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Writers' Chat: Jeonnam Dragons vs FC Seoul

In familiar positions on opposite sides of the K League Classic dividing line, Jeonnam and FC Seoul face off for the third and final time in 2017. With both teams assured of their spot in the table post-split, I chatted with our Jeonnam columnist Aodan Halligan about what's gone wrong for each side this season, the unfortunate similarity of "cheerleader" sections, and what can be expected of these teams now and heading into next season.
(copy and paste image credits here)

Aodan Asks, Ryan Answers

Aodan Halligan: FC Seoul were involved in an entertaining game last time out, drawing 1-1 at home vs Pohang. However, Seoul's defense looked quite shaky, with players tripping, bunching up and misplacing routine passes. Was it just a bad day at the office as Seoul have the joint third best goals conceded in Classic (and 20 less than Jeonnam)? Or do you think the defending in general in the K-League has been poor this season?

Ryan Walters: Looking at the goals conceded from the end of the regular season last year doesn't show that drastically different of a picture than 2017. The five worst conceded records after 33 rounds in 2016 were held by Sangju (53), Suwon Bluewings (52), Suwon FC (51), Jeju United (50), and Seongnam (46). The amount conceded this year through 31 rounds is indeed a touch higher, but not by too much: Gangwon (55), Sangju (54), Jeonnam (54), Pohang (51), Gwangju (51). So it could be argued that defending on the whole has been poor this season, but I don't think it's by enough of a margin to make too much of it beyond teams needing to take a serious look at their goalkeepers in the off season.

As for Seoul specifically, their third best conceded mark band-aids over a reticent back line that has largely been bailed out by the stellar play of Yang Hanbin in net. As you rightly noticed, there are a lot of very simple things that often go awry and lead to chances that could easily be avoided. The bunching and lack of cohesion in general comes from a shortage of consistency and experience in the middle. After playing half the season with Osmar at center back, 22-year-old Hwang Hyunsoo has been getting the nod of late, but rarely with the same partner. Swapping frequently with the inefficient Kwak Taehwi and 25-year-old Kim Wongyun. Kwak should be the veteran presence that keeps the virtually untested Hwang in line, but has persistently been late to step to the ball, far too frequently out of position, and slow. Instead of showing the kid what to do, he's forcing the youngster out of position in an attempt to cover. Conversely, Hyunsoo/Wongyun pairing had a combined 557 minutes of experience last year... and it was all from Wongyun at then second division side Gangwon. The two are simply too green to be organizing the back line, but with Osmar rightly bumped back to his preferred CDM role to shield the defense, there aren't many alternatives at CB. Could certainly be a point of weakness for a poacher like Feczesin to exploit.

AH: Like the Jeonnam Dragons, Seoul have struggled for wins recently, with only one win in their last five matches. What's gone wrong and do you think that Seoul can claw their way back into Asian Champions League (ACL) contention and steal the remaining ACL spot from Suwon?

RW: Technically the ACL spot is still in contention with Suwon just four points away in 4th place. Leapfrogging their archrival is now Seoul's only hope at international football in 2018, and even that isn't a guaranteed spot. K League's 4th place team will only get an ACL birth if one of the teams above them lifts the FA Cup; which could happen with 3rd place Ulsan having already punched their ticket to the Final. So not only do Seoul need to close the points gap with the Bluewings, but they also need Ulsan to lift the FA Cup for the first time. It's not impossible, but as I wrote about recently, Seoul's inability to climb the table – and indeed win games they're instead drawing – comes down to a lack of motivation. There are too many players on the team that are content with mediocrity and playing for a big club. A few rivalry matches against Jeonbuk and Suwon after the split may light a spark under them, but by then it's quite possible it will be too little too late.

AH: Seoul's top-scorer, Dejan Damjanovic, was benched last weekend and only made an appearance late on. But the 36-year-old, who's had another stellar season in front of goal, can't be expected to play every three or four days. Of course, some of Seoul's other attackers like Park Chu-young and Yun Il-lok have chipped in with a few, but elsewhere on the team goals have been hard to come by. Do you think Seoul need to address this issue during the next transfer window and sign the likes of a few goal-scoring midfielders and a prolific striker as cover for Damjanovic? Also how long more can Damjanovic lead the line?

RW: Somehow Seoul have gone through two transfer windows and find themselves in the exact same situation they were in at the end of last season: in dire need of a second striker. They bet the farm on Park Chuyoung living up to the hype and it's failed entirely. His seven goals this year simply isn't good enough for someone cashing the sized checks he is, and it's even worse when considering three of those goals came from the spot. Luckily for the Seoul front office, Park's contract expires at season's end and if they have the fortitude to actually move on, it won't appear to be a harsh decision against a player with a surprisingly positive reputation among fans. Similarly, Dejan's contract expires at the end of the year, so whether or not he has the chance to lead the line next year is yet to be seen. As he's shown with his league second best 16 goals this year, he certainly still has plenty to give and has told us about his continual desire to lift the AFC Champions League trophy. So if Seoul don't finish in an ACL spot, they may lose a club legend and still have no replacement waiting in the wings.

AH: FC Seoul have taken 4 points out of a possible 6 in the two matches with the Jeonnam Dragons this season. How do you see this one going?

