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X-Ray Analysis: Ulsan Hyundai [Part One]

After having claimed continental glory last December, Champions of Asia Ulsan Hyundai underwent considerable change in the offseason as a newly appointed manager in Hong Myeong-bo looked to improve a successful Horangi side for the 2021 campaign. With the season at the halfway point, Michael Booroff and Luiz Felipe Vecchietti look at how Ulsan have transformed so far in the first of an in-depth two-part analysis.

At the end of 2020, Ulsan Hyundai won their second AFC Champions League (ACL) after defeating Iranian side Persepolis, 2-1 in the final. The team led by the striker Junior Negrao and midfielder Yoon Bit-Garam played high-quality football and were deservedly crowned the Champions of Asia. In the 2021 season, the objective of the Horangi will be to try to conquer their domestic league, after finishing 2nd in both 2019 and 2020. Worse, their rivals Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors have gone on to win 4 league titles in a row.

With the departures of big stars such as the prolific scorer Junior Negrao to Chinese Super League side, Changchun Yatai, and their captain Shin Jin-ho to rivals, Pohang Steelers, Ulsan went in to the market to find replacements. Lee Dong-jun signed from recently relegated Busan IPark, while Lukas Hinterseer (from Hamburger SV) and Vako Qazaishvili (from San Jose Earthquakes) were brought in to add to their foreign quota. In this article, Michael Booroff and Luiz Felipe Vecchietti unravel how Ulsan is playing in the first part of the 2021 K League season. The article will be split into two parts. In this part we will look at the defensive and, especially, the midfield units with Part Two focusing on the attacking aspects of the Ulsan squad, analyzing the wingers, strikers, and the under-22 players utilized by manager Hong Myung-bo.

Core tactical structure

We start this analysis by presenting Ulsan’s core tactical structure. After winning the ACL, manager Kim Do-hoon left the club but left a well-structured team to new manager Hong Myung-bo. The team is tactically structured in a 4-3-3, that, depending on the opponent and the game situation, can be modified to a 4-2-3-1. The key aspect of the team is the freedom given to the midfielders that leads to a team that is very fluid and creative. The modification from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 is fluid as the third man in midfield usually plays close to the line of the wingers. Next, the analysis is divided to better understand the defensive and midfield units, as well as the wingers and striker position.

Fig. 1 - Ulsan Hyundai 4-3-3 structure


In the footballing world, it is usually said that a good team starts by having a good goalkeeper, and it can’t be better for the Horangi than having the South Korea national team goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo as their main option. Jo, who is internationally known for his stellar performance against Germany in the 2018 World Cup, has been a consistent performer since joining from Daegu FC in 2020.

The defensive line is composed by a traditional back four with the center backs being the physical duo of Kim Kee-hee and the dutchman, Dave Builthuis. In the right-back position, Kim Tae-hwan is the main option. He possesses the most offensive characteristics, being able to attack the box and create chances from wide positions. The left-back position has Hong Chul and Seol Young-woo as the main options. Although reliable, they both lack the attacking qualities of Kim Tae-hwan and usually diagonalize play to the midfield and do not advance as high up the pitch. This nuance can be seen in Fig. 2. An important characteristic of this backline is that the central defenders usually start the construction while the right-back and the left-back advance being an option in the midfield line.

Fig. 2 - The different characteristics of Ulsan’s left-back Hong Chul (left heatmap) and Ulsan’s right back Kim Tae-hwan (right heatmap). Kim Tae-hwan has offensive characteristics and is the back advancing until the end line to generate crosses and create chances. Data from Sofascore.


With Ulsan’s tactical structure in mind (Fig. 1), the core part of the team is the midfield. It is responsible for all the creativity and fluidity that is so enjoyable while watching them play. First, we analyze the midfielders behavior as the team develops plays starting from the back. While the tactical structure usually varies between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 from game to game, a general rule for the midfield is to always have 2 players positioned in the second line in construction. With the young and promising Won Du-jae playing as the first man in the midfield and positioned as the deepest player, it often is required that one of the other two central midfielders drop to take up this position. An example of this behavior is shown in Fig.3 where Yoon Bit-garam starts deep next to Won Du-jae to create the two-man second line early in the game against Daegu FC in the sixth game of the season.

Fig. 3 - Yoon Bit-Garam drops to create the 2-man second line with Won Du-jae

Similarly, in the fourth game of the season against Pohang, Won Du-jae and Shin Hyung-min were the two players in the second line when in construction as presented in Fig. 4.

Fig. 4 -  Won Du-jae and Shin Hyung-min forming the second line against the Pohang Steelers.

The interesting aspect of this perspective is how they go about creating this pattern. The second line is formed in a fluid manner rather than in a fixed way. Manager Hong Myung-bo seems to allow the players to interpret this decision independently on the field rather than being strict in which player should be positioned alongside Won Du-jae.

To help explain this concept, we will base our analysis in the global-to-local and local-to-global concepts by Ribeiro et al’s recent research. While they explain that team patterns and tendencies are often explained in a global way (seeing the tendencies as a team pattern), often patterns and actions in-game occur in a local way (the interactions and decisions between individual players). They highlight that the link between global and local tendencies are inclusive of each other, meaning that they mutually influence each other:

“It is important to note that inter-level causal relations flow in both directions (global-to-local and local-to-global) continuously and mutually influencing each other. In team sports, a game model and tactical principles of play may be influential at a global-to-local scale, thus shaping the local interactions of players, which function at a local-to-global scale.”

