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Writers' Chat: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs FC Seoul

Last season's title contenders meet for a fourth and final time this year with Jeonbuk in a familiar position above Seoul in the table. Jeonbuk's win over Jeju last weekend all but secured their third title in four years, but a loss to Seoul could shake things up one final time. To preview the match, I spoke with our Jeonbuk columnist Matthew Binns to chat about any potential cracks in the front-runner's armor, Champions League, an intensifying rivalry, and sweet sweet revenge. 
(copy and paste image credits here)

Ryan Asks, Matthew Answers

Ryan Walters: Having three of the remaining five matches at home seems like a boon for Jeonbuk, but Jeonju World Cup Stadium hasn't exactly been a fortress this year. The usually stout defense has only held four clean sheets through 16 home games, and 61% of their conceded goals have come at home. Are the stats slightly skewed due to their time hosting at Jeonju Civil Stadium or is there reason for concern heading into the stretch run?

Matthew Binns: This is somewhat similar to last year where Jeonbuk only notched up six clean sheets at home across all three competitions (four in the league and two in Champions League) but, seeing as this is an issue that was supposedly addressed in the winter, it is concerning to see them still leaking so regularly. The four goals plundered to Jeju at the civil stadium did not help matters, but it must also be noted three of the four clean sheets also came at the temporary ground. The biggest difference has perhaps been the regular adjustments to the defensive line since moving back to the World Cup Stadium. Just like the Jeju loss could be put down to injuries and suspensions, so too can Jeonbuk's defensive woes since their return. Lee Yong has been out since June, Kim Jin-su had been out for a month and a half with injury, and Kim Min-jae, despite his brilliance for his age, picks up yellow cards with relative ease. That, combined with the other changes in personnel and occasionally the goalkeeper to meet the U23 requirements, means you have to go back to the civil stadium period to find two consecutive home games where Jeonbuk kept the same defence. With no suspensions and only Lee Yong out though, perhaps we will now see some consistency.

Furthermore, whilst he is an attack-minded midfielder, the stadium move coincided with the departure of Kim Bo-kyung, a player whose presence alongside Lee Jae-sung in the centre of the park ensured the that teams approached Jeonbuk with more caution for fear of being exposed. The failure to sign a replacement, or anyone for that matter, in the summer has meant this creative outlet has been most often handed to Jeong Hyuk. Not a bad choice admittedly, but seeing as the club missed out on Yoon Bit-garam, it could have been better.

RW: Jeonbuk find themselves in familiar territory with the highest goals scored tally in K League again this year, but they have been held to a lone goal in each of their last four games. A stretch that's seen them pick up just five of 12 points on offer. Is the lack of goals concerning with so many 6 point swing matches against top competition coming up?

MBIn fairness, the last two matches have been difficult away fixtures to Suwon Bluewings and Jeju United, but your point is well taken in regards to the loss to Sangju Sangmu and controversial draw to Daegu FC. I think Jeonbuk's slowing down is mostly due to a thinned out squad eventually tiring. That is not to say I see them faltering now, but when your three strikers change most games to be kept fit, especially given the age of two of them, it is bound to take its toll on the number of goals scored. Recent changes in formation, managing suspensions and nursing injuries will not have helped either, plus the manager seems far less sure about the effectiveness of players than before (e.g. Lopes). There appears to have been a bit of uncertainty about what the club's strongest eleven is of recent, but with a close to full strength squad rested and buoyed by their ground out victory over Jeju, they should be able to get themselves to the finish line without too much bother.

RW: Although a win wouldn't be a mathematical guarantee of the title, it would put Jeonbuk in an extremely favorable spot to see out the rest of the season and claim their third title in four years. Of course, it would be their fourth in a row without last season's point deduction and narrow defeat to Seoul on the final match day. How much do you think revenge for that fateful 1-0 from last year will factor in on Sunday?

MB: I think the revenge motive was mostly fulfilled in the other exchanges this year, but there is no doubt that it will always be an underlying factor. Amusingly, as is often the case with footballing narrative, avoiding defeat to FC Seoul on Sunday will make it mathematically impossible for the capital club to reclaim this year's title, whilst also meaning they cannot claim the trophy with several games to spare, a fate that should have befell them last year were it not for the deduction. Personally though, I hope for Jeonbuk to keep calm heads in this often heated encounter as any suspensions picked up in these final rounds could prove costly to their title aspirations. Perhaps this will take some of the bite out of it, and add to the tentativeness in Jeonbuk's approach, but this is a five game stretch and FC Seoul are merely the first hurdle to overcome.

RWWhat do you see being the key match up for Jeonbuk to exploit and claim all three points in the final match between these rivals this year?

MBIt was somewhat relieving to see Kim Jin-su make his full recovery, especially in such dramatic fashion with his last gasp equaliser. While his form has perhaps cooled since the early weeks of the season, not helped by his lengthy lay off, his absence has been felt in terms of his pace and control, in addition to dead ball situations. Bit of a cop out to choose a defender admittedly, but if played behind Lee Seung-gi in a 4-1-4-1 with the intention to overlap, the left wing could perhaps be Jeonbuk's strongest asset. With that in mind, I expect Seoul's Shin Kwang-hoon to have a busy afternoon, and it may require the likes of Yun Il-lok or Go Yo-han to track back and assist him.


