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X-Ray Analysis: Ulsan Hyundai [Part Two]

As the K League 1 goes into a month and a half long break for World Cup qualifiers and the AFC Champions League, Ulsan find themselves top of the table. Before they have a chance to consolidate that position and aim to win their first league title since 2005, they have the small matter of attempting to retain their AFC Champions League title. In order to do this, they’ll need to replace the goals of Junior Negrao, including the two goals scored in the final against Persepolis. In the second part of this article, we cover in depth the attacking line, and how Ulsan and some of their new recruits have attempted to do this.

If you missed Part One of this analysis it can be seen here.


Integral to Ulsan’s offense is the role of their wingers. They are dynamic and incisive, whilst usually positioned open and wide to control the team’s depth and create the space for the midfield to play box to box. In addition, they have a lot of depth in the position, with multiple options having varied characteristics. Hong Myung-bo usually selects different wingers for every match which makes it hard for the opponent team to prepare when facing Ulsan.

The main options at left-wing consist of Kim In-sung and Vako. These players have really different characteristics and Ulsan’s play changes considerably based on who is deployed as the left-winger. Kim In-sung positions himself open and wide. He is incisive and likes to dribble against the opponent’s right back to create advantages, which can be seen in the left part of Fig 9. Vako, on the other hand, and as mentioned before, likes to position himself in the left half-space. He does not have the characteristics to attack open and wide. Usually, when he is deployed as the left-winger, another midfielder or the left-back will occupy the wide space while attacking.

Fig. 9 - Kim In-sung positions himself open and wide before dribbling the right back in the game against FC Seoul (Upper Picture). Vako usually plays positioned in the half space on the left part of the field as in the game against Gwangju (Lower Picture).

To the right-wing, Ulsan have Lee Dong-jun and Lee Chung-yong. In order to fit both into the line-up, sometimes Lee Dong-jun can be deployed as a striker with Lee Chung-yong as the right-winger. When playing as a winger, Lee Dong-jun is a dangerous threat playing wide. His speed and dribbling skills create advantages to Ulsan in almost any interaction in which he is involved in. This positioning can be seen against Jeonbuk in the left part of Fig. 10. 

The other option on the right-wing is veteran winger Lee Chung-yong. Ulsan’s captain adds experience and is a complete player that plays both wide and also moves to the half-space and attacks the box. In the right part of Fig. 10, Lee Chung-yong is shown (versus Pohang Steelers) taking up a wide position on the right with the ability to cross into the box. However, he has missed games in the last few rounds due to injury. In this case, under-22 Kim Min-jun has stepped up as another versatile wide option, able to play either as the left or right-winger. The performance of Kim Min-jun and the other under-22 options for Ulsan will be analyzed further later in this article.

Fig. 10 - Lee Dong-jun gives the option to receive a pass playing as the right-winger in the game against Jeonbuk (Upper Image). Lee Chung-yong playing as the right-winger prepared to cross in the game against Pohang (Lower Image).

Strikers: Kim Ji-hyeon vs Lukas Hinterseer

Ulsan had one of the most prolific striking duos in the 2020 season. Junior and Bjorn Johnsen combined for 31 goals during the K League 1 season, with Junior responsible for 26 of them. That tally was enough to win him the league’s golden boot award. With both strikers departing during the offseason Ulsan had to look for replacements during the winter transfer window. This eventually led them to signing Kim Ji-hyeon from Gangwon FC and the Austrian International, Lukas Hinterseer from Hamburg SV. 

With the big pressure to replace Junior and Bjorn Johnsen, it has not been an easy start for them. The role both of these strikers have played has varied based on their own qualities, and both have been important to how Ulsan progress the ball into the attacking third, as well as their ability to link and combine play with the midfielders and wingers around them.

Kim Ji-hyeon's playing style can be interpreted more as playing in the ‘Giroud’ role when starting this season.  While Kim Ji-hyeon is less relied upon to score goals for the team (he’s only netted once this season in his 12 appearances), his role could be viewed more for his capacity to drop off of the defensive line in order to receive the ball and combine with advanced players. For example, in the Bluewings game in the 10th round, Kim Ji-hyeon would take up positions where you might expect a striker to make a penetrating run to break the defensive line. Instead, he would check back to use the available space in front of the defensive line to receive the ball as shown in Fig. 11. He positions himself in the centre backs blindside, before moving in front in between the lines to receive and create combination opportunities.

