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The K League Coach: Most Exciting K League Team?

Are Gyeongnam FC the most exciting team to watch in K League 1 in 2018?
After a fantastic start on their return to the K League 1 where Gyeongnam FC won their first four games on the bounce, The Reds have since been without a win in their last three, recording a draw and two losses. Here we take a closer a look at how Gyeongnam got off to such a great start, what changed and what they can do to get back to winning ways.
(Image via K League)

Style of Play

Gyeongnam set up in a 4-4-2 formation with their attacking play focused on their two inverted wingers. The number 77, Negueba, offers speed, creativity and unpredictable one-on-one play from the left wing while Japanese Kunimoto offers vision and guile cutting in on his left foot from the right wing. They look to attack quickly and directly at opponents and try to play into Brazilian Marcão around the goal.

Gyeongnam are happy to defend quite deep, they make small efforts to press around the halfway line but are content to sit back in two banks of four and wait to win the ball, from there they look to spring counters as quickly as possible. Negueba is key to this, not only is he willing to work back and help his fullback defend, but he is able to carry the ball at high speed and, within a few seconds, surge downfield. Kunimoto isn't as quick at carrying the ball but when countering is able to find incisive passes that cut through disorganized or exposed opposition defenses.

Last season's K League 2 top scorer Marcão leads the line and is the focus of deliveries into the box. He offers strength on the ball and in the air but is also capable of creating opportunities for others and is a smart finisher in the box.

Gyeongnam are also willing to allow their full-backs to venture forward and join the attack, with Kunimoto and Negueba both adept at tucking inside and finding pockets of space to pick defenses apart or shoot from around the box.

Choi Young-jun has to take care of a lot of the defensive legwork protecting the back four and bring a halt to counter attacks when Gyeongnam's wingers and fullbacks are caught far up-field.

So What Went Wrong?

Gyeongnam's approach may have taken a few teams by surprise at the start of the season. The K League tends to be a tactically conservative league where teams are happy to sit a lot of bodies behind the ball and wait for moments of magic from the one or two more creative attacking threats. For a team who had just returned to the league, it was a bold move to be so willing to push bodies forward and try to and outscore opponents. Marcão, Kunimoto, and Negueba compliment one another very well and were able to challenge opposing defenses in a number of different ways.

The game against Daegu in round five put forward two scenarios that Gyeongnam couldn't quite overcome. Firstly, Daegu took the lead through a set piece and were then able to hold men back when attacking. This restricted the space for Gyeongnam to counter into and challenged them to try and pick their way through a more heavily defended opposition half. Secondly, Negueba picked up an injury that forced him off before halftime, and though his replacement Bae Ki-jong scored the equalizer from a set piece, he doesn't offer the same degree of threat in open play or on the counter-attack. Gyeongnam's attack relies heavily on the individual attributes of the Marcão, Kunimoto, and Negueba as opposed to a tactical system. Their skills cannot be easily replaced off the bench.

The following game against Jeonbuk Hyundai asked even bigger questions of Gyeongnam, challenging the very system they play. Jeonbuk were able to take the lead as they pressed Gyeongnam when they tried to build an attack. The reigning K League Champions were able to exploit the space left with Gyeongnam's wide midfielders far up-field. Lopes found himself in acres of space and had plenty of time to look up and pick out Kin Shin-wook in the penalty box.

The second goal followed a similar pattern, with Gyeongnam caught in possession on the edge of their own box, and this time it was Tiago who had the time to play a one-two into the box, with Kim Shin-wook adding the finishing touch again. From then on Gyeongnam were chasing the game, pushing more men forward. Playing against such strong opponents and allowing them so much space to play in is a recipe for disaster.

After these two results, it was impressive that Gyeongnam stuck to their guns for their trip to Pohang. It may be the coaches complete belief in the system or their lack of options, but it was no less exciting to see Gyeongnam continue to try and play such attacking football. However, issues arose again in the first half where it was far too easy for Pohang to catch Gyeongnam in transition and be able to run directly at the back line. This lead to the penalty for the first goal, and also for a penalty award that was recalled after VAR was consulted.

Pohang had far too much space in midfield when they were able to break up a Gyeongnam attack and it looked like they were going to make them pay. The second Pohang goal had a very familiar feel to it; as Gyeongnam attempted to build an attack a pass was intercepted, eventually leading to Leo Gamalho having plenty of room on the edge of the box to shoot. In defense of Gyeongnam, they created plenty of chances in this game and could quite possibly have left with a point. They struck the woodwork and came close on a few occasions and were able to test Pohang, but ultimately fell short.

Moving Forward

Gyeongnam have a very talented attacking trio and have clearly been well prepared to play the system their coach desires. However, the very nature of the system means they will at times be left open. When bursting forward in numbers they need to be more careful in the initial phase to ensure they don't get caught out and leave opponents with too much time and space to attack. They have at times struggled against a high counter press which has led to them conceding goals

Secondly, they may need to ask themselves if this is the best way to play against every K League team. When playing against the bigger clubs who have deeper and more talented rosters do they want to enter into a free-scoring contest? Can they find a way to protect their back-line while still allowing their flair players the opportunity to create and score goals?

Gyeongnam are without a doubt one of the most exciting teams to watch in the K League at the moment, but how the rest of their season pans out may come down to their ability to keep key players fit and implement tactical solutions to a few reoccurring issues.

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