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Cho Deok-jae: What Went Wrong



After successfully guiding Busan IPark back into the K League 1 in his debut season in charge, Cho Deok-jae is now without a job after resigning with four games of the season to play. With Busan at the bottom of the league and in serious danger of relegation, Tomas Marcantonio takes a look at what went wrong for the former club hero.


Transfers

A Promising Start 

Cho’s first transfer window at the club can be considered a success. Although there were several misfires in Cho’s first summer (the needless acquisition of midfielder Lee Hu-kwon, the re-signing of over-the-hill Han Sang-woon, and the injury-prone Jeong Seong-min among them), Cho brought in several key players who would go on to contribute heavily to Busan’s promotion. 

The return of fan favourite Park Jong-woo was a win on and off the field, while Kwon Yong-hyun was an inconsistent but useful option off the bench. More critically, the foreign trio of Soma Novothny, Aleksandar Susnjar, and Diego Mauricio all had huge roles to play in getting Busan back to the top tier. 

Aleksandar Susnjar (left) and Soma Novothny both played key roles last season.

Although Susnjar and Diego were far from complete players, Susnjar’s aggressive brand of defending paid dividends in certain matches, and the unpredictable Diego provided inspiration in key moments towards the end of the season. Best of all was Novothny, an old-fashioned poacher who proved himself to be both a deputy and a partner to Lee Jeong-hyup. 

Cho should also be lauded for signing goalkeeper Choi Pil-su in mid-season. The former Anyang custodian seemed to transform Busan’s fragile defence overnight, bringing a calm head and a safe pair of hands to the team’s successful promotion bid. 

Unfortunately for Cho, the following year’s signings didn’t fare as well… 

Transfer Troubles

A quick glance through Cho’s 2020 transfers doesn’t make pleasant reading for Busan fans. Aside from veteran centre back Kang Min-soo, arguably none of Cho’s signings this year have improved the team.

Kim Dong-woo and Kim Jeong-hyun are solid squad players, but veteran Kim Ho-jun has been no more reliable than Busan’s K League 2 keepers, and left back Yun Suk-young has missed most of the season through injury. Winger Kim Byong-oh, meanwhile, has frustrated supporters more than any Royals player in recent memory, his undoubted talent only bettered by his failure to produce any kind of end product. 

The foreign signings, crucially, have also failed to live up to expectations. Dostonbek Tursunov is commanding but error-prone, and striker Gustavo Vintencinco looks to be playing a division above his level. Worst of all is Jonatan Reis, who was shipped out as soon as possible but never replaced. 

Winger Kim Seung-joon has failed to score or assist since joining the club this summer.

Cho could have turned Busan’s season around in the summer with one or two shrewd signings, but again he went in the wrong direction. Striker Kim Hyun could become a useful signing if Busan turn out in the K2 next year, but he was never going to seriously trouble top tier defences. Kim Seung-joon has been anonymous at best and poor at worst, his loan swap with Han Ji-ho made all the more baffling given Han’s special relationship with the fans and his ‘one club man’ status. The signing of Lee Rae-jun, meanwhile, who wasn’t even first choice at K2’s Ansan Greeners and comes into an already overloaded midfield, simply boggles the mind.

Injuries and the Missing Link

Busan’s midfield is easily their strongest area of the pitch – they have a goalscoring pass master in Romulo, a technically gifted worker ant in Lee Gyu-seong, and a wily defensive anchor in Park Jong-woo. Add in the solid presence of Kim Jeong-hyun and the promise of U22 midfielder Kwon Hyeok-kyu, and Busan seem to be stocked well beyond their means. 

However, none of the above-mentioned midfielders has the skillset of Kim Jin-kyu. Kim is the only one able to successfully link midfield and attack. He has the innate ability to find spaces in the hole, drag defenders out of position, indulge in interplay with the front three around the opposition box. Kim missed a large chunk of the season this year and, without him, Busan’s front three look isolated and incompetent. You only need to look at Kim’s cameo in the 4-2 win over Gangwon earlier this year, or his recent appearance on return from injury last weekend, to see how Busan have missed him. 

Kim Jin-kyu has only made three starts for Busan this season.