RW: While the Dragons certainly have the ability to score in bunches, they have only scored two or more twice since July. So even a shaky Seoul defense should be able to contain the damage and keep it close. I'd like to say there will be a winner in this one, but both team's inability to close out games seems too likely to haunt them both this weekend.

Jeonnam Dragons 1-1 FC Seoul


Ryan Asks, Aodan Answers

Ryan Walters: Before diving into the specifics too much, I’ve noticed a rather… upsetting trend watching games at Gwangyang Stadium on TV. It would seem POSCO has installed their own “cheering” section smack dab in the best seats complete with loudspeakers and thundersticks to even further detract from the supporters behind the net. Is this happening every game or just the ones on TV? How are fans reacting to it?

Aodan Halligan: The ‘rent a crowd’ policy has been in action for a couple of months and it does get annoying at times - especially when loyal supporters cannot sit in their favourite seats! To be honest, the idea probably goes back to the Under 20 World Cup that was held in Korea earlier this year. I was at the semi-final between England and Italy in Jeonju and there were hundreds of students sitting in seats that weren’t theirs. This only became apparent after people like me arrived with tickets and many were forced to relocate. Of course, there were lots of empty seats at the World Cup games as big companies snapped up the tickets early and once South Korea were eliminated, few locals were interested in the tournament. Thus, I guess the solution the organizers came up with involved inviting local students. The cheering section for Jeonnam consists of lots of students, too, and I expect the trend to continue, regardless of whether the Dragons are on TV or not. But this weekend could be different as the game is being played at Jeonnam’s second home, Palma Stadium, in Suncheon.

As for the fans’ reactions, I don’t think the locals are too bothered because the cheering area’s right beside the traditional POSCO supporters’ section anyway. However, some foreign fans are peeved. (Thank God you’re no longer residing here!) Yet, if given the choice, which would you prefer – a new seat and a ‘doped up’ cheering section, or your regular spot and swathes of empty seats?

RW: With just two games left before the split, the Dragons are in the familiar territory of a straightforward mid-table finish yet again. For a team that finished in the top half last year and had very real AFC Champions League ambitions the summer before that, is this season finally enough for them to move on from manager Noh Sangrae?

AH: In a word, yes.

It’s been a hugely disappointing season for the Dragons, and ultimately the buck stops with the head coach. But I believe, with the Dragons in freefall (no wins in their last eight games) and relegation strugglers like Incheon and Daegu showing big signs of improvement, the time for change is right now. I mean, I don’t like calling for anybody’s head and true the Dragons are in eighth place and just two spots below Gangwon in sixth, but, at the same time, just one point separates the Dragons from Incheon in 11th place (second bottom) now. And what does it take for the one-won coin to drop – demotion to the K-League Challenge?

RW: Heading into the season, I thought Jeonnam was well set up defensively to keep the team in close games. With 17 out of 31 games seeing two or more goals conceded, that clearly hasn’t been the case. The individual talent seems to be there with the likes of Choi Hyojin, Tomi Mrčela, and goalkeeper Lee Hoseung, but they’ve only held four clean sheets this year. What’s going wrong at the back and how do you think Seoul can set up to exploit it?

AH: On paper, as you correctly pointed out, the Dragons boast a decent defence. Tomi Mrčela is a competent central defender, Choi Hyo-jin has tons of experience and Lee Ho-seung, is one of the best goalkeepers in the league. But they play too high a defensive line and cannot deal with counterattacks, set-pieces or crosses. However, the problem’s not really the defenders; the team, in general, is set up too offensively and thus teams are scoring for fun against them.

FC Seoul, who are not the fastest on the counter, are strong in the air, especially with Dejan Damjonivic up top. So I think they need to send high balls his way as much as possible as time and time again the Dragons are undone this way.


At this stage, the hosts Jeonnam have no option but to go for the win really so I think they’ll throw everything at FC Seoul early. Yet even though the visitors, Seoul, have been struggling at home recently, their away record is quite good and they’ve only lost once on the road in their last seven games so any victory for the Dragons will be well earned.

Essentially, victory comes down to the teams’ firepower on the day as both sides will probably concede. And I believe if the Dragons dangermen, Jair  and Feczesin (who linked up beautifully for the second goal against Seoul last time out), bring their A-games, Seoul will be heading home with their ACL dreams in flames…

RW: Jeonnam have beaten Seoul in only seven of the 40 matches the two teams have played. Even though Seoul are a much weaker side this season than usual, Jeonnam picking up just their eighth victory over the defending champs would easily be their high water mark of an otherwise mediocre season. Do you see the Dragons going for the win or simply trying to contain? What do you see as the biggest key for Jeonnam if they’re going to claim all three points?

AH: Seoul have had the better of it in the meetings thus far this season, taking four points out of a possible six, but both of those games were close. In the most recent meeting at Gwangyang in June, the sides played out an entertaining 2-2 draw. Whereas, in the first meeting between the two sides at Seoul World Cup stadium in May, Seoul won courtesy of an Osmar strike from a corner (Jeonnam had a player off injured at the time).

I expect this Saturday’s game to be tight like the previous two and I think the Dragons can shock Seoul and keep up their good record in their second home (Gwangju were trashed five-nil there last time out ).

RW: Score Prediction?

AH: Jeonnam Dragons 3-2 FC Seoul


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