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How Do You Solve a Problem like Byungsoo-ball?

How Do You Solve a Problem like Byungsoo-ball?

Heavily praised at the start of the season, Gangwon FC manager Kim Byung-soo's approach to the game drew plaudits for its fresh take in a league sometimes questioned for its direct approach. Dubbed 'Byungsoo-ball' by the Korean media, Kim Byung-soo's passing-based tactics have stopped bearing fruit in recent weeks, with the side condemned to the lower half of the table despite residing in the top six for most of the season. Football coach and BIJFL coordinator for China Club Football Michael Booroff, follows up his previous analysis of Gangwon's tactics and offers up his potential solutions to fix 'Byungsoo-ball'.

This article is a continuation of a previous article I had wrote on Gangwon. It can be found here in English or here in Korean.

Gangwon maintain possession better than any other team in K League 1. The stats bore this out. They have the highest number of passes (11,090, 504 per game) and the highest average possession per game (57.6%). However, they concede a lot of goals, 36 this season, with only FC Seoul conceding more so far. It is alarming that a team that keeps the ball more, and for longer, than any other team in the league can concede so many! 

In terms of their style in possession, Gangwon empty a number of interesting concepts. A key being the use of a ‘W’ shape in build-up, allowing either or both full-backs to invert into central areas, as well as allowing players to position themselves in more advanced areas of the pitch. 

Their problems this season have arose from the struggle to find the balance between being progressive and expansive in attack and being able to defend consistently. While my previous article discussed these concepts and some issues, this article will look at how Kim Byung-soo has tried to address these problems coming into the split, as well as well as some potential alterations going into the split. 

How Kim Byung-soo has tried to deal with these issues

In recent games, Kim Byung-soo has sought to be more flexible in his team’s shape in order to alleviate some of these issues in negative transition and when defending. In the 2-1 win v Jeonbuk and 3-2 loss to bottom side Incheon, a 3-4-3 was used, shifting to a back five out of possession. Against Pohang, Busan and the loss to Suwon, Gangwon reverted to a back four with a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 shape. This differed from their initial use of this shape in that the full backs remained wide (and in a slightly deeper position), compared to previous games where the full-backs would position more centrally to create a ‘W’ shape in build-up.

The use of varying formations and shape in and out of possession did draw some success. Utilising a 3-4-3 in possession, and 5-4-1 out of possession, Gangwon looked more adept defensively than in previous weeks. This, however, came at the cost of ceding a larger amount of control over the game (Gangwon having 46.5% possession in the Jeonbuk game, their second lowest possession percentage this season). The same shape was deployed again v Incheon. The back three, two central midfielders and wing backs were used more proactively and were able to better control possession (although not the scoreline).

The use of a back three/five for Gangwon was able to help solve the issues with their use of a ‘W’ shape in the build up. With the two CB’s (in a back four) isolated while the full backs either positioned higher or inverted, the amount of space the centre backs have to defend is increased, leading to them being pulled out of position in order to cover this space. 

Pohang’s opening goal is a great example of this issue for Gangwon (when utilising a back four). With Shin Kwang-Hoon higher up the pitch, Lim Chai-Min now has to move wide to cover when the ball is played into the channel. With the centre-back space vacated, it now becomes easier for Pohang to receive in central areas near the Gangwon goal as Kim Young-Bin now has to cover additional space. This was eventually exploited with Palacios scoring the rebound after the initial header hit the post.

The difference can be seen v Jeonbuk. With a back 3/5, the space the centre backs have to defend is reduced due to their wider starting positions. This allows the left-sided centre back (Kim Young-Bin) easier access to pressure the ball in a wide area, yet still keeps two centre backs in central space. They can now cover this space without being exposed in dangerous central areas. 

This isn’t a problem that is exclusive to Gangwon. A recent example from the Premier League is that of David Luiz. When in a back four, he is often vulnerable when having to cover both his own zone as well as the wide area when the full back goes to pressure the ball. These issues are alleviated when in a back three, where two centre backs are positioned either side of him, reducing the defensive workload the the amount of space each defender has to cover. 

