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2020 K League 1 Round 1 Recap

The K League 1 finally returned last weekend with all twelve teams playing over three days as the 2020 campaign got underway. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors hosted Suwon Samsung Bluewings in the traditional champions vs cup-winners curtain-raiser, while Ulsan Hyundai started their title campaign with a visit from military side Sangju Sangmu. There was even a goal of the season contender on Sunday when Gangwon hosted FC Seoul. Guest writer Daniel Oh recaps Round 1.

Friday, May 8th

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 1-0 Suwon Samsung Bluewings

After over a two-month-long wait caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, the first K League 1 matchup of the season was 2019 K League 1 Champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors versus the 2019 FA Cup Winners Suwon Samsung Bluewings. Both teams have had a strong pre-season transfer window, as Jeonbuk have strengthened their offense by acquiring players such as 2019 K League 1 MVP midfielder Kim Bo-kyung, while Suwon added quality to their defense, bringing in Canadian national team center back Doneil Henry from Vancouver Whitecaps. For the match, Suwon focused heavily on the concrete defensive line that the manager Lee Lim-saeng has built using the three-center back system, and Jeonbuk tried sharp build-up plays with the four midfielders in a 4-1-4-1 formation. During the first half, Jeonbuk monopolized the offensive chances as the Green Warriors took nine shots to Suwon's only two, but both teams’ attacks were not very threatening with a low shot accuracy. A significant point to note is Doneil Henry’s performance at center back. The Canadian was able to effectively clear the ball and prevent Jeonbuk’s attackers from coming into the penalty box.

Following the first half which ended 0-0, Jeonbuk’s dominance continued in the second half as well. In order to change the flow of attacks to score goals, Jeonbuk substituted in 41-year-old K League veteran striker Lee Dong-gook in the 60th minute. In the 74th minute, the Australian midfielder Terry Antonis was given a direct red card after his rough tackle on Son Joon-ho’s ankle, and this made a crack in Suwon’s solid defensive line. With a shortage of a midfielder, the Bluewings had hardships with man-marking, which resulted in Lee Dong-gook’s goalscoring header from a corner kick in the 83rd minute as no one was marking the league’s all-time record scorer. After the goal, Jeonbuk were successful in keeping the lead with running out the clock and ended the first match of the season with a 1-0 victory. Although the match was concluded in a Jeonbuk win, because the build-up tactics Jeonbuk prepared did not have much impact and Suwon’s concrete defense was shattered by an unfortunate variable, the match left a bitterness for both teams.

Saturday, May 9th

Ulsan Hyundai 4-0 Sangju Sangmu

The second matchup of the season was between Ulsan Hyundai and Sangju Sangmu. Ulsan, who lost the 2019 K League 1 championship title to Jeonbuk FC by just one goal scored, have had a very enthusiastic pre-season transfer window and are considered to be strong contenders for the league title. The most notable transfers for Ulsan were acquiring the Premier League-experienced superstar Lee Chung-yong and the South Korea national team goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo. In comparison, Sangju can only take players who are loanees from other teams during their military service period so their choices were very limited, but the Soldiers were still able to bring Moon Seon-min, the top assist maker of the last season, from Jeonbuk. With a 4-2-3-1 formation, the Tigers concentrated on keeping the high speed of offensive build-ups through their strong midfielders’ link-up plays with 2018 & 2019 K League 1 Best XI striker Júnior Negrão. Meanwhile, Sangju focused on putting hard pressure on Ulsan’s players and transitioning from defense to offense at a fast pace.

The first half was very one-sided. Ulsan’s Júnior scored a very early goal in the seventh minute with Kim Tae-hwan’s beautiful assist that penetrated the pressure from three Sangju defenders. Ulsan have dominated the general flow of the game, and the stats of shots taken in the first half, eight for the home team and five for Sangju, represent the overall progress. Sangju mostly focused on delivering the ball to Moon Seon-min and relying on Moon to break the defensive line with his fast pace, but Ulsan’s defenders did not give him much space, which resulted in low-accuracy-shots taken mostly outside of the penalty area. The match shifted even more to Ulsan’s side when Bae Jae-woo aggressively pulled Kim In-sung’s shirt in the penalty area and gave a penalty goal to Júnior in the 45th minute. The first half ended right after Ulsan’s second goal, and the second half continued the trend. Ulsan kept utilizing their fluid team plays to break Sangju’s defense and, with the amazing contribution of Júnior, the plays brought success to them. In the 51st minute, Júnior broke the defensive line and assisted Lee Sang-heon’s goal. The final goal that ended the match was from Yoon Bit-garam with a powerful kick from outside the penalty box. Sangju did not give up on attacking, but most shots that were taken, especially by Kim Min-hyeok, were not on point.

