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Preview: Seongnam FC vs Sangju Sangmu

After a blissful May, Seongnam FC are now facing a brutal June as they have sunk into a pit of three consecutive losses. The Magpies clash with Sangju Sangmu at home this Saturday and target to break this chain of defeats, but the Soldiers have been recording much better results in June than Seongnam especially with the victory over FC Seoul. Will the home team be able to achieve a win over the morale-boosted away team, and restart their race to the Final Round A?

Last Time Out

Seongnam FC 0-2 Suwon Samsung Bluewings

Seongnam faced Suwon at home on June 16th after two consecutive losses. After losing to Daegu FC and Ulsan Hyundai without scoring a goal from open play, the Magpies began the match with a 4-4-2 formation that would turn into a 5-3-2 formation when defending as the winger Park Soo-il joined the defensive line. Forwards, midfielders, and defenders were all placed very low in the first half, which indicates that Seongnam targeted passing the opening 45 mins without conceding a goal to Suwon. The Bluewings started with a 3-5-2 formation that consists of Lee Lim-saeng's signature three center back system. Suwon focused on the pass plays between Yeom Ki-hun and Adam Taggart while implementing hard pressure and a high defensive line.

The result was pretty much figured at fairly early on. Despite Seongnam's low defensive line, not much pressure was put on Suwon's midfielders, and this enabled the away team to deliver the ball to the front line without any obstacles. Yeom Ki-hun does not miss opportunities like that and assisted a goal of Adam Taggart in the 28th minute. Igor Jovanović, the Croatian center back in his debut match at Seongnam FC, made a positioning mistake and gave too much space for Yeom and Taggart. After conceding the first goal, the home team lowered the lines more so that even center forward Choi Oh-baek was placed inside the penalty box. This provided chances for the Blues to take mid-range shots and eventually allow Kim Min-woo to score another goal for Suwon with it in the 32nd minute. The Black Warriors substituted in Yang Dong-hyun, Hong Si-hoo, and Kwon Soon-hyung to be more offensive, but no solid attacks were made by Seongnam in the second half and the match ended 0-2.

Sangju Sangmu 1-0 FC Seoul 

Sangju clashed with Seoul at home, hoping to achieve a win and move into the top half. Seoul, on the other hand, had lost three matches in a row including a 6-0 loss to Daegu FC and needed a victory more desperately than anyone. However, Seoul started the match with many of the core players including Park Chu-young, Kim Jin-ya, Ikromjon Alibaev, and Yu Sang-hun on the bench, which indicates that Choi Yong-soo was saving up their stamina in preparation for the match against Ulsan Hyundai this Saturday. Sangju had some crucial members on the bench as well but began the match with the majority of the core players on the pitch.

The Soldiers' 4-1-4-1 formation and the capital club's 3-5-2 formation both led to the first half being played out in a very careful manner, as each team only took a single shot throughout the entire half. Going into the second half, Sangju pushed the lines up and utilized fast-paced attacks from the wings to the center. Seoul put harder pressure on Sangju's players, but this did not help much against the home team's speedy movements and build-up development. The loose pressure in the midfield enabled the North Gyeongsang side to progress toward Seoul's penalty box, which resulted in Sangju taking nine shots and the Reds taking only four in the second half. Seoul Goalkeeper Yang Han-been's incomprehensible mistake in the 58th minute gave Sangju the first goal of the match and made the game even more difficult for his team. The away team quickly pushed the lines up but the home team responded to that with a very low defensive line and Seoul could not generate definite chances. The match ended 1-0 marking Seoul's fourth consecutive loss.

Previous Meetings

Seongnam and Sangju have faced each other 17 times in total, with Seongnam winning eight matches and losing three. Last season, two teams clashed three times in the league and the Magpies won twice and lost once. The very latest matchup was in Sangju on October 27th, 2019 when Seongam defeated the home team with thanks to captain Seo Bo-min's goal in the 80th minute. The reason this match has a special significance for Seongnam is that they finalized their survival in 2020 K League 1 with this victory. 

However, since Sangju regularly replace players that are done serving their mandatory military service period and Seongnam replaced many players prior to the start of this season as well, last year's results won't be a major aspect to consider before this match. For example, among the players that formed each team's Starting XI in the last matchup, only two (Kang Sang-woo, Kim Jin-hyuk) from Sangju and four (Kim Dong-hyun, Lee Jae-won, Lee Tae-hee, Yeon Je-woon) from Seongnam are still on the team and fit for the match. 

