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Column: FC Seoul are Losing Their Identity

Column: FC Seoul Need an Identity
FC Seoul are enduring another turbulent season and, barring a drastic upturn in form, look to be heading towards a bottom half finish. A team without soul or an identity, FC Seoul need a complete rebuild and Choi Yongsoo is the man to do it.
(Image via K League)

FC Seoul were once a club to be feared, the dressing room was full of characters, people with big personalities, leaders. From front to back Seoul had a spine of a team to be envied, to be feared and to be treat with caution, especially in front of their own supportets. Now, though, FC Seoul are a stark contrast from the K League title winning sides of 2012 and even 2016, not to mention the ACL finalists of 2013. The FC Seoul that the Sangam faithful watch today are a soft touch and the fact that the once-giants are closer to the relegation zone than the AFC Champions League places speaks volumes of the club's current plight.

Park Chuyoung signed a 3-year deal last winter but has just one goal this season 
Last season was a disaster; Seoul finished fifth and missed out on Asian Champions League football. Former manager Hwang Sunhong went about dismantling the squad in the name of 'rebuilding' before his abrupt exit in May. But this season is on course to be even worse: Seoul have seldom looked convincing, saving their best performances for the Super Matches - 2-1 wins at home and away. But, time and time again the team have put in insipid displays that have offered nothing in the way of a clue as to what tactics there are supposed to be executing: no pattern, no distinct style, and in the final third, no ideas.

In 2018, FC Seoul have actually made the third-highest number of passes in the league, only Pohang and Ulsan have made more. But, in terms of key passes, Seoul have made the third-fewest, only Pohang and Sangju have made fewer. Herein lies the story because Seoul have also recorded the second-fewest number of shots, only Pohang have recorded less. Defensively, Seoul have made the least amount of interceptions in K League 1. Last season Osmar made the most interceptions in the whole of the league yet was farmed out on loan to Cerezo Osaka during the winter. In short, Seoul can look busy but produce little of substance.

Leadership is an issue, too. Every team needs a good captain but teams also need leaders throughout the squad. FC Seoul don't have many who you would refer to as a 'leader'. Since Hwang Sunhong was appointed in as manager June 2016, FC Seoul have gone on to let Adriano, Takahagi, Dejan, Osmar, and Yun Illok all leave. All five players of these players were instrumental for Choi Yongsoo’s team and indeed in the 2016 title-winning side the year after and, in the likes of Dejan, Osmar, and Takahagki, they were leaders on and off the pitch. Both Dejan and Osmar donned the captain's armband, both knew what it meant to pull on the black and red shirt.

Dejan, a straight shooter, made sure that everyone was pulling their weight. Even when FC Seoul won, sometimes it wasn't enough. Harking back to the 3-0 home win over Incheon United at the beginning of the 2017 season, Seoul ran out as comfortable winners but the result didn't paint the clearest of pictures. Incheon were perhaps the better team and were desperately unlucky not to get something from the game. Dejan, who scored a brace that afternoon, was embarrassed. It was a result that he didn't feel the team deserved and he made these feelings known to his teammates. The rest of the dressing room didn't seem to understand that, even when you win, standards can still be questioned. Who is there now to make sure Seoul maintain high standards?

Adriano (L) and Dejan (R) in ACL action for FC Seoul in 2016
In Adriano and Dejan, Seoul had a strike force that really struck fear in the opposition, both of whom could find the net regularly and win games on their own; Adriano with his off the shoulder style, Dejan coming up in big games with important goals - the pair bagged 40 goals between them in all competitions in 2016. In Takahagi there was a heartbeat, the metronome of the team - a box-to-box midfielder that had the grit and determination coupled with poise and guile in equal measure, in Osmar there was dependability and a calm head, with Yun Illok there was an enigmatic assist machine who, although struggled with consistency at times, managed to rack up 12 assists last season. For one reason or another all those players have left. Park Chuyoung, on the other hand, was awarded a three-year deal, despite only scoring three goals from open player last season.

Noises from inside the club at the time suggested that there were certain players within the dressing room that just didn’t care. A defeat wouldn’t bother them and they just didn’t seem to understand the gravity of playing for a club like FC Seoul. What you see this season is an FC Seoul that are a soft touch. Teams go to Sangam knowing that there is nothing to fear anymore. During the title winning season of 2016 Seoul lost five matches at home, in 2014 it was six. Historically, these numbers were actually quite high but, up until then, Seoul rarely lost more than twice at home in a season. However, on their own pitch this term, Seoul have already lost six matches and, after the 2-0 home reverse on 16th September, had lost three home league games in a row for the first time in the club's history.

A lack of leadership on the pitch has been mirrored off it. Hwang Sunhong was allowed to keep his job despite alienating some of his best players, finishing fifth in the league, falling out of the AFC Champions League at the group stage, and crashing out of the FA Cup to a second division team. Hwang resigned in May this year but the club, inexplicably, allegedly tried to persuade him to stay but eventually appointed Lee Eulyong as caretaker until the rest of the season. Eyebrows were raised when Lee wasn't given the job until the World Cup break with the option of reviewing things thereafter, rather than committing to the end of the season so soon.

Alas, Coach Lee drew two and won one from his first three matches in charge, including a 2-1 Super Match win against Suwon Bluewings. After which, though, Lee was given somewhat of an abrupt awakening as Seoul suffered a humiliating 4-0 home drubbing to rivals Jeonbuk Hyundai in the last match before the World Cup break. Two wins and two draws immediately after had Seoul back on track again before losing 2-1 to Incheon United in the Gyeongin Derby on 22nd July.

A 3-0 win over a somewhat beleaguered Jeju United side indicated that Lee Eulyong’s team were showing signs of improvement and, at that point in time, were still in with a chance of qualifying for the AFC Champions League. However, since that win at home to Jeju, Seoul have won just twice. Four defeats from their last five has rendered Seoul 15 points behind the ACL places and only a point above Daegu in tenth.

Although popular as a player, Lee Eulyong is not endearing himself to the fans, nor is he doing himself any favours in staking a claim for the job on long term basis. Seoul need a complete rebuilding job and the size of the task might just be too much for someone with very little management experience.

Some sections of the support clamour for former boss Choi Yongsoo, and whilst it might seem too romantic to take the calls to bring back Choi back seriously, a potential return could be exactly what the club are in need of. Under Choi Yongsoo Seoul were an aggressive and attacking team. They feared no one and had an identity, a distinct way of playing and teams feared them. If nothing else, reappointing Choi and allowing him to get rid of the deadwood, get the team back on firmer footing would go some way in getting the fans back on side.

Choi Yongsoo as FC Seoul manager in March 2016
Of the current FC Seoul squad there are perhaps nine or ten players that would be worth keeping to build a squad around but the likes of Lee Sangho, Park Heeseong, Yoon Seungwon, Yoo Hyun, Park Chuyoung, Kwak Taewhi, and Ha Daesung in particular, need moving on for one reason or another. For some they just aren’t the type of player a team who ought to be challenging for the top three needs, for some they are no longer fit for purpose.

FC Seoul need an identity and, in the short term at least, Choi Yongsoo would give them that. He was popular with the players and supporters alike. He managed to get the best out of Adriano and was one of the main reasons why Dejan re-signed for the club in 2016. The 2018 season may be a write-off already but if the board don’t make the right decision over the winter, 2019 might not be any better.

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