Incheon United 0-0 Daegu FC

The matchup between Incheon United and Daegu FC was about which team had gone through changes better. Going into the new season, both Incheon and Daegu have changed managers, and their squads both went through major changes as well. For Daegu, they had to let go of Jo Hyeon-woo, the league’s Best XI goalkeeper for the last three consecutive years, and Han Hee-hoon, the former captain of the team. However, Daegu acquired Dejan Damjanović, the league’s all-time second-highest scorer, and Kim Jae-woo, one of the most promising prospects of the league. Incheon also had to let go of important players such as Kim Jin-ya and Moon Chang-jin, and brought in new talents for defense including Mun Ji-hwan and Kim Jun-yub.

Daegu started the match with the three-center back system and placing the combination of Cesinha, Kim Dae-won, and Edgar in the attacking third. Incheon also kicked off with placing three center backs for the firm defense against Daegu’s strong offense, and having three forwards, Kim Ho-nam, Lanre Kehinde, and Lee Joon-suk, target Daegu’s goal. An important part of Incheon’s tactics was placing Rashid Mahazi in the central midfield with the intention to man-mark Cesinha, the Best XI midfielder of 2019 K League 1. Although both teams' formations were very similar, the method of using those formations differed. Incheon’s strategy was to lower the defensive line, steal the ball, and give long passes to the attackers upfront, while the Sky Blues concentrated on having more systematic team plays to build-up. Daegu maintained the lead in the middle and attacking third, but the tough defense of Incheon did not allow the away team to appropriately finish their attacks, and Mahazi man-marked Cesinha so perfectly that Daegu’s plays kept getting disconnected as Cesinha was an essential part of their build-up tactics. The first half ended in 0-0, and Daegu substituted in Jeong Seung-won and Dejan in order to put a bigger emphasis on offense, but this did not help the Sky Blues’ influence in the attacking third much and, instead, Incheon were able to have more attacking opportunities as Daegu’s stamina was running out late in the second half. Without many highlights, the match ended in a not very thrilling 0-0.

Gwangju FC 0-2 Seongnam FC

The next matchup was between Gwangju FC, who secured the 2019 K League 2 title and achieved promotion to the top division, and Seongnam FC, who survived last season after being placed ninth out of twelve teams despite the predictions that suggested the Magpies’ demotion. Gwangju had a relatively steady pre-season by keeping the key players from leaving the team and adding quality to the squad such as Han Hee-hoon, Kim Chang-soo, and the Costa Rica national team forward Marcos Ureña. Meanwhile, Seongnam experienced major changes including replacing the manager with Kim Nam-il, a rookie manager with a legendary playing career. They also let go of key players such as Kim Dong-jun and Mun Ji-hwan, and brought in the well-known talents of the league such as Kim Young-kwang and Yang Dong-hyun.

Gwangju started the match with a 4-4-2 formation with an emphasis on central plays through the last year's K League 2 Top Scorer Felipe Silva and FIFA World Cup-experienced forward Marcos. Seongnam also used the 4-4-2 formation to face Gwangju accompanied by the bold decision of starting newcomers goalkeeper Kim Young-kwang and central forward Yang Dong-hyun. It did not take much time for Seongnam to get the head start. In the fourth minute, Yoo In-soo sent a cross into the penalty box and Yang Dong-hyun scored a header using his robust physical abilities. Gwangju did not give up easily. In the tenth minute, Kim Jin-hyun gave a beautiful pass near the right sideline and made a one-on-one opportunity for Doo Hyun-seok in the penalty box, but Kim Young-kwang read Doo’s mind and quickly caught the ball. While Gwangju were struggling with completing their chances, Seongnam scored another goal in the eleventh minute. Through link-up plays with Kim Dong-hyun, Yang Dong-hyun struck a superb goal that even two defenders and a goalkeeper couldn’t block. After giving two goals to opponents very early on, Gwangju pulled their defensive line up and concentrated heavily on offense. Kim Jin-hyun hitting the crossbar in the thirty-sixth minute was the closest chance the home side had in the first half although the hosts had made five shots while Seongnam made only two. The fierce flow of the match continued in the second half as well. Gwangju kept the lifted defensive line and taking shots, while Seongnam focused on counterattacks targeting the cracks in the higher backline. Although both teams made nice plays, no more goals were scored in the second half with the match ending 0-2, giving Seongnam’s manager Kim Nam-il his first win as a manager.

