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A tactical look at Seongnam FC's 2022 relegation season

The 2022 K League 1 season ended with Seongnam FC being relegated but the problems began the year before, writes columnist Diogo Valente.

Seongnam FC ended the 2021 Hana 1Q K League 1 season with two wins, two losses and one draw in Final B to avoid ther Promotion-Relegation Playoff by one point. A very poor season for Kim Nam-il who counted on a heroic season from Fejsal Mulić to help the team stay in Korean top tier. The Serbian striker scored 13 goals in an MVP-worthy season.

Adaptability and tactical flexibility are very important in modern-day football, especially with the tools that are available to study the opponent on a much deeper level but Kim Nam-il used five different formations and switched between them regularly, the only time Seongnam use the same formation for more than five games in a row was right by the end of the season with the 4-4-2. No team identity, no continuity, just pure anarchy.

Mulić was a pleasant surprise, and the acquisition of Kwon Kyung-won was very important to give defensive stability to Seongnam’s awful defence.

Seongnam wasn’t the most talented team in K League, but the season was underwhelming to say the least. So underwhelming that the Seongnam supporters started a their 'Kim Nam-il out' movement on social media.

Before the start of the 2022 season, Seongnam lost quite a few important players like Kwon Kyung-won, Richard Windbichler, and Jamshid Iskandarov, players who added quality to the side. Fortunately, the clubwas able to acquire some talented players, Kim Min-hyeok from Jeonbuk, Manuel Palacios and Kwon Wan-kyu from Pohang, Goo Bon-cheol from Incheon, and later in the season, Miloš Raičković  from Podgorica on Montenegro.

Yeon Je-un and Yu In-soo returned from military service in the middle of the season.

But it was a new season and the same coach. The Seongnam board was very keen on keeping Kim Nam-il in front of the team, I’m not against continuity and I believe managers need time to implement their ideas but the decision to keep him, in hindsight, was the worst one possible.

The 2022 season started with a 2-0 loss against Gangwon FC, and we were able to see the same problems we saw in the 2021 season, the main one being the lack of team identity. More on that later.

The first win for the Magpies in the season came in Round 7 in dramatic fashion against Suwon FC in a game with seven goals. The next win for Seongnam in the league came seven rounds later against FC Seoul. Without much to grab on to, Kim Nam-il just used what went well at the end of last season, the 4-4-2, a stretch of nine matches where Seongnam earned seven points out of 27 possible, one win, four losses and four draws. 

FNR

A lot of things didn’t go as planned this season, Mulić didn’t perform as well as last season and lost his place in the starting eleven for a short period of time, defender Kim Min-hyeok didn’t play much, rumors say he had weight-related problems throughout the season, Kim Nam-il pointing out the foreigners for being lazy and that’s why the team wasn’t playing well, but in the next game every single foreigner in the squad was in the starting eleven. I feel like that defined Seongnam’s season.

Off the pitch the problems were bigger than the ones on the pitch. Kim Nam-il resigned but the board didn’t accept his request saying that there wasn’t a good replacement on the market. When the board decided that Kim Nam-il wasn’t capable of being the coach was a little too late to salvage the season. 

Rumors started to circulate about a possible sale of the club due to issues with the last owner. The current owner confirmed that he was looking for a buyer, he also said that he didn’t want to support a team who is in last place. The possibility of changing city, name and emblem is pretty much still on the cards.

With the new coach, Chung Kyung-ho, the team found some continuity and identity. Seongnam became a difficult team to beat with a lot of hard-working players and with a lot of experience, Chung Kyung-ho opted for Koreans and veteran players. 

But switching between the 3-4-3 and the 3-5-2 and having a game plan wasn’t enough to keep Seongnam in the top tier of Korean football and Seongnam was relegated with three games to play. 

Kim Nam-il should’ve been fired early in the season, Seongnam didn’t leave the last place since Round 5 and the 70 goals conceded goals was the fourth-worst defensive display since the relegation/championship group system was implemented.

Seongnam finished last with 30 points out of 38 games. They had the worst offense with 37 goals scored and 70 goals conceded meant they had the worst defense.

Tactical details

Most used formation: 3-4-3
14 games (1 in FA Cup)
11 points
4 wins (1 in FA Cup), 8 losses, 2 draws

Without the ball

High press

Seongnam, with Kim Nam-il, were a team that liked to press high with a high engagement line, normally with two strikers (5-3-2) or, sporadically, with three up front (5-2-3). Again, anarchy. Mulić is quick for someone that tall, but he didn’t offer much availability to be an effective pressing forward, Kim Min-hyeok the midfielder, when playing as a striker with Chung Kyung-ho, offered more in that role. 

Another problem with this high press was the space between the engagement line and the midfield line, pressing high with the forwards but letting the midfielders deeper down is a recipe for disaster. 

Defensive line

One thing that Seongnam had was individual quality in the back line, Kwon Wan-kyu, Choi Ji-mook, Park Soo-il, Lee Si-young, Kim Ji-soo are capable defenders in K League. Yeon Je-un, returned from military service and Kim Min-hyeok, reigning K League champion with Jeonbuk, are elite defenders. 

But for some reason, as a group, they didn’t perform well. There was a lack of communication, a lack of concentration, and bad defensive positioning throughout the whole season. Changing formation and players game after game probably didn’t help the process either.

In possession

Build-up

Seongnam opted for a 3+1 build in most of the games, with one of the midfielders dropping deeper to help the centre-backs. Patient build-up but always looking for a chance to verticalize the game, with Mulić being the main target. Mulić isn’t the best target man, lacks positioning and his aerial game isn’t the best either, he is best suited to play with his eyes on the goal. 

Lack of touches in midfield

With this direct football style of play, the midfielders couldn’t dictate the tempo and they didn’t average a lot of touches per game throughout the season, not even when Raičković arrived. 

Once again, anarchy. Playing with a midfield trio and not using them to create doesn’t really make a lot of sense. If I had to use one word to describe this season it would be “chaotic.”

A fresh start awaits Seongnam in K League 2 with some quality players possibly on their way out, Goo Bon-cheol, the team's best player last season along with Park Soo-il, is going to Gimcheon Sangmu to do military service.

With an uncertain future about ownership and with the possibility of losing important players, things aren’t looking good for Seongnam.

 - Diogo Valente

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