Of course, Cho must take some responsibility for this problem. Injuries are a part of football, and Cho had ample opportunity to sign an understudy or competitor for Kim’s position, and yet he didn’t. 

Lee Jeong-hyup, no stranger to injury throughout his career, has also faced short but frequent spells out through injury this year. He has been sorely missed when absent, but again Cho must take the flack. The bottom line is that Vintecinco (for all his undoubted effort) has not been able to do what Novothny excelled in last season – namely scoring goals and providing quality in depth up front

Tactical Ineptitude

All of the above may have been forgiven by supporters had Cho Deok-jae shown more tactical nous this year. Unfortunately, the vultures have been circling for a while, and rightly so. 

Last season, Cho picked up where Choi Yun-kyum left off: the Busan class of 2019 had more than a little of “we’re going to score one more than you” about them. Dodgy in defence but often exhilarating going forward, Busan rarely looked short of pace, goals, or attacking flair. 

Fast forward a year and Busan's goal tally often mirrors the number of supporters in stadiums. Cho’s tactical gear-change while Busan adjusted to a higher level of football seemed admirable at first. Impressive early performances against Jeonbuk and Ulsan were built on solid organization and admirable work-rate, and Busan rarely looked like shipping goals as they did against lowly K2 clubs last season. 

The problem Cho faced was adjusting his tactics for games that would appear to be more winnable. Busan’s first victory of the season (against an Incheon side that at the time looked hopeless) was unconvincing, and only came to fruition thanks to a stunning Kim Moon-hwan strike. Then there was June’s draw with Seongnam FC, in which Busan played the entire second half with a player advantage (and the final ten minutes with a two-man swing) and yet needed a Romulo stunner just to secure a draw. Instead of reverting to their attacking ways when teams are there for the taking, Busan seem unable to muster even an ounce of creativity. 

Put simply, Busan look bereft of ideas and ability. Busan’s 2019 attack was based on speed and one-touch interplay around the opposition box. Busan’s 2020 front three often operate so far apart they’re almost in different time zones. Long balls have become far more common than through balls or triangle interplays through the midfield, and the spark and balance of last season is entirely absent. 

Lee Dong-jun has been Busan's prime source of chances this season.

Without an attacking midfield presence to knit the front line together, and with a desperately lacking left side, Busan are entirely one dimensional. The team under Cho has been overly reliant on Lee Dong-jun’s pace on the right wing, supported by Kim Moon-hwan at right back. Unsurprisingly, K League 1 teams didn’t take long to figure this out. 

The Plan B of long balls has become the new Plan A, and Busan’s footballing identity under Cho has dive-bombed.


Chances of Survival

Busan IPark must surely now be the favourites to be relegated. Incheon United, who earlier in the season looked an absolute certainty to go down despite their record of great escapes, suddenly look invigorated. They have the wind in their sails, while Busan have lost their sails and captain altogether.

The good news for Busan is that their fate is entirely in their own hands. Four wins will guarantee survival. More likely, wins over Incheon and Seongnam would ensure their top flight status for next season. The question is: is this team capable? 

The return to fitness of Kim Jin-kyu could be the crucial card in Busan’s beleaguered pack. His cameo last weekend showed glimpses of the Busan of last year. After his introduction, the whole Busan attack looked sharper – even sometimes slick – and if Kim can play significant minutes in the final four games then this team has a chance of scoring goals. 

Of course, much will also rely on the tactics of stand-in gaffer Lee Ki-hyung. Will the former Incheon coach trust in the team’s attacking talents enough to take games to the opposition? Or will the one-dimensional, long-ball tactics of Cho remain?


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Cho Deok-jae's Legacy


Despite the whimpering end to Cho’s managerial career at Busan, he is still held in high regard by Busan supporters. Most will be relieved that he has finally stepped aside after months of discontent, but that doesn’t mean they will forget what he has done for the club. 

Even those with the shortest of memories will tell you how thoroughly the team deserved their promotion after four years of disappointment. Those with longer memories will also recall Cho Deok-jae the midfielder, a player who kitted up for the club (then known as Daewoo Royals) over 200 times. 

While this season won’t go down as Cho’s finest hour, he will still be revered by the club and its supporters. And he, as much as anyone, will be willing them to do enough in the next four games to avoid relegation. 


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