Fig. 11 - Kim Ji-hyeon moving back to receive the ball and combine with the wingers and midfielders.

Then, minutes later in the same game, when the ball is in a wide position you’d expect a striker to advance into the box to receive a cross. Instead, Kim checks back to receive the ball to feet in the space in front of the defensive line (Fig. 12). This is probably the biggest difference between Kim Ji-hyeon when compared with Hinterseer playing in the number 9 role. With Kim Ji-hyeon being a player that looks to position so that he can bring others into play, Lukas Hinterseer is more varied in his movements depending on where the ball is located.

Fig. 12 - Kim Ji-hyeon checks back to receive the ball in front of the defensive line opposed to attacking the box to receive a cross.

Hinterseer has found it more difficult to break into the team since his arrival. So far this season, he has only managed seven starts, and featured in 12 of Ulsan’s 18 league games. While there is a level of acclimatisation to a new league and to a completely different culture, some have attributed his slow start to his dietary requirements, with Hinterseer being a vegan. Dietary requirements apart, there always exists an additional pressure when you replace a striker like Junior Negrao that scored 84 goals during his three seasons in Ulsan.

Hinterseer, similarly to Kim Ji-hyeon, in specific situations will move back to receive and combine with his fellow attacking teammates. An example is shown in Fig. 13 in the game against Gwangju (13th round). While he is not the intended receiver from Dave Bulthuis’ pass, his position off the opposition defensive line allows him to receive before combining with Yoon Bit-garam who has made a movement beyond the ball into the box to receive the pass.

Fig. 13 - Hinterseer receives the ball while positioned back from the box to combine with Yoon Bit-Garam.

What separates Hinterseer from Kim Ji-hyeon is that while he will drop deeper to receive the ball, This is primarily only done when the ball is in central areas. When the ball has been moved into wide areas, Hinterseer looks to make vertical movements into the box in order to receive the ball from a cross or a through ball. Hinterseer possesses the quality where he can move to meet the ball (either with a header or his feet). An example of this behavior is shown in Fig. 14 of the play in which he scores against Gwangju (13th round). To create the chance he is able to find the space to receive from Kim Tae-hwan, control the ball and then convert for his first goal of the season. There was also a similar scenario shown in the right part of Fig. 14 that occurred during the second half, although at that time he was unable to convert.

Fig. 14 - Hinterseer drop deeper to receive the ball in the box.

Lee Dong-jun as a striker

While much has been made of his impact as a winger, Lee Dong-jun has also been deployed as a central striker this season. Especially when winger, and ex-Bolton man Lee Chung-yong, is available to play as both have a preference to play as the right winger. Usually, a winger like Lee Dong-jun, is often seen as a ‘false 9’ when used as a striker. This is common as it is expected that they will perform their usual roles and responsibilities but from the forward position. However, observing Lee Dong-jun’s behavior as a striker, it is noted that his characteristics can be viewed as playing more as a ‘true’ number 9 than either of the other striker options, Kim Ji-hyeon and Hinterseer.

Whereas Kim Ji-hyeon would look to drop deeper and involve himself in build up, Lee Dong-jun often looks to make movements to receive the ball beyond the defensive line. This can be seen against Incheon in the 3rd round (Fig. 15). In both scenarios, there is an open passing lane in which he could receive a short pass. Instead, he is able to use his speed and movement off the ball to exploit the space behind the centre backs and run deep. 

Fig. 15 -  Lee Dong-jun behavior playing as a striker against Incheon in the 3rd round. He tries to exploit the space behind the defenders using his speed. 

A similar scenario occurs versus Pohang Steelers in the 4th round (Fig. 16). With Yoon Bit-garam in possession between the Steelers’ lines, you’d imagine a player such as Lee Dong-jun to drop into a pocket of space to receive and combine. However, in a counterintuitive way, one more time he makes a movement to try and break the opposition defensive line. While he doesn’t get the ball, this is a strong play tactically. He forces Pohang’s defenders to track his movement, creating more space for Yoon Bit-garam to attack the box. Unfortunately in this example, Yoon Bit-garam is eventually dispossessed.

Fig. 16 -  Lee Dong-jun behavior playing as a striker. He makes the movement to break the opposing defensive line in a counterintuitive way. His movement also open space for the midfielders that are attacking the box.

Another important characteristic of Lee Dong-jun this season is his ability to press the ball when Ulsan is out of possession. Sometimes, even if he is the only player pressuring the ball he is able to effectively disrupt the opponent’s play. As mentioned by Steve Han, Lee Dong-jun’s ability to close down the ball at speed constantly puts opposition players under pressure:


Being able to disrupt the opposition’s build-up in this way is beneficial in that not only is there the chance of winning the ball back, but it also reduces the amount of time the opposition have to take up positions to progress the ball. Firstly, the goalkeeper has less time to assess the best option to maintain possession. Secondly, the defenders have a reduced amount of time to drop and be a passing option. With Lee Chung-yong sidelined with an injury between the 6th and the 16th round, Lee Dong-jun was deployed less as striker, being deployed mainly as the right-winger during that time. With Lee Chung-yong back from injury against Jeonbuk in the 17th round (Fig. 17), he, once again, played as a striker in the second half. Again, he has shown that he is capable of performing the striker role efficiently and can be a dangerous threat for the opponent's centre backs. His superior speed and vertical movements were able to create goal-scoring opportunities for Ulsan. Playing as a striker he scored the 4th goal in what was a pivotal 4-2 win against the current league champions.

Fig. 17 - Lee Dong-jun as a striker against Jeonbuk in the 17th round. With Lee Chung-yong back from injury he is again deployed as a striker in the 2nd half. His vertical movement is key in the play in which he scored the 4th Ulsan goal in the match with a great assist by Vako.

The relationship of Hong Myung-bo and the under-22 players

When Hong Myung-bo was appointed as a manager, it was mentioned of his willingness to utilise more young players, as well as renewing the squad. Ulsan has one of the best youth academies in the K League. The team also invested part of it’s prize after winning the ACL in their youth academies. With that in mind, one word until now to define the use of the youngsters by Hong Myung-bo is flexibility. Even though the youth revolution has not started yet, this season it has shown signs of the confidence that the manager has in his young players. Most of Ulsan’s midfielders and wingers are able to perform more than one role in the team’s tactical structure and this is not different with the under-22 players.

The main options in the under-22 role for Ulsan this season are 21-year-old Kim Min-jun and 19-year-old Kang Yung-gu. A key difference from other young players used by other K League teams this season is that these players usually start in different roles in Ulsan’s tactical structure in subsequent games. This characteristic allows Hong Myung-bo to rotate the squad easier and also shows that he relies on the youngsters to understand the team’s tactical structure. Kang Yung-gu has already played as the third man in the midfield, in the right-wing, and in the left-wing. While Kim Min-jun is usually deployed as the right or left winger depending on which winger is rested or starts as a substitute. He already scored three goals this season. Against Pohang in the 4th round he scored playing as the left-winger, getting the chance after Lee Dong-jun’s play:

Against FC Seoul in the 8th round, on the other hand, he scored playing as the right-winger, attacking the box after Ulsan’s play originated from the left. Dynamic options for the Horangi from their youth squad are being introduced slowly and are expected to be the core of the team in the following years. Players like Won Du-jae, Lee Dong-gyeong, Kim Min-jun, Kang Yung-gu, Kim Ji-hyeon, and Lee Dong-jun are the exponents of a squad that wants to keep competing for the title in the next few years.


Columnist’s best line up

Michael Booroff: (4-3-3) Jo Hyeon-woo; Kim Tae-hwan, Kim Kee-hee, Dave Bulthuis, Hong Chul; Won Du-jae, Yoon Bit-Garam, Lee Dong-gyeong; Vako, Kim Min-jun, Lee Dong-jun

Luiz Felipe Vecchietti: (4-3-3) Jo Hyeon-woo ; Kim Tae-hwan ; Kim Kee-hee ; Dave Bulthuis ; Hong Chul ; Won Du-jae ; Yoon Bit-Garam ; Vako ; Kim In-sung ; Lee Chung-yong; Lee Dong-jun

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