The dilemma that now arises for Kim Byung-soo and his Gangwon side is how to maintain this defensive stability, while at the same time keeping the expansive possession game that has made them an attacking threat and an enjoyable team to watch. Utilising a back three and a more orthodox back four in recent games has meant that fewer players are able to advance ahead of the ball and support the attack. Often when playing forward into attackers, it is common to see 3v4, 3v5 situations for Gangwon. This then means the quality of the combinations between players needs to be of a higher level due to the limited options.


To help get the balance right between expansive possession football and defensive solidity, there are some alternatives. Some of these ideas have already been showcased in recent games, others are slight adjustments to attempt to heighten the qualities of the individuals within the squad. As quoted in Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting The pyramid, Legendary AC Milan and Italy coach Arrigo Sacchi claims the point of tactics is to multiply the players’ qualities, ‘to achieve this multiplying effect on the players’ abilities.’

From W to M

While the ‘W’ shape in the build-up has offered positional and numerical superiority in central areas of the pitch, it did leave the two centre-backs vulnerable in defensive transition. The use of a back three helps nullify this, but in its current form offers less forward options. A happy medium between these two ideas could be an alteration, a shift from a ‘W’ to an ‘M’ in build-up. This could be executed in both a back three or a back four.  This is something Gangwon have begun to use when utilising a back 3 in possession, as seen in the game v Jeonbuk.

The use of an ‘M’ shape in a back 3 is pretty straight forward. Through the basic positioning of the three central defenders and central midfielders, the shape would naturally create the desired ‘M’. The wing-backs would also be required to take up an advanced position, similar to that of a winger. Also of importance is how the central midfielders are structured during the build-up. Both would need to create clear passing lines to receive from at least one centre back. 

The ‘M’ can offer similar passing options to that of the ‘W’, with the ability for players to position higher up the pitch. RB Leipzig, known for their ability to alter formation/shape within games under coach, Julien Nagelsmann, was able to show a glimpse into this in their UEFA Champions League quarter-final win v Atletico Madrid. With a back three and two central midfielders offering passing options behind the first line of pressure, they are now able to commit five players forward and occupy all five vertical channels on the pitch (the left and right-wing, left and right half-space and centre).

This is also something that new Juventus coach, Andrea Pirlo is attempting to implement in his side. While using a 4-4-2 out of possession,  Danilo moves to take up the position of the third centre back and Gianluca Frobotta advances into a wing position to give them a 3-2-5 when attacking. Pirlo’s four main principles in order to achieve attacking football are build-up, width, penetration in the final third and stretching the play. If all these are applied in possession (especially in the opponents’ half), the more likely the team will be able to dominate the game. 

With a back three (and two central midfielders), one way to help the progression of the ball, and to increase the number of players in midfield, is by one of the central defenders advancing the ball via a dribble. This has been showcased by Gangwon by Lee Ho-in and Sin Se-gye. Both acquire a technical proficiency where they can advance the ball into midfield. Due to the majority of teams using one or two players to pressure in the first phase (or dropping deeper into a mid-block) the space in the half-space is often open and allows for the wider players in the back three to progress the ball with little pressure. The below example v Incheon showcases this. With Sin Se-gye receiving around Incheon’s forwards pressure, he is able to advance the ball and add an extra player to Gangwon’s attack, leading to their extremely fortuitous first goal.

Use of Animation

There is also the option of creating this ‘M’ shape when utilising a back four. The construction of this will be slightly different from that of a back four as it will require some animation in the positioning of both the full-backs and central midfielders. The most common way and most in keeping with the concepts behind Byungsoo-ball would be the deepest central midfielder dropping between both centre backs and the full-backs inverting to become auxiliary central midfielders. This outcome could also be achieved with the central midfielder dropping and positioning on the outside of the centre backs (still creating a back three). 

This would require a great amount of tactical awareness and understanding from both full-backs. However, both Sin Se-gye and Shin Kwang-hoon have shown to be versatile in their positioning throughout the season. Sin Se-gye has in recent games played as a centre midfielder (v Jeonbuk), left-sided centre back (v Incheