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Kim Sang-sik's Turbulent Time As Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors Manager

After all the unrest and protests, Kim Sang-sik is no longer the manager of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. Kim resigned last Thursday morning, just one day before the team was to travel to face FC Seoul. He sent out a handwritten farewell letter to the supporters. He stated that he felt responsible for the team's recent results and would continue to support the players and team as a fan. Jeonbuk has had a worrying start to the season, sitting tenth in the standings at the time of Kim Sang-sik's resignation. Since his resignation, the team have been doing well considering the circumstances under caretaker Kim Do-heon, gaining two points from games against FC Seoul and Incheon United and a dominating victory over Suwon Bluewings.

Kim Sang-sik took office as the first team manager in 2021 after serving as an assistant manager since 2013. In 2020, Jeonbuk won the domestic double. And overall, it was a successful season under José Morais, apart from the very disappointing Champions League campaign, which saw the two-time winners of the competition crash out in the group stages. Kim was faced with the task of continuing the team's success with an ageing squad and would have to do so without 2020 K League 1 MVP Son Jun-ho, who was a key component of the squad. Son departed to Chinese outfit Shandong Luneng in January 2021. Jeonbuk faced challenges with the U22 rule, which highlighted the shortage of young players in the first team and a lack of emphasis on youth development compared to other clubs. With some significant issues to tackle, the appointment of Kim Sang-sik was quite a risk considering his lack of experience as a first-team manager.

In his first year, the team won another tight title race, beating Ulsan to the league by two points. The display was not fully convincing, and inconsistent form was present throughout the season. Jeonbuk went on an eight-game winless run from the 21st of April to the 29th of May. During this time, they lost embarrassingly in the FA Cup against non-league Yangju Citizen. And in the Champions League, it was yet another failure, as the side lost to Ulsan Hyundai in the quarter-finals. If it were not for Ulsan also dropping points and slipping up domestically, the title would not have gone back to Jeonju, and Kim Sang-sik may have lost his job then and there.

Inconsistent runs of form were a recurring issue for Kim Sang-sik throughout his tenure as manager, and this trend continued in 2022. After the opening game win over Suwon FC, Jeonbuk went on a five-game winless run, suffering three defeats, including a loss to Ulsan at home. Ulsan would also go on to yet again to drop points last season, but this time, Jeonbuk failed to capitalise and lost out on the title for the first time since 2016. What saved Kim Sang-sik's job was clinching the FA Cup and a strong showing in the Champions League. Jeonbuk were minutes away from a Champions League final clash with Al Hilal but lost out on penalties in the semi-finals against Urawa Reds who scored an equaliser to make it 2-2 at the end of extra time.

Even with the impressive Champions League display and FA Cup victory. Many still questioned the club's decision to renew his contract for 2023.

Kim Sang-sik has been criticised heavily for his overly defensive, and safe possession-based approach. With Kim as manager, Jeonbuk were never in any hurry to get a goal unless it was approaching the end of the game, or they had already conceded. A lot of dropped points were the result of painful to watch defensive possession football, which the opposition knows how to play against. Usually, the opposition would sit back and hold out and/or catch the team on the counter, which was highly effective. Conceding goals on the counter-attack was one of the biggest problems for Jeonbuk under Kim Sang-sik. A lot of the time, they were far too vulnerable to conceding like that, largely due to a high line. One misplaced pass or mistake when on the ball could cost the team a goal.

And without the ball, Jeonbuk were the team that would drop back into a very defensive shape. This invited the opposition to push forward, and if Jeonbuk were to regain the ball when in that defensive shape, they would move the ball around slowly, rarely making any progress moving forward. When the opposing team puts pressure on Jeonbuk's midfield, their high line tends to drop back considerably, and the team then focuses on continuing the slow possession football in their own half leading to nothing going forward.

Another problem was the misuse of some players regarding their position and role. Paik Seung-ho, for example, played so often as a DM under Kim Sang-sik up until recently, meaning his quality going forward was rarely seen. Under Kim Do-heon, Paik has been incredible in a much more advanced role with fewer defensive responsibilities. Park Jin-seob was mainly used at centre-back, which is forgivable considering the lack of squad depth in that position last year. However, the centre-back squad depth was strengthened this season and still, Park Jin-seob was primarily deployed at centre-back rather than his preferred DM role, which he is much more suited to.

Not all of the team's problems are within the manager's control. Jeonbuk has, and currently is, suffering from a crazy injury crisis. A significantly sizable portion of the squad is injured, leaving limited options in some areas and forcing the manager to field certain players out of position. This has played a role in the overall crisis the club is facing. Nonetheless, the main issue with the team was clear, and it was with the manager and his tactics.

At the time of Kim Sang-sik's resignation, Jeonbuk were down in tenth place after ten rounds with six defeats, three wins and a draw. 15 points behind first place Ulsan. Not nearly good enough for a team with the ambition of winning the treble.

Since then, the points gap has increased to 19 points. It is unclear what the objectives are for this season now that the title has almost certainly been lost so early on, but it will make the FA Cup and Champions League all the more important.

Final Thoughts:

Kim Sang-sik's time in charge of the nine-time K League 1 champions was at a time of transition. The ageing issue has largely been dealt with. A lot more youth has also been brought into the side. And although Kim is not entirely responsible for this, he does deserve some credit for bringing younger players into the team and giving an opportunity to U22 players without subbing them off early every game, which he was guilty of doing in previous seasons.

He won't be remembered fondly by fans. Most are now delighted he has departed the club. The risk of hiring an inexperienced manager did not pay off, despite his experience with the team as an assistant. Kim Sang-sik perhaps should never have been appointed in the first place.

Now the club are looking for a big-name foreign manager to take over the team. Potential appointments include Fabio Cannavaro and Roberto Di Matteo who is currently a technical advisor at the club. However, both of these look rather far-fetched. Technical director Park Ji-sung may potentially make good use of his links to England and bring over a manager from there. 

As for Kim Sang-sik, it's hard to know what his future will look like. He is a young manager with trophies to his name who would have learnt a lot while managing the green warriors. Perhaps, in the coming years, we may see him return to manage a K League side.

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