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Paik Seung-ho Could Prove Pivotal to Saving Jeonbuk's Season

Paik Seung-ho Could Prove Pivotal to Saving Jeonbuk's Season

As a side in transition, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors have arguably not lived up to their own lofty ambitions this season, boasting envious talent yet failing to take advantage of title rivals Ulsan Hyundai's own managerial and tactical switches. However, Jeonbuk's moves in the transfer market were well-considered and perhaps none more so than the acquirement of Barcelona-trained Paik Seung-ho in the hope that he could relaunch his career while helping Jeonbuk to a fifth-straight title. While things may not have got off to the start expected, recent performances are now showing that the player may well be a key figure in the final run-in.

For Those Unacquainted...

Almost a known quantity from the age of 13, Paik Seung-ho, alongside fellow compatriots Lee Seung-woo and Jang Gyeol-hee, has always had a spiralling career trajectory mapped out for him that would be ultimately designed for him to fail by ardent supporters of the Taeguk Warriors. Signing to Barcelona's youth academy from Suwon Bluewings-affiliated Maetan Middle School and going on to cause a stir at the  2014 AFC U19 Championship, Korea looked to have young, promising talents set to further spread their footballing image around the globe.

However, things weren't to be and not all because of the players' own doing. Paik found himself as one of a number of players banned from Barcelona's youth team after the club breached international transfer regulations regarding protecting young talent. When the ban was lifted in 2016, the Korean youngsters found themselves far behind the players around them in terms of development.

Despite making appearances for Barcelona, Paik and the others found themselves out of the door and searching for new opportunities. The midfielder decided to stay in Spain and turned out for Girona and, more so, their reserve side Peralada, before making the move to the German second-tier to play for Darmstadt 98 on a three-year deal.

However, 18 months later and Paik was looking for pastures new. With playing time not perhaps what he desired, and his age now seeing him too old for the Olympic Squad unless considered as one of three overage wild cards, Paik was needing to force himself back into the spotlight and national team contention, particularly if he were to acquire the elusive military exemption that his former Barcelona teammate Lee Seung-woo was able to acquire in the 2018 Asian Games.

A return to K League suddenly seemed a sensible option. With international scouting limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic, putting himself in the shop window on home soil for Korea U23 coach Kim Hak-bum and senior team manager Paulo Bento to regularly watch in the flesh could prove beneficial. Not only that, but his reputation still remained high in Korea and he would be likely to see the pitch regularly if signed, helping to relaunch his career. The question now seemed, which Korean side would be willing to take the punt?

The Tale of the Turbulent Transfer

Having sold reigning MVP Son Jun-ho for a considerable sum, K League Champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors arguably had some uncertainty in their defensive midfielder position. Despite having Choi young-jun return from an 18-month loan at Pohang Steelers as well as the signing of Daegu FC's Ryu Jae-moon, there was still some concern as to how the newly-appointed manager Kim Sang-sik will fill the void left by Son.

Media reports in Early February then began to link Jeonbuk for Paik Seung-ho, with various outlets suggesting they would be able to sign the player for just under a million Euros. However, as sudden as the reports surfaced, things were as quickly quashed by the emergence of an unknown agreement the player had with Suwon Samsung Bluewings. 

Suwon had brought to light finances they had provided the player when at Maetan Middle School to help with living costs at Barcelona and the promise that he would sign for Suwon if he returned to play in Korea. Jeonbuk subsequently announced they were pulling out of the deal.

With over a month passing, and deadline day looming, it became clear neither Paik Seung-ho nor Suwon Bluewings' party could come to an agreement. Reports that Suwon could not afford to sign the player and, with Paik in Korea and in limbo, Jeonbuk came in with confirmation from the K League on the final day of the window to sign their initial target, much to Suwon's ire.

Statements from all three parties (Jeonbuk, Suwon and Paik Seung-ho) were released stating their version of events to media outlets. Jeonbuk plainly noted the time they had given Suwon to resolve a deal, something Suwon could not do, and reiterated the confirmation they had that signing the player would not go against league rules. They went on to further mention how the issue of funds lent the player in the past was an issue to be resolved separately between the two other parties.

Naturally, Suwon and Paik Seung-ho's statements were far more conflicting, each implicating the other as to why the signing could not go ahead. While Suwon pointed fingers in the direction of Paik, the player's two-page statement noted inaction from Suwon despite attempts to open discussions. Regardless, Paik agreed to repay the funds lent to him as a middle school student although some reports did note that the club may seek further compensation.

Regardless of how it ultimately transpired, Paik had acquired his move back to Korea, albeit in the dying hours. However, given the drawn-out nature of negotiations, Paik had missed pre-season and had not been training with his side in Germany during that time either. With the league already entering its second month, a move that was supposed to help propel him back into Olympic reckoning may well have cost him valuable time instead.

Olympic Dreams Dashed

Paik's prolonged transfer saga and subsequent late arrival to the Jeonbuk squad somewhat set his ambitions of vying for a wild card spot in Korea's Olympic squad back considerably. Not only had he been struggling to make a mark at Darmstadt, but had now missed out on months of training having had to wait for his move to be confirmed.

The midfielder would make his debut as a 70th-minute substitute against Incheon United in a 5-0 win for Jeonbuk, entering proceedings for Choi Young-jun, a player who could be considered his most direct rival for a starting position in this squad. He would then make his first start for the side at the end of April away to Gangwon.

With just approximately a month until U23 National Team manager Kim Hak-bum named his provisional Olympic squad, time was not on Paik's side. The player made four more starts before the announcement; a loss to Suwon Bluewings, a defeat to Daegu FC, a frustrating draw against Incheon United and an embarrassing exit to third-tier side Yangju Citizen in the FA Cup. 

