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Who are ya? The state of Busan's stuttering rebuild

Busan IPark’s defeat to bottom side Bucheon 1995 on Saturday all but ended the Royals’ promotion hopes this year. With three games to play and seemingly little to play for, Busan’s problems of recent weeks are coming under the microscope again, and the team’s future has never looked harder to predict. Tomas Marcantonio takes a closer look at Busan IPark’s faltering quest for a new identity.

Tactical Question Marks and Fan Unrest

Busan supporters continue to be unconvinced by Ricardo Peres’ tactics. Despite two recent wins, Busan still have the worst defence in the league and an attack that rarely scores from open play. With two wins and zero clean sheets in 12 games, the fans’ concerns aren’t disappearing any time soon. 

I’ve stressed this before, but it bears repeating: Busan IPark’s build-up from the back is laboured and inefficient. In Saturday’s defeat to Bucheon, Busan had more possession than the visitors, but it was in all the wrong areas and counted for nothing. 

This is backed up by the stats: the Bucheon players who saw most of the ball were central midfielders Cho Soo-chul (66 passes) and Oh Jae-hyuk (53 passes); Busan’s possession bearers were central defenders Hwang Jun-ho (67 passes) and Valentinos Sielis (59 passes). Behind them, Busan keeper Ahn Joon-soo made an incredible 43 passes on Saturday, far more than any midfielder or forward on his team. 

Peres’ strategy of getting the ball up the field simply doesn’t work. The front three rarely get near the ball, largely because the midfielders don’t see enough possession to make any kind of meaningful contribution. Opposition teams are happy to let the Busan centre backs keep the ball, because they know where it will go – out to the flanks to the full backs (who are often left with difficult high balls to bring down, and little space to do anything with it), or else up to An Byong-jun, who is usually outnumbered. 

Peres’ frequent decision to play Park Jeong-in and Lee Sang-heon on the wings doesn’t seem to help matters. Both are promising young attacking players capable of scoring and creating from central positions, but both struggle to make any kind of impact when pushed out wide. An Byong-jun, arguably the second division’s best player, is too often isolated; many would even argue that despite scoring 21 goals this season, he is being wasted. 

To be fair to Peres, injuries (Park Jong-woo, Kim Jeong-hyun) and suspensions (Kim Jin-kyu) haven’t helped his cause in recent weeks, and he has made some shrewd tactical switches in recent games. These points won’t be enough to mend a frosty relationship with fans, however; supporters' group POP have openly expressed their dissatisfaction with Peres’ leadership, and they are unlikely to be appeased by a finish outside the top four, which is now almost a certainty.

Lack of Leadership, Lack of Identity

Ricardo Peres’ greatest contribution to Busan so far has been his excellent work at developing youth prospects. Youth internationals such as Park Jeong-in and Choi Jun have seen plenty of game time this year, while outstanding academy prospects like Lee Tae-min have been fast-tracked into the first team, and other young players such as Hwang Jun-ho and Park Ho-young have improved greatly under the Portuguese manager. 

Peres’ emphasis on youth might have come at a cost, however. With a huge squad overhaul last winter, Peres has been left with players that are not only young, but also lack connection (and possibly commitment) to the club. Of Busan’s starting eleven on Saturday, nine were new signings. Defender Park Ho-young was Busan’s longest-serving player on the field, with only 35 games to his name. 

This is not all Peres’ fault. Most of Busan’s long-serving players (Han Ji-ho, Lee Gyu-seong, Park Joon-kang, Lee Jeong-hyub, Kim Moon-hwan, Kim Myoung-jun, Lee Dong-jun) left following relegation, leaving only Park Jong-woo and Kim Jin-kyu as talismans of the club’s identity. 

Club captain Park Jong-woo has featured in only six games this season.

Unfortunately, Park Jong-woo, a natural leader who is both charismatic and very vocal on the field, has missed most of the season with injury. Kim Jin-kyu, an outstanding midfielder at this level, is a quieter character who leaves the vocal duties to striker An and defender Valentinos. Besides Kim and Park, the other long-serving players in Busan’s squad (Koo Sang-min, Koo Hyun-jun, and Lee Chung-woong) have been pushed to the margins, mostly warming the bench while watching younger players develop on the field. 

Without a natural leader and organiser in the centre, Busan look disjointed and pedestrian. Without any long-serving players in the squad, meanwhile, Busan look... like a random collection of players in red uniforms. 

Busan’s team on Saturday didn’t lack effort – the likes of Ryan Edwards and Choi Jun motored around the pitch with gusto – but they did look leaderless. The team’s lack of cohesion may well be attributed to Peres’ tactics, but it could also be due to the fact that this is very much a team cobbled together with loan signings and journeymen. This was perhaps inevitable in a rebuilding year, but it reinforces the fact that Busan are still very much at a crossroads in terms of identity. 

Plenty of questions are left lingering as we approach the season’s end: Is one season enough time for a new squad to gel? Does Peres really believe this is the attacking football he strives for? Will the likes of Park Jeong-in and Choi Jun commit their futures to the club, or are they using this season as a stepping stone to bigger things? How will Busan keep hold of An Byong-jun, and how could they possibly replace him? Will Peres be given another season to see through his grand vision, or will this season be a wasted experiment? 

The answers to many of these questions will surely arrive in the coming weeks. While it may appear that Busan now have little to play for in the remaining three games, there is in fact a great deal on the line. The club’s very mission and direction could hinge on how Busan perform in the coming month, and this supporter, for one, is intrigued at how it will play out.



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