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2019 Season Review: Busan IPark

Busan IPark finished 2019 in a blaze of glory. After a year of often scintillating attacking football and a glut of goals, Busan successfully navigated the K League 2 playoffs to achieve promotion at the fourth time of asking. Tomas Marcantonio looks back at a season that will live long in the memory of IPark supporters.

What Went Well

Goals Galore

Busan IPark were the K League 2's top scorers in 2019, averaging two goals a game over the course of the season. Arguably the team's greatest strength going forward was that they weren't reliant on only one or two individuals to provide. Rômulo (15 goals), Lee Dong-joon, Lee Jeong-hyeop, and Soma Novothny (13 each) all reached double figures in the league, while several others chipped in with more.

While Lee Dong-joon rightly received plaudits (as well as the league's MVP award) for his scintillating season, the presence of both Lee Jeong-hyeop and Novothny proved vital to Busan's eventual promotion. The team fell short at the same stage last season, and one of the perceived weaknesses of the squad was the lack of a notable marksman. In 2018 only Romulo reached double figures for the club, and of the out-and-out strikers, injury-prone Choi Seung-in was the top scorer with five goals.

This year, in contrast, Busan had two in-form strikers vying for selection. Lee Jeong-hyeop was prolific in the first half of the season but he was also vital to the team when he wasn't scoring, spearheading the high press and acting as the centrepiece of a forward line bursting with pace and excellent interplay. Novothny, meanwhile, became a fan favourite due to his work-rate and predatory finishing.

In the preferred 4-3-3 formation, Lee particularly excelled, but Novothny was a crucial option not only from the bench, but also as a partner for Lee in a front two, which was used sporadically but often to great success. The end of season double-header with Gyeongnam is a perfect example of the pair's contribution to Busan's promotion. Both players gave everything in the playoff final, and Novothny's late goal in the second leg was a fitting reward for his efforts.

Tactical Flexibility

Coach Jo Deok-jae deserves praise for his work with the club this season. His team selections and substitutions were generally shrewd and successful. He frequently changed personnel at half-time - and sometimes before, if something wasn't working - and he rotated his squad sparingly but decisively. It can also be argued that one of the most important factors in Busan's promotion was the coach's flexibility with formation.

For the most part Jo implemented a 4-3-3 formation, which brought the best out of the speedy wing-forwards and the talented midfield trio of Rômulo, Park Jong-woo and Kim Jin-gyu. However, he was not afraid to deviate from this when certain players were unavailable or the situation called for it. For example, Jo employed a 5-3-2 on several occasions, allowing wing-backs Kim Moon-hwan and Kim Chi-woo to roam forward more freely against more compact teams.

Jo selected a 4-4-2 to face Gyeongnam in the final two games, trusting the usually attack-minded duo of Romulo and Kim Jin-gyu to marshal the middle of the park in the absence of regular anchorman Park Jong-woo. Both performed admirably, and the four-pronged threat of Lee Jeong-hyeop, Lee Dong-joon, Novothny, and Diego Maurício succeeded in occupying the Gyeongnam back line and creating the chances that eventually resulted in victory.

What Didn't Go Well

Busan scored freely in 2019, but they weren't always so comfortable at the other end of the pitch. The first half of the season in particular was characterized by individual mistakes leading directly to goals. The entire back line were guilty of lapses, but perhaps none more so than goalkeeper Kim Hyung-geun, whose nervous command of his box seemed to permeate through the entire defensive unit.

The summer signing of goalkeeper Choi Pil-soo from Anyang brought some confidence and security to Busan's porous defence, but clean sheets continued to be hard to come by. As was the case in previous seasons, Busan appeared to lack mental strength at times. Two or three-goal margins were no guarantee of victory, as Busan often invited pressure on themselves and squandered comfortable leads through clumsy challenges in and around the box, positional mistakes, or lapses in concentration.

A classic example was Busan's entertaining 3-3 draw with Seoul E-Land in the summer. Busan had a three goal lead after 30 minutes and should have been cruising against the lowly Leopards, but they allowed E-Land back into the game and threw away two vital points.

In the end the club achieved their goal of promotion, so these weaknesses are not as significant as they could have been, but Jo will know that these flaws will only be punished more ruthlessly in the K League 1. If they don't find a way to address these issues next year, Busan could drop straight back to the second division.

Young Player of the Year

Lee Dong-joon enjoyed a stunning season for Busan. The winger had been mostly utilised as an impact substitute in his first two years with the club, but this season he played more minutes than any other player and was virtually undroppable.

Lee is known for his blistering pace and dribbling ability, and throughout the year he was a nightmare for K2 defenders. In full flight the 22 year-old was near-impossible to catch, and it comes as no surprise that he was the league's most fouled player, and the only one to be fouled more than 100 times.

Lee featured primarily from the right wing, but was occasionally utilised as part of a traditional little-and-large front two with either Novothny or Lee Jeong-hyeop. His consistency improved immeasurably over previous seasons, which his figures support. He contributed seven assists in the league (only three players recorded more), and scored 13 goals to boot. Indeed, his finishing was so accomplished - a mixtures of headers, fierce drives, and close-range poaching - that even with promotion, Busan could struggle to retain their prize asset.