MB: It will likely be tight, as so often the matches between these two are. FC Seoul have not looked great, but have been scraping wins of recent. With the scent of the blood of a faltering Suwon lingering in their nostrils, they will certainly be geared up to commence chase. Factor in their performances against top half teams and it does not make comfortable reading for the home support. Jeonbuk should be buoyed by their hard fought showing away to second placed Jeju though and, for the most part this season, have usually come out on top in the high profile matches. While their form is concerning, they do still have the better team and I expect them to use the split to regain focus in the ranks so as to grind out another victory on Sunday afternoon.

Matt's Score Prediction: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 2-1 FC Seoul

Matthew Asks, Ryan Answers

Matthew Binns: With all those pesky lower half teams out of the way as well as all of their annoying fight, determination and resolve, FC Seoul can now focus on playing five fixtures against sides they tend to find results against. Why is it that FC Seoul have fared much better against supposedly tougher opposition?

Ryan Walters: I wrote about this exact same thing a month ago, and sadly the same problem persists: this team lacks motivation. From their inability to rise to the occasion in a Champions League group there for the taking to their astonishing exit from the FA Cup to a lower division side to losing at 12th place Gwangju, it's been apparent all season this team has no one pushing them to repeat the near historic run they had last year. Unlike Choi Yongsoo before him, manager Hwang Sunhong has simply shrugged off lackluster results and rarely changed his approach to amend shortcomings. After nearly a full season (and multiple transfer windows) at the helm, it's more than clear Hwang's focus is on youth development and not chasing titles. This void in leadership from the bench has resulted in the players themselves serving as the spark plug for the team. A strategy (or lack thereof) that is more than capable of providing a few truly good days; winning both Super Matches in Suwon, and the dramatic 2-1 win over Jeonbuk come to mind. In each of those matches the occasion itself galvanized the squad and they played as the best version of themselves. The old cliche of matching the level of their opponents has rarely been truer for a Seoul side than it is for this one. There is a seeming need to feel impressed by the opposition when they look across the field in order to bring out what Seoul is capable of. And when they are impressed, they've played and fared far better.

However, relying strictly on the 11 on the pitch to motivate themselves for an entire season obviously comes with a plethora of pitfalls. The strategy leans far too heavily on inspiration from apathetic veteran leaders like Park Chuyoung, whose body language and lack of hustle leads by example more than any rah rah speech he could fake. More than the shortcomings of any individual player though, the question of motivation plays itself out more fully when playing against K League's smaller sides in front of perhaps 1,500... or less. Finding the same intensity for a sweaty midweek summer affair against relegation fodder that they had facing bitter rivals in front of tens of thousands will always be tremendously difficult – if not impossible – for a group players. That's where an apt manager steps in and reminds his squad that the other team won't simply roll over just because big bad Seoul is in town. A reminder that's largely gone missing this year and has resulted in dropped points and a better record against "worthy" opposition.

MB: Whilst qualification for the Champions League via a top 3 spot is not yet impossible, it’s far more likely FC Seoul will have to fight for fourth and hope Ulsan can do them a favour in the cup. If they achieve this, should this be enough to keep Hwang Sun-hong in a job?

RWWhether it should be and whether it will be are two very different questions, but you only asked one, so I'll start there. Seoul managing to scrape their way into ACL on a fourth place finish and help from another team should not be anywhere near enough to save Hwang from an otherwise disastrous tenure. Stumbling their way into international football would be the high water mark for Hwang, and while that may be good enough for most K League sides, it most certainly should not be for one of Korea's elite clubs. The fact that Seoul won't have any silverware this year is excusable. Can't win all the time, right? But the fact they were never even in real contention for any is flat out embarrassing given the mismanaged talent on the roster. Hwang has bungled the league, the cup, every transfer window he's had (I mean... he signed Maurinho as an Adriano replacement) and even the starting lineups this year. So should doing the absolute bare minimum expected of any FC Seoul manager and finishing in the top four be enough to keep his job? No, no it should not.

But will it?

Yeah, most likely. Hwang's name carries a lot of weight in Korean football and he technically has his name next to their 2016 title. Those two things alone may be enough for the powers that be to unwisely keep him on board, but if ACL 2018 were thrown in, I would in no way be shocked to see him back on the bench next year.

MB: With an eye on the future now, a few names have been rotated into the squad to meet the league’s U23 quota on starting line ups (thereby allowing teams to use three substitutes). Of the young talent that have made cameos, which names have stood out for you and teams should look out for next season?

RW22-year-old winger Yoon Seungwon has made a return to regular squad rotation and has looked solid. He doesn't quite have the pace one would usually like to see in a winger, but he's extremely confident cutting in from either side and deft with the ball at his feet. Though there's work to be done, he already has a prudent eye for picking out the right pass. Most importantly, he positions himself to be in the right spot at the right time and is entirely unafraid to mix it up in the box. Seoul isn't exactly short on wingers heading into 2018, but should he have a strong close to this campaign, he may do enough to earn a regular spot in the starting 11 next season.

MB: With a rivalry that continues to intensify, matches between these two sides rarely fail to entertain, with the last draw being ten meetings ago. How do you see this particular clash playing out?

RW: If recent form is any indicator, this won't exactly be a shootout. Jeonbuk haven't been scoring with their usual frequency and Seoul have shown a surprising willingness and capability to grind out somewhat ugly results. I don't expect Hwang to change that approach in Jeonju this weekend, and am hoping for an early goal from either side to open up what looks to be an otherwise rigid affair. However, Seoul's players know they have a lot more on the line this weekend than Jeonbuk do and may be able to propel themselves to another compelling victory. Simply to make it interesting and to be contrarian to your pick, I'll say the visitors pull it off.

Ryan's Score Prediction: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 1-2 FC Seoul

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