[Read: Gwangju vs Seongnam Full Match Recap]

Sunday, May 10th

Pohang Steelers 2-0 Busan IPark

Last year's fourth-placed side Pohang Steelers clashed with recently promoted Busan IPark at Pohang Steel Yard. Both teams are considered to have had a fine pre-season transfer window. Although Pohang had to let Wanderson Carvalho, the 2019 K League 1 Best XI midfielder, leave the team, the Steelers successfully kept other key players such as Choi Young-jun and Stanislav Iljutcenko. They also brought in competitive new foreign players including Manuel Palacios, a winger that had a successful season at FC Anyang last year, and Brandon O’Neill, the Australia national team midfielder. Busan also kept their key players such as 2019 K League 2 MVP Lee Dong-jun, and 2019 K League 2 Best XI players Rômulo da Silva and Kim Moon-hwan. In addition, the visitors have acquired Kang Min-soo, a thirty-four-year-old FIFA World Cup experienced veteran, and Gustavo Vintencinco, a robust forward from Ansan Greeners FC.

Both teams implemented a 4-3-3 formation for this match, but the styles of their tactics were quite different. While Busan put hard pressure in the midfield and attacking third to steal the ball and quickly transition from defense to offense, utilizing the team plays between Rômulo, Lee Dong-jun, and Vintencinco, Pohang concentrated on targeting the gaps in the away team’s defense caused by this tough pressure, mostly through Palacios and Kim Yong-hwan on the right side of the field. Busan's pressing strategy effectively interrupted Steelers’ build-up plays and this put Busan in the advantage position for the first ten minutes. However, Pohang soon got into their rhythm and began to send sharp passes into the right side of Busan’s defensive line, making the best use of Palacios’ explosive speed and Kim Yong-hwan’s accurate crosses. The efforts led to Iljutcenko’s fantastic headed goal in the twenty-third minute, assisted by Kim Yong-hwan. Pohang’s goal made Busan equip an even more intense pressing-counterattacking strategy. Busan substituted in Kim Byung-oh, a speedster with strong shooting skills, in the thirty-fifth minute to attempt more direct attacks on the left side of the field, but Pohang’s attacks and crosses aiming at Iljutcenko’s head was more critical than the visitors' blunt shots. In the second half, Busan’s pressure on Pohang became much looser in comparison with the first half, and this let the Steelers comfortably control the tempo of the match and dominate the overall flow. In the seventieth minute, Dostonbek Tursunov’s tackle on Iljutcenko in the penalty box was called for a foul, and Aleksandar Paločević’s calm penalty kick gave doubled Pohang's lead. After this goal, the match was pretty much over. Kim Byung-oh tried to decrease the score gap by leading Busan’s attacks but was unsuccessful in his efforts and the match ended 2-0.

[Read: Pohang Steelers vs Busan IPark Full Match Recap]

Gangwon FC 3-1 FC Seoul

The last matchup of the week was Gangwon FC versus FC Seoul. Gangwon successfully finished last season in sixth place with compliments from the fans on the Bears’ systematic passing-build-up play, which is fondly called 'Byung-soo ball' after the manager Kim Byung-soo. During the pre-season, Gangwon effectively added higher quality to their squad by acquiring league-wide renowned stars including Kim Seung-dae, Lim Chai-min, and Shin Se-gye. Meanwhile, Seoul did not have the best pre-season despite their remarkable effort in repairing the holes in the squad. Seoul brought in Kim Jin-ya, Han Chan-hee, and Adriano, star players that can improve the wing, central midfielder, and attack respectively. However, the dispute about Seoul’s treatment of their legendary players, Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Chung-yong led to controversy, and the capital-based team had to go into the season with not the highest possible morale amongst their fans.

Gangwon began the match in a 4-3-3 formation with the emphasis on the team plays between their three forwards, Kim Seung-dae, Cho Jae-wan, and Jung Seok-hwa. FC Seoul manager Choi Yong-soo chose his traditional three-center back system in a 3-5-2 formation, utilizing their high-quality wingbacks and the combination play of Park Chu-young and Park Dong-jin up front, two smart forwards that can make a difference. In the first half, although Gangwon created more effective chances through rehearsed team plays, the sharpness of the attacks was not on point yet, and Park Dong-jin’s fortunate goal in the 36th minute for Seoul made the visitors appear to be holding a dominant position in the match. But in the second half, 'Byung-soo ball' took over, seeing Gangwon performing their link-up plays and the wide use of the field in the attacking third. This made it more physically challenging for Seoul’s three-center backs, especially after Kim Nam-chun’s injury and substituting in Kim Won-sik. Gangwon’s Kim Ji-hyeon quickly scored a goal in the 52nd minute through a cross-play and the home team scored two more goals in the 84th minute with Cho Jae-wan’s FIFA Puskás Award-deserving spectacular goal, and in the 86th minute with Kim Seung-dae’s trademark line-breaking goal. Seoul failed to produce any more critical chances and the match finished 3-1.

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