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Why and how have Daejeon Hana Citizen blown automatic promotion?

With the biggest budget in K League altogether, let alone among the teams in the second division, even a casual observer might wonder how have Daejeon Hana Citizen managed to blow their chance of automatic promotion for the third season running?

Following Hana Finance Group's takeover of Daejeon Citizen at the tail-end of 2019 the Purples have experienced incremental progress. Daejeon's first season with Hana in their name in 2020 resulted in a fourth-placed finish and playoff semifinal (promotion final) loss to Gyeongnam FC, then last year the Purples threw away a 2-0 lead to lose 4-2 to Gangwon FC after finishing third in the league.

This year, second place looked to be in their hands with Daejeon under Lee Min-sung making progress. But the 3-2 loss to FC Anyang means that's no longer the case and the Purples will be relying on the Violets dropping points But with a squad as deep and talented as Daejeon's, why aren't they sitting top of the table? 

Lack of clean sheets

In the hustle and bustle of K League 2, clean sheets are hard to earn but Daejeon's main goalkeeper Lee Chang-geun has managed just six, number two Jeong San none and young prospect Lee Jun-seo just one. Even Yoon Bo-sang of struggling Seoul E-Land has more with 10, and ex-Daejeon 'keeper Park Ju-won - currently at Chungnam Asan who sit sixth - has managed 11. 

It is, of course, a collective effort with the back line and defensive midfielders and so this is not to single out Lee. Simply, the difference between Daejeon and Gwangju - whose keeper Kim Kyeong-min has managed 15 clean sheets in 29 appearances - is that the Purples, as a team, ship too many goals. 

Daejeon have managed to win and keep a clean sheet on just five occasions. Gwangju, for the sake of comparison, have managed 10 and Anyang have managed nine. Concentration levels are an issue as well as Daejeon have dropped 11 points from winning or drawing positions this season after conceding late, either before halftime or at the end of the second half. Had Daejeon had been able to hold onto those 11 extra points they would be two behind Gwangju with two games in hand (pre-Round 34).

Manager can't find the right combination

Manager Lee Min-sung seems to want to reinvent the wheel every week and is seemingly unable to make his mind up about whether to play a back three or four. This year, Daejeon have been set up in a 4-4-2 (15%), 3-5-2 (13%), 4-2-3-1 (11%), 3-4-1-2 (9%), 3-4-3 (7%), 5-4-1 (4%), among a handful of others. In contrast, Gwangju FC have a settled formation and team having been set up in a 3-4-3 for the most part (74%).

The limited options at full back mean those positions are more or less picked themselves but in the centre Daejeon have options. The experience of Kwon Han-jin is often overlooked in place of the error-prone Kim Min-duk or, when fit, Kim Jae-woo. Promising young centre back Byun Jun-soo has been in and out of the side despite looking much more reliable than the two Kims mentioned above.  

Lee Min-sung doesn't know how to use Masatoshi Ishida, either. 'Masa' is an instinct player and is at his best in and around the box, either showing quick thinking and footwork to fashion himself a goal-scoring opportunity or teeing up someone else. He's got the right balance of hunger and selflessness, he isn't afraid of squaring the ball to a player who is in a better position to score. He has been played as a central midfielder but can get lost when he doesn't have space.

The misuse of Masa is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Lee Min-sung has used 35 players, not the most in the division but the second-most among the current top five (Gyeongnam are first with 37). Gwangju, unsurprisingly, have used the least with 28. Daejeon seldom have a settled team. 

Head-to-head record with promotion rivals

Daejeon's record against their promotion rivals does not make for good reading. From the three matches with Gwangju FC, Daejeon have a record of two losses and one draw with just one goal scored. They have been unable to beat Anyang with two draws and one loss so far this season. In fact, in the 2-2 draw in June, Daejeon had a 2-0 lead but snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by allowing Jonathan Moya to score in the 94th minute. There was something familiar in Sunday 21st August's 3-2 loss with Moya again scoring in the 94th minute, this time to make it 3-2 after Daejeon had somehow managed to draw themselves level again from 2-0 down. The record against Bucheon is won one, lost two with the fourth meeting - and start of the final round robin - coming up on August 27th. 

Away record

From a distance, Daejeon's away record isn't too different to Gwangju's. The Purples have won five on the road this season, the Yellows six as too FC Anyang. However, Daejeon's last away win was at the tail-end of May, the 1-0 victory over Seoul E-Land. Daejeon have lost four out of five since then. But, between now and the end of the season, five of Daejeon's six remaining away matches this season are against teams that are currently outside the top five. 

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Some encouraging stats

Some solace could be found in the expected goal against ratios of the two teams. Gwangju should have shipped 30 but have only conceded 24 while Daejeon are more or less on par with 32 from 33.13. That's the third-fewest in K League 2 while Gwangju's is the second-fewest. It would stand to reason that Gwangju won't be able to keep this up and, eventually, they will begin to concede more. Although, Gwangju at this stage look uncatchable. 

Daejeon have the best success rate for aerial duels at 51% while Gwangjus is second at 47.2%. Daejeon also have a good xG, scoring 46 from 46.64. Gwangju are performing slightly above theirs with 46 goals scored from 47.90.

The road ahead

It looks like a third attempt at the playoffs in as many seasons is what lies ahead for the Purples and, like the last two campaigns did, the difference between promotion and an unthinkable eighth season back in the second tier will be how they perform in the away leg of the playoffs. 

But before Citizen even contemplate that, the task at hand now is to, somehow, make sure that they finish second in the table. Finishing any lower would mean the Purples will have to run the gauntlet of the K League 2 promotion playoffs plus the team that finishes 10th in K League 1 - Ttat could well be Daegu FC, Suwon Bluewings or Gimcheon Sangmu. To do that Daejeon need to stop giving goals away silly goals, find a way to fit Masa into the starting lineup along with Kayzer, Willyan, Leandro and the other talented players Lee Min-sung has at his disposal and improve their away record.

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