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Further Impressions of Jeonbuk's New Era

Wednesday evening saw the top two teams in Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Ulsan Hyundai clash in what morphed into a breathless six-goal thriller with both sides throwing caution to the wind in hopes of taking an advantage in this campaign's title race. Jeonbuk columnist Matthew Binns takes a look at the match and offers further impressions of the Kim Sang-sik era now a third of the season is complete.

Forget the Result For Now. Did It Entertain?

For what the final score was and the doom-mongering it may generate in Jeonbuk circles of two home defeats in a row, there was certainly one thing that this match proved to be: fun. Obsession over winning at any cost can sometimes remove the wider picture of entertainment value, and for a highly-billed match that has proved to be a letdown on numerous occasions, Wednesday night's encounter certainly delivered when it came to retaining attention.

In fact, Jeonbuk's stifling, shotless play has become even more pronounced this season meaning there was delight to be found in seeing this highly talented side still retains the knowledge on how to attack and is willing to throw caution to the wind. Granted, their hand may have been forced into it by a frankly excellent opener from Ulsan youngster Kim Min-jun on the nine-minute mark, but once this match kicked into life, it rarely paused for breath.

Manager Kim Sang-sik would lament defensive mistakes, but he did have a point about being encouraged by his side here. Statistically speaking, this was Jeonbuk's best-attacking performance this season. While not the more crucial actual goals, what was expected (xG) was their highest of the season with 3.08, while Ulsan recorded an equally impressive 2.78. Jeonbuk also managed to get 14 shots away, their second-highest of the season, with 50% finding the target. 

Perhaps hardly breathtaking on the surface, but considering the reverse of this fixture saw 11 shots shared between the two sides with only one on frame, it was certainly a strong indicator of how different this clash of title contenders fared to their previous bouts. 

Furthermore, prior to this match, Ulsan had boasted possession of over 60% for five consecutive matches, yet Jeonbuk wrestled back control in this encounter to record 51.66%. Sure, statistics cannot make up for the scoreline, and Ulsan were worthy winners, but for a match in which they conceded four and lost ground in the title race, there's a lot of things Kim Sang-sik should be encouraged by moving forward. 

Where Did It Go Wrong?

While there was a case that the unexpected ten-day break could give Jeonbuk time to refocus after their first defeat of the season, the opening exchanges in this encounter proved evidence to the contrary. Shellshocked by a hungry Horangi side, the Champions defence found itself regularly breached early by the quick passing combinations of Ulsan’s front three Lukas Hinterseer, Kim Min-jun and Vako Qazaishvilli. With Yoon Bit-garam also playing to the high standards he has become renowned for, Jeonbuk's backline found itself on the backfoot as it tried to maintain its poise. 

Kim Min-jun's opener, depending on which side of the supporting line you fall on, was part individual brilliance, part invitation extended by a welcoming defence. With Choi Chul-soon still picking himself up from a foul further up the pitch, defensive midfielder Ryu Jae-moon moved across to help provide cover. Choi Bo-kyung also tried to thwart the youngster advancing down the right, yet Kim danced between the pair into the penalty box to slot cooly into the back of the net.

There was also a case to suggest that Jeonbuk goalkeeper Song Beom-keun should have done better on the night. While the ball was struck low and with pace, it appeared close enough to the goalkeeper that, had he been more alert, something could have been done to parry it wide.

Set piece defending was suspect for Ulsan's second, with Yoon Bit-garam's corner finding Lukas Hinterseer at the far post. Hinterseer managed to step back from his marker Choi Chul-soon with ease to find space and struck home easily enough. For a player marking his 400th K League appearance, Choi's uncharacteristic lapse of concentration betrayed his 15 years of experience.

Song's rough night would continue on the Horangi's third when he moved to punch clear Yoon Bit-garam's freekick, yet missed to grant Dave Bulthuis a free header and Ulsan the lead once more. Two uncharacteristic mistakes that cost his side.

Ulsan's fourth goal served to underline Jeonbuk’s lack of pace at the back. With Lee Yong having progressed forward into an attacking position, he was out of the picture when Lee Dong-jun was played through, leaving centre-backs Choi Bo-kyung and Hong Jeong-ho tracking back to no avail. While Hong is no slouch, the threat of a fresh Lee Dong-jun, only on the pitch for a matter of minutes, was always going to be of concern and so it proved.

Replacing Son Jun-ho

Kim Sang-sik made the decision to start Ryu Jae-moon as a defensive midfielder, drop Choi Young-jun from the starting eleven, and keep Paik Seung-ho out altogether for tactical reasons. Speaking pre-match, the manager cited Ryu's distribution as the reason for his selection and noting that Choi Young-jun can provide strength, but was not required. Arguably, Choi could have been utilised here to quell Ulsan’s attack, but there should be some plaudits given to the manager for taking a risk that focused on moving things forward. After four matches winless, and their lead at the summit decreasing, the bold decision demonstrated Kim was not focused on only drawing, but winning the match.

