from his time in the league, then they're likely familiar with him from his appearances and goal in the 2016 ACL Final vs Jeonbuk. Lee won't be an exact match for the box to box play the team got out of Japanese International Yojiro Takahagi last season, but Lee combined with the recently returned Ha Dae-sung should certainly cover enough ground. With the team finally shifting away from the three man back line that had hampered them for so long, most of the defensive responsibilities in the midfield will shift to the former captain Osmar. Ha can then focus on transition and distribution, leaving Lee available as an outlet or another option in Seoul's otherwise anemic attack. Lee seems to play better as a distributor of the ball, but given the lack of options at Seoul, he will likely need to step up on his own to make things happen.

Though I still question why Seoul chose to bring in a center back when scoring has been an issue all season, the aforementioned shift in midfield is only possible if there's a capable center back to replace Osmar. Enter Khaled Shafiei. The 29 year old will become the first Iranian to play in K League possibly as soon as Sunday evening and by all accounts will be the lock down defender Seoul needs in front of a young keeper. The combination of Khaled, Kwak Tae-hwi, and Osmar up the middle should help shore up Seoul's shakiness on crosses and set pieces. Additionally, with Khaled's addition and Osmar moving back to his preferred CDM, that provides more cover for fullbacks like Kim Chi-woo to get up the wings and become another option in attack. The additions of both Khaled and Lee solidify an already decent defense and also give Seoul a few more options moving forward. While these two both seem to be solid gets, the rest of the transfer window needs to be about giving the team more final options that aren't named Dejan.

MB: Seoul have struggled to score this season, whilst their opponents on Sunday boast the best defence in the league. How will the home side look to break Jeonbuk’s resolve?

RW: How this team will score has been the question all season long, and they still don't have an answer. Dejan's doing what he can with 8 goals, but with Park Chu-young disappearing more often than scoring, the 35-year-old Montenegrin has been forced to do everything on his own and it's proven too much. Defenses are simply double or triple teaming Dejan and daring the rest of Seoul to step up. It's a strategy that's worked well for opposition all year and one I fully expect Jeonbuk to employ Sunday night. To break the stagnation Seoul need to try something different. I would like to see them adopt the 4-1-4-1 similar to Jeonbuk and play to their strengths. Dejan's already isolated up top, so the team may as well drop the facade of having attacking wingers. Aside from Yun Il-lok, the wing play has been ineffective all season long, and so the time has come to abandon it and play to the team's strength in midfield. Ha Dae-sung and Lee Myung-joo both have the ability to make intelligent runs in the attacking third and can potentially take some attention off Dejan in the middle of the pitch. Additionally, the switch to five true midfielders would force the team to stop bypassing them in favor of hoofing the ball up top and hoping. Instead of the panicked lob up the wing, the team could build slowly with short, smart passes from one capable midfielder to another until they find their opening. With Jeonbuk's defense arguably the best in K League, there's no way Seoul go toe to toe with them unless the home side can wear them down. The 4-1-4-1 could work well to maintain possession and create some tired legs late on for Seoul to potentially find a winner... assuming the back line can hold it close for 80-some minutes.

MB: With the implementation of VAR starting this weekend, do you think there’s a chance the heat could be taken out what can sometimes prove to be a hotly contested affair, and would this be a positive thing?

RW: Like a lot of the football viewing world, I'm still not quite sure how I feel about VAR. As an American baseball fan, I can tell you I'm not overly pleased with what instant replay has done to that game. Yes, officials are getting the calls right more often, but the pace of the game has become painstakingly slow. Also, where's the fun in officials getting every call right? Personally, I would rather see a nearly offside call get missed for a go ahead goal that will stoke the flames of a rivalry rather than taking the crowd, and - let's be honest - excitement out of the situation. One of the best things about football is that it doesn't have a break in the action. It's a marathon where players have to keep their focus for the full 90 minutes. VAR disrupts that fluidity and will inevitably take the heat out of what would otherwise be a moment fans can talk about for weeks, months or even years. Mistakes are part of the game and I'm personally in favor of leaving them in there.

MB: How do you see this match playing out?

RW: Seoul can't score and Jeonbuk doesn't concede. I want to say winning this could be the statement win this team needs to turn their season around, but I though that would've been the Super Match win at Suwon, and it wasn't. Fact is, Seoul seem a directionless team at the moment and Jeonbuk is one that's hunting down the title they felt robbed of last year. This has the potential to get ugly, but I think Seoul will keep it respectable.

FC Seoul 0-2 Jeonbuk Hyundai

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