Notably, between the Suwon and Daegu defeats, Paik would be excluded altogether from the matchday squad for Jeonbuk's vital clash against Ulsan Hyundai, with manager Kim Sang-sik opting for Ryu Jae-moon and his distribution ability instead. Jeonbuk would go on to lose 4-2, but fans' questions surrounded the absence of Choi Young-jun rather than the former Barcelona graduate. Paik did not look as if he was yet trusted.

Paik would still be included in the first draft of the U23 squad and would feature for a half against Ghana's U23 side in the team's warm-up matches. Not only that, but Paik would be allowed to return to his club with other call-ups for that weekend's rescheduled domestic fixtures and would score his debut K League goal with an impressive free-kick from a considerable distance.

Nonetheless, Paik was understandably unable to convince Kim Hak-bum to include him in the final squad for Tokyo 2020, seeing dreams of a potential Olympic medal and the shot at military exemption would bring, dashed. 

Given his age, Paik will still have an opportunity to be included in the Asian Games squad in 2022, in addition to the next Olympics in order to vie for exemption, but with competition likely to be higher after Korea's failure in the summer competition, the player finds himself in a position of needing to work his way back into wild-card contention in the upcoming seasons, particularly with manager Kim having now been recently replaced by Hwang Sun-hong.

Picking Up the Pieces

Out of the Olympic squad, Paik Seung-ho instead found himself on the plane to Turkmenistan for Jeonbuk's AFC Champions League campaign, lacing up to face the likes of Gamba Osaka, Tampines Rovers and Chiangrai United. Paik would feature in five of the six matches, missing the first one due to arriving later than his teammates, and would start all but one.

Playing regularly and frequently in a condensed group stage certainly helped the player to find a rhythm and this was reflected in his performances, with his role becoming more pronounced particularly in the latter two fixtures against Chiangrai United and Gamba Osaka.

Upon returning to K League action after a precautionary delay due to a member of staff testing positive for COVID-19, Paik would find himself considered first-choice by the manager and would become a regular starter. Since the K League interval, the midfielder has started all but two matches in a congested fixture schedule, further cementing his place after his teammate Choi young-jun was forced out to the sidelines through an injury from which he is still yet to recover from.

Since the return from the mid-season interval, Paik has set about showing that he is a well-rounded midfielder, attempting to break any perception as being weak defensively.  From August, Paik has ranked third for tackles and acquisition in the division, and joint fifth for blocks. He has also ranked 7th for passes in the central third, 6th for short passes and 9th for forward passes. While some of those statistics may not be too eye-catching when considering the league as a whole, it is certainly impressive when considering he usually ranks highly (or often the highest) within his team. 

Salvaging a Season

Ultimately, Paik Seung-ho's regular starts in the side have begun to slowly reap dividends and are now being reflected in his most recent performances. His passing play has been particularly noteworthy and drew praise in his team's recent Round of 16 Champions League clash against BG Pathum United where he shone in a side that struggled. 

While Jeonbuk failed to impress against a depleted Pathum side, Paik set about taking control of the midfield, resulting in him being announced as one of the tournament's players of the round. Paik made an impressive 136 passes from 165 touches over 120 minutes, completing them with a 93% passing accuracy in addition to accuracy percentages of 89% and 88% in the opposition's half and final third respectively, creating four chances. 

Continuing on from his performance on the continental stage, Paik found himself the focus of Jeonbuk's weekend fixture against Suwon Samsung Bluewings. Unfairly labelled the "Paik Seung-ho Derby" by media outlets and the commentators themselves after the aforementioned transfer saga, Paik went about imposing himself on proceedings. When Jeonbuk were awarded a penalty, Paik put himself forward to take it ahead of more experienced players, cooly converting to ultimately provide the game's only goal.

After a badge-kissing celebration designed to endear him to home support while riling the side that he had spurned, Paik tellingly ran over to manager Kim Sang-sik to thank him. Speaking post-match, he noted how the manager "delicately teaches me defensive plays that I didn't know," further stating "It opens the way for aggressive passes and creative play."

Three days later, Jeonbuk found themselves making the short trip south to fellow Honam outfit Gwangju FC. Once again, Paik took centre stage, with his drive and determination resulting in the dismantling of Gwangju's resolve, forcing the opener to give his side the advantage. His passing statistics also reflected an encouraging display resulting in the Man of the Match, recording a 95% passing accuracy for his 61 passes, with the majority moving the ball forward and assisting in Jeonbuk's attack.

Furthermore, Saturday saw the 24-year-old bag his third in three games with a thunderous free-kick to give Jeonbuk the lead against travelling Incheon United in a showing that saw him collect the plaudits once more. While his goal will grab the headlines, his tracking back and involvement in keeping the home side in control, especially with his team reduced to ten men for the final 30 minutes, should not be overlooked. It is committed performances like this that may serve to sway the minds of people who have already written him off for a return to the national side.

Paik's general on-field attitude is notable also, with his visible support for his teammates showing both a team spirit and maturity that could serve him well. The most cynical fan may have been concerned that he could be using the club as a vessel to relaunch his career but his visible persona and his endearment to the fans is certainly proving otherwise. At present, Jeonbuk fans have a banner in the North section that translates to "Jeonbuk's Paik Seung-ho", in addition to fans' shirts from his former sides being hung around the stadium. 

With just seven games until the season closes, and his side only a point behind Ulsan Hyundai, Paik Seung-ho's recent form and personal determination could turn out to be a pivotal factor in what are set to be considerable tests of the Champions' resolve. It may be early days and far removed from Barcelona, but Jeonju may turn out to be the place where the former La Maisia man could make a name that finally buries the hype.

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