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Column: FC Seoul's Relegation Round Wake-Up Call

FC Seoul Relegation Battle K League 1
It was confirmed on Saturday evening, following the 1-0 away defeat to Jeonnam Dragons, that FC Seoul will finish in the bottom half of the split for the first time in 11 years. It has been a disastrous campaign for the three-times K League title winners who are on course to at least equal their worst ever finish. FC Seoul columnist Paul Neat muses that this alone ought to be enough to force change at Sangam and could even be a blessing in disguise.
(Image via K League)

Saturday's 1-0 away defeat to Jeonnam Dragons, coupled with Gangwon's 1-1 draw at home to Pohang Steelers, condemned FC Seoul to a guaranteed bottom-half finish for the first time since 2007. With one game to go before the league is split into the Championship Round and the Relegation Round, there is now a four point gap between Seoul and sixth-placed Gangwon meaning that, even a win against Jeju United next week would not be enough to ensure a place in the Championship Round, the bare minimum for a club like FC Seoul.

The bottom half finish really ought to be seen as a wake up call for the owners and the board and, in what could be considered as a blessing in disguise, what forces their hand to invest. Being the owners of a team that are not competing for honours and languishing at the lower end of the K League 1 table will not look good for GS Sports, the company that own FC Seoul. Freeing up enough money to invest heavily in the playing squad and also, perhaps most important of all, appoint a new manager who can lift FC Seoul out of the doldrums and transform the team into one that is challenging for honours once again.

Perhaps ironically, had caretaker manager Lee Eulyong have lead FC Seoul to a top half finish, and perhaps even guide the team to another Super Match win, then it may well have been seen as 'job done' by the board. But, in truth, finishing in the top six would have merely papered over the cracks, masking over what are deep-rooted problems at FC Seoul from top to bottom and even given certain justification to those in charge of finances to keep such a tight grip over the purse strings.

FC Seoul Relegation Round K League 1 Go Yo-han
Tempers flared over in Gwangyang as Go Yohan was dismissed (image via K League)
Initially, the 2018 season was a fight to get back into the AFC Champions League after finishing fifth last year, Then, with continental football for next term completely out of the question some weeks ago, the focus was simply on finishing in the top half. But, with how tight the bottom half is at present, especially the bottom four, FC Seoul could get sucked right into the relegation mire if Lee Eulyong's men keep hemorrhaging points away at the rate that they have been.

Seoul have won just eight games all season, six of which under came under Lee's stewardship and four of the eight victories have come against teams in the current bottom seven and have picked up just 18 points from a possible 51 available. To break that down club by club, that's two points from a possible nine against Incheon, after drawing at home twice and losing 2-1 at Sungui Arena Park, three from nine against Jeonnam after a narrow win at home either side of two defeats in Gwangyang, five against Sangju with two draws at home and an away win, four against Daegu thanks to a home win, an away draw followed by a 2-0 defeat in September, two against Jeju with one game left to play, and two points against Gangwon, who could still finish in the bottom half of the table. In fact, Seoul's home opener against Gwangwon, a game which they lost by two goals to one, despite taking the lead through Park Chuyoung on the stroke of half time, has summed up their season. Insipid and uninspiring.

Investing in the playing squad is something that needs to be done for the long term good of the club, in the short term the club simply need to avoid the drop. Next week's away fixture with Jeju United is crucially important with just five points separating Seoul and Incheon at the foot of the table, and just three points between the beleaguered capital club and Jeonnam in the relegation playoff place. The trip to the island is an absolute must-win game because, make no mistake, FC Seoul are in a relegation battle.

To get dragged into the relegation dog fight along side perennial strugglers Incheon United, Jeonnam Dragons, Sangju Sangmu alone has to be enough force change. But, only if the club avoid the drop can finishing outside of the top six be considered a blessing in disguise, the silver lining of a mushroom cloud. That is, of course, if GS Sports have the ambition to turn the club into one of Asia's elite much like how Hyundai Motors has done so with rivals Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. Furthermore, seeing the old enemy Suwon Bluewings in the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League must smart a bit, if it doesn't then it should, especially since the Bluewings' leading marksman in the ACL is none other than Dejan Damjanović, a player that was deemed not even worthy of offering a new contract last season despite an eight-year association with the club,.

FC Seoul Manager Lee Eulyong K League 1 Relegation Battle
Caretaker manager Lee Eulyong after the 2-2 draw at home to Sangju (image via K League)
The vast majority of FC Seoul's transfer business over the winter was free transfers and loans, despite star players such as the aforementioned Dejan Damjanović, as well as Yun Illok, and Osmar Barba Ibanez all being allowed to leave. Of Seoul's winter acquisitions, only Anderson Lopes can be considered as a relative success given that the Brazilian is the club's second-top goalscorer. But, six goals from 26 starts is simply not good enough.

Lee Eulyong was given the manager's job until the end of the season following the resignation of Hwang Sunhong at the end of April. The decision to give Lee the job until the end of the season was a hasty one, though. Appointing from within initially was the logical next step to steady the ship - someone who was familiar with the players. But after the World Cup break, the board should have found a new permanent manager - they had a month to do so and the 4-0 hammering Seoul were dealt at home to Jeonbuk on the last game before the World Cup really should have given the board enough food for thought.

Instead what FC Seoul have is a manager who is out of his depth. That's not a slight against Lee Eulyong, the former midfielder general is still in the embryonic stages of his managerial career. Lee's general demeanour of late is that of a man who is clearly feeling the stresses and strains of being in a position where he has little experience and, frankly, doesn't look as though he wants to be there, rather that the job was thrust upon him. After the 2-2 draw to Sangju in round 31, a game in which Seoul went ahead not once but twice but still only came away with a point, Lee Eulyong, with his head down to the media, spoke meekly and offered little more than apologies. He looked lost for words, embarrassed and, like his team, out of ideas.

Bojan Matic FC Seoul Relegation Round K League 1
Bojan Matic was brought in during the summer to add much-needed firepower but has just one goal to his name (image via K League)
If, in the short term, for the next six matches, the manager and players can rally together and get enough points on the board to avoid relegation, then it might be better than limping into the top six. Of course, for the fans it will hurt and it won't do any good to the already sparse crowds at Sangam. But, if GS Sports have ambition, and they want to see crowds of around the 30,000 like they were in 2010 and 2011, or even around 20,000 when the club last won the K League title, then change is needed and this huge wake-up call should be exactly what was needed to get the ball rolling.

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