Team News

Seongnam do not have any problem with calling upon any player of the team that played the last match versus Suwon. Sangju have a couple of players that are injured or not fit for the encounter such as Jeon Se-jin and Ryu Seung-woo, but the ones that played the last match against Seoul will be available for this game.

South Korea National Team forward Na Sang-ho joining Seongnam was a huge announcement for the K League fans. Na is on loan to Seongnam from FC Tokyo until the end of the year but despite the desire of the Magpies fans and Kim Nam-il for Na to be put into the match as soon as possible, he is not eligible to be registered to K League until June 25th. Therefore, the earliest Na can play as a Magpie will be the match against Busan IPark on the 27th.

Sangju acquired 12 new recruits on June 6th, and that includes Jeong Jae-hee from Jeonnam Dragons and Lee Jung-bin from FC Anyang who can be a meaningful addition to the team. They haven't played in the match against Seoul, so the match against Seongnam could be their debut game for Sangju.

What To Watch

Attacking Strategy

Using a back-three or back-four does not mean very much to Seongnam as Kim Nam-il orders center backs, wing backs, and midfielders to keep switching locations and cause confusion among the opponents. The defensive tactics are pretty much set for the Magpies, and they haven't shown many negatives since Seongnam have only conceded six goals so far, which is the third-fewest goals conceded in the league. What matters to Seongnam is the lack of concrete attacking strategy. Here are the few points to consider while watching the Magpies attack against Sangju:

1. Width and Location

The past matches of Seongnam have proven one thing: position themselves not too wide or not too close. When the players are standing too far from each other, they can't perform the prepared systematic pass build-ups. When they are too close to each other, the opponents' pressure will immediately stop Seongnam's progression and allow them steal the ball. The problem of too much space was shown in the matches against Suwon and Ulsan, and the issue of little space was shown in the matches against Seoul and Daegu.

Locating too widely in the match vs. Suwon (Source: K League YouTube Channel)

The problem with the width then connects to the location problems. When attacking, Seongnam players do not focus on locating themselves at the places that can create triangle formations between them, but instead, they all run into the opponent's penalty box. In order to generate sharper attacks, the players have to position themselves more effectively and get the passes going. Seongnam have been successful with this in the earlier matches of the season, but as they are going through more and more matches, the acuteness of the teamwork is decreasing.

If players were in either of the red circles, Seongnam could've made a better chance. (Source: K League YouTube Channel)

2. Vertical Positioning

The characteristics of the Magpies are that while the individual players do not possess explosive physical strength, they can utilize teamwork and generate chances through using open spaces. In order for this to happen, it is mandatory to have enough players in the attacking third. However, in recent games, Seongnam have put too much concentration on defense and placed almost everyone in the defensive third. This causes delays for the players to transition to offense, and it gave the opponents a sufficient amount of time to come back to defense and fill the open spaces. Sangju focus on lowering the line first and then counter-attacking utilizing their fast pace, so it would be a good opportunity Seongnam to raise their lines and try attacks in diverse ways.

3. Yang Dong-hyun

The two types of passes that showed the greatest potential for Seongnam were one-two passes utilizing Yang Dong-hyun's creativity, and Jamshid Iskanderov's lob passes into the penalty box which also requires Yang Dong-hyun to move from the center to the side and create open space for teammates. No matter what kind of passes Seongnam choose, Yang's effort is crucial to the systematic build-up plays and that's why his condition affects the team's performance directly. Yang's condition did not seem to be on point in recent games as he has scored no goals from open place since the first round of the season. 

Shot Accuracy

From Round Two to Round Seven, Seongnam made 29 shots on target and only scored two goals from open play. This makes the rate of goals per shots on target for Seongnam 6.9%. Considering that 30% is the usual rate, Seongnam's shot accuracy is severe. During the same period, Sangju made 32 shots on target and scored eight goals from open play. This results in 25% of the rate of goals per shots on target. If Seongnam and Sangju receive a similar number of chances, there is a much higher possibility of Sangju winning.

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Seongnam FC 2-1 Sangju Sangmu

I expect the match to be relatively slow-paced in the first half as both teams tend to approach the match carefully, and then raise their lines in the second half and target goals. Sangju's attacks are mostly progressed from the sides into the center, but this won't be very effective against Seongnam because Kim Nam-il concentrates heavily on protecting the central areas by placing many players in the center. Oh Se-hun's physical strength is not expected to have much impact against Yeon Je-woon and Igor Jovanović either. Sangju's defensive line, which has been vulnerable to fast-paced attacks, will provide many opportunities to Hong Si-hoo and Yang Dong-hyun's link-up plays and result in Seongnam's victory. 

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