Honourable Mention

In 2018, 22 year-old Kim Jin-gyu was reinvented to great effect as a wing-forward, but this year he reverted back to his primary position as a central/attacking midfielder. Although the positional change made him less impactful in the final third, Kim still recorded four goals and three assists from midfield. In addition, his vision, composure in possession, and darting runs into the box made him a valuable asset for the team, and he will be a key figure for Busan in the top flight next year.

Team MVP

It can be argued that Lee Dong-joon should take home the clean-sweep of awards for Busan this year, but this team was not overly-reliant on only one player and there were others who made significant impacts. Although his contributions can easily go under the radar, arguably the most vital player to Busan's season was centre-forward Lee Jeong-hyeop.

Lee returned to Busan last winter after a disappointing spell on loan at Japanese team Shonan Bellmare. He made an instant impact in the early weeks of 2019, scoring 11 goals in his first 14 games of the season. Although he only added two more goals after that purple patch, his importance to the team never diminished.

In some ways Lee is the quintessential target man - a tall, athletic figure with good ball retention skills. However, he offers so much more than that. Lee is deceptively fast, and his tireless high-press was a crucial aspect of Busan's play this year. He is also a very unselfish player who appears to revel in dropping deep to link up with midfielders, and act as a fulcrum to release the likes of Lee Dong-joon in the spaces behind the opposition defence.

Busan were blessed with several exciting attacking players this year, but it was only when Lee Jeong-hyeop was absent that the team looked nowhere near as cohesive. For that reason alone he is a deserving winner of the MVP award.

Honourable Mentions

Brazilian midfielder Rômulo was once again a pivotal figure at the heart of the team. Although he was not as consistent as last year, he shone with moments of quality that belied his 24 years, and he often won games for the club single-handedly. His goals from long range were outstanding, and his coolness under pressure in the Gyeongnam final (when his penalty conversion essentially won Busan promotion) was admirable. Rômulo remains a fan favourite, and his quality and passion for the club have seen his reputation enhanced year on year.

Other heroes include former international defensive midfielder Park Jong-woo, who brought leadership, composure, and tenacity to the midfield (as well as seven assists). Kim Moon-hwan enjoyed another promising year at right-back, and central defenders Aleksandar Šušnjar and Kim Myung-joon were inconsistent but frequently outstanding, especially towards the end of the year.

Most Disappointing Player

Most of the players regularly involved in the first team contributed significantly to Busan's promotion, but there were a few members of the squad who struggled in spells. Captain Han Ji-ho is one fan favourite who started the season excellently but struggled for form for the final few months of the year.

Diego Maurício, meanwhile, was a marquee signing who failed to make an impact for much of the year, appearing mostly from the bench. Ultimately, however, the Brazilian became a club hero by playing a vital part in promotion, playing his way into the team in the final weeks of the season before creating both goals in the critical final game.

New signings Han Sang-woon and Jung Sung-min arrived with big reputations but were barely involved, while fellow new boy Lee Hoo-kwon only lasted half a season before being offloaded to Jeonnam Dragons.

The award of Most Disappointing Player ultimately goes to goalkeeper Kim Hyung-geun, who failed to build on the early promise of his career. At 25, he is still young for a goalkeeper and has time to work on his weaknesses, but it seems unlikely that he'll be given another run in the Busan team next year. While still capable of excellent quick-reflex saves, Kim was far too uncertain in the air, choosing to punch even for the most straightforward crosses, and his positioning and concentration were also called into question.

21 year-old Kim Jeong-ho finished the season as second-choice keeper behind Choi Pil-soo, so Kim Hyung-geun's future may lie elsewhere next year.

Most Important Decision of the Off Season

Busan IPark have a have a far more talented squad than the one that was relegated in 2015, but the big question is whether they can build a team that can compete in the top flight. Jo Deok-jae's priority this winter will be holding onto his key players, especially young talents Lee Dong-joon, Kim Moon-hwan, Rômulo, and Kim Jin-gyu, all of whom are likely to attract attention from bigger clubs.

Efforts should be made to retain foreign imports Aleksandar Šušnjar and Soma Novothny, while defensive reinforcements could be crucial. A new left-back is needed to replace the solid but ageing Kim Chi-woo, and an experienced centre-back or two could be essential, especially if Šušnjar departs and Kim Myung-joon leaves for military service as expected.

Should Novothny and Diego leave, Jo will surely look to sign a proven goalscorer to replace them. Jo will also have to decide whether to invest in a left winger, as none of the current crop were able to nail down a regular starting spot. With the likes of Suwon FC winger Chisom Egbuchulam potentially available, this winter will be a real test of Busan's pulling power and ambition in the transfer market.

If Jo can keep the bulk of his squad together and bring in one or two to shore up the defence and add strength in depth, Busan will have a good shot at retaining their top-flight status next year.

-With thanks to Todd Wilde for his thoughts and insights

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