The positioning of Ulsan’s three central midfielders in possession can be used as an example to explain these inter-level causal relations. From a global-to-local scale, the tactical principle would be to have two players in the second line during build-up. The second line with two players shapes the actions of the team and the patterns are trained in a certain way to achieve this, potentially constraining individual players and team structure. On a local-to-global scale, however, the tactical principle remains the same, yet the patterns used in order to achieve this are created through the self-organisation of the individuals on the pitch, based on what is occurring in the moment of the game. In other words, the second or third midfielder will independently choose which one to line up in the second line based on the current game state.

With the idea of Hong Myung-bo allowing more freedom for his players to create these desired tactical outcomes within games, a snapshot of the 1-0 win versus Gwangju in the 2nd round (Fig. 5) can give a better idea of this. In one instance it is Lee Dong-gyeong dropping beside Won Du-jae, with Yoon Bit-garam positioned higher up the pitch. Almost a minute later, the same scenario occurs for Ulsan, although this time it is Yoon Bit-garam dropping beside Won Du-jae, while Lee Dong-gyeong is the highest midfielder.

Fig. 5 -  Lee Dong-gyeong (Upper Image) or Yoon Bit-Garam (Lower Image) will drop alongside Won Du-jae to create the second line in construction.

Rene Maric, assistant coach of Borussia Monchengladbach (and soon to be Borussia Dortmund’s manager), also notes how the players must interpret the tactical outcomes of their teams through their own abilities and qualities. In the Between the Lines Podcast, Rene outlines how the team and tactical outcomes should be geared towards the players.

‘What we have to do as a coach is give a platform, a reference, an orientation for the players that they are able to do the right decision, in the right moment together with their teammates in order to win […] We have to always think of the players, always think of their intentions, always think about giving them support to what they do because in the end it’s their game it’s not our game.’

This concept is also corroborated by the recently appointed Bayern Munich 33 year-old manager Julian Nagelsmann. He addresses that the manager should be able to take into consideration the quality of the players and their game understanding to ensure that the team play well in a tactical set-up.

One key player that acts as a joker in Ulsan’s midfield is Yoon Bit-Garam, the ACL 2020 MVP. The creative midfielder is usually positioned as the second man of the midfield and plays a big role in the fluidity of Ulsan’s play. Yoon is given more freedom to move around the field based on his game understanding. The midfielder is able to always create triangulation opportunities for teammates, play box-to-box in offensive and defensive situations, and still be able to perform highlight plays:

The analysis of Ulsan’s midfield wouldn’t be complete without an analysis of the third man in their midfield. This will be done by viewing the differences between Vako Qazaishvili and Lee Dong-gyeong when playing as the third midfielder. Depending on which player is deployed as the third midfielder, subtle but significant changes are observed in the tactical structure, especially in the context of their relationship with Yoon Bit-Garam in midfield. 

Vako was a significant addition to this midfield after signing from the MLS. The 28-year-old midfielder adds the ability to play as the third man and also as the left winger in Ulsan’s tactical structure. Against FC Seoul in the 8th round, Ulsan started in a 4-2-3-1 with Vako as the third man in the midfield in the ACM role. Vako has the tendency of playing in the left half-space as can be seen in the right figure in Fig. 6. Interestingly, during the game against Ulsan, his positioning was really similar to the one from his MLS days as you can see in the left figure in Fig. 6.

Fig. 6 - Vako heatmap during the 2020 playing for the San Jose Earthquakes in MLS (left heatmap) and Vako heatmap against FC Seoul in the 2021 K League 8th round (right heatmap). Data from Sofascore.

Despite starting in the ACM role to combine with striker Kim Ji-hyeon, Vako’s tendency of moving left slowly appeared during the game. In this way, Yoon Bit-Garam, who was the second man in the midfield, moved right to balance the midfield structure. In the second half after Lukas Hinterseer’s inclusion as the striker, the team moved to the traditional 4-3-3 structure, with Vako being the third midfielder on the left. Examples of Vako's positioning during the second half of the game against FC Seoul is shown in Fig. 7. In the match, Vako was also rewarded by an incisive individual play and scored the second goal of Ulsan’s 3-2 victory.

Fig. 7 - Vako positioned in the left while Yoon Bit-Garam is positioned towards the right side of the field (Upper Image). Vako positioned in the left half space (Lower Image).

Lee Dong-gyeong mainly plays on the right side of the field when deployed as the third midfielder. As can be seen in the 12th round match v Incheon United, when the young and promising technical midfielder takes up positions on the right side, Yoon Bit-garam will balance the midfielder by positioning on the left side. In the right figure in Fig. 8 the tactical structure and positioning of the midfield trio Won Du-jae, Yoon Bit-Garam, and Lee Dong-gyeong can be clearly seen. With this configuration, Lee Dong-gyeong was able to create triangulations with winger Lee Dong-jun and right back Kim Tae-hwan, as seen in the left figure in Fig. 8. This flexibility in Ulsan’s midfield positioning has been an interesting part of the team’s culture in the past few years.

Fig. 8 - Lee Dong-gyeong on the left part of the field creating combinations with winger Lee Dong-jun and right back Kim Tae-hwan (Upper image). Ulsan positioned in a 4-3-3 with Yoon Bit-Garam positioned on the left as the 2nd man in the midfield and with Lee Dong-gyeong positioned on the right as the 3rd man in the midfield (Lower image).

With the understanding of the midfield units we conclude Part One of this article. So far we have seen how Ulsan have set up this season in up to the attacking third. In the second part of this article, we look into how the qualities of the wingers and the characteristics of the forwards affect Ulsan game strategy. We also investigate the versatility of the U22 players and how Hong Myung-bo has deployed them this season.

Part Two can be found here.

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