The void left by Son Jun-ho’s departure this winter still has not been fully filled. The three players brought in are all still staking their claims to his throne. Son had sound defensive sensibilities and could construct attacking plays as well, at times dragging Jeonbuk through matches with showings that saw him claim K League's MVP last year. Choi Young-jun does seem the most viable candidate at present, but seems more of an heir to Shin Hyung-min rather than Son. Ryu being handed the reigns in a sizable match shows his potential is recognised as a more creative option and points towards an acknowledgement that Jeonbuk's attack is stale despite the goals. While Paik Seung-ho didn't feature, he will be able to make his case for the role this weekend with the manager saying he will feature in the trip to Daegu.

The Kids Are Still Not Alright

Since the opening day of the season, Kim Sang-sik has tried to utilise the new five substitute rule to ensure his senior players have remained fresh and provide them all minutes. This has been at the expense of youth players with the manager's tactical preference being often to field two U22 players early on with a view to take them off around the twenty-minute mark. An alternative option has been to replace goalkeeper Song Beom-keun towards the end of a match with young goalkeeper Kim Jeong-hoon so a fifth substitute can then be made elsewhere on the pitch. This latter option will cease to exist shortly as Kim heads to do his military service early next month.

While the rule has proven controversial, it has exposed Jeonbuk's lack of youth talent coming through. With teams like Ulsan, Suwon Samsung Bluewings, and Pohang boasting talented U22 players that not only meet the quota, but are first-team players in their own right, Jeonbuk have found themselves at a disadvantage. Last season, Jeonbuk bought their way out of the problem with the acquisition of Cho Gue-sung. This year, no such moves were made and we are now witnessing the talent gap between Jeonbuk's youth and senior sides. 

Seeing Jung Sang-bin score against them for Suwon, and then Kim Min-jun dance through the defence for Ulsan, Jeonbuk have suffered their two defeats partly at the hands of envious youthful talents. Given Jeonbuk's significant advantage in resources, not being able to bring through players of equal calibre must irk Kim Sang-sik. That said, these sides have also been willing to trust them, something Jeonbuk's manager has opted not to do. Not one U22 player has seen more than a half for Jeonbuk this season and, as long as they continue not to trust and develop these players and this quota stays in place, they will fall farther behind rivals who are making the best of the rule.

Does Song Beom-keun Need Time Out of the Side?

While Song is undoubtedly a talented ‘keeper, questions are beginning to be raised over his performances in recent rounds. This is not the first time the shot stopper has gone through a bad spell, with errors early on last season drawing the attention of the masses. However, Song pulled himself through that and there is little to suggest he cannot do the same here too. Still, with Song continuing to be considered a key figure in Kim Hak-bum's U23 National Team and the number one choice to represent Korea at the Tokyo Olympics, his patch of poor form is of imminent concern to the supporters of the Taeguk Warriors.

There may be little harm in Kim Sang-sik considering other options in order to give Song some time on the sidelines. Lee Bum-young is still within the ranks yet has rarely had a chance to shine due to a season-long injury in 2019 and a shortened season last year. Lee has made just one appearance for the club, but his solid reputation still remains and could provide the competition needed for that starting place. With the Olympics set to take place during the K League schedule at the end of July, offering minutes to the goalkeeper who will likely be called upon to fill in during that time could also have its advantages.

Moving Forward

Despite the defeat, there were positives to be drawn from Jeonbuk's latest performance. Lessons should focus on what went right as well as what didn't, but there is no denying the Champions are in poor form and have mostly played football that has been far from their attacking potential. While Wednesday proved to be the exception and hopefully a sign of things to come, there are areas of the pitch that are posing problems and need to be addressed.

Youth is required to fully take advantage of the five substitute rule, but also to play in the spirit of it. Either trust and develop the players that have come through, or sign a promising young talent in the summer and continue to put band-aids over the greater issue for now to continue the club's short-term focus in this department. 

Full backs are also needed and should be high priority. Lee Yong is still talented but his best days are behind him and Lee You-hyeon should be given more of a chance to prove himself. Choi Chul-soon has done an admiral job, but is not a natural left-back while Lee Ju-young, an actual left-back, is deemed not as good as a makeshift option. These issues should have been addressed in the winter but weren't. They must be taken seriously in the summer if the club wish to defend their title.

So far this season, Jeonbuk have found their way to victories through endless conservative passing and taking their time to create opportunities or wait for them to arise. They have overwhelmed opponents with squad depth and struck once they wore them down. They rank 11th out of 12 for shots taken, yet have scored the most in the division, and have netted 22 of their 28 goals in the second half. Of those 28 goals, eleven have come from substitutes. This luxury of being able to play rope-a-dope may have proved effective earlier in the year, but teams are adjusting and are now striking first. What's worse, it's just dull for a team that boasts some of the most exciting talent in the league.

A lengthy unbeaten run has masked issues up until now. Hopefully, the losses to Suwon and Ulsan prove welcome in trying to address Jeonbuk's underwhelming showings and see Kim Sang-sik move out of his predecessors' tactics and shadow to develop his own style as a manager. 

Ideally, that style proves to be as entertaining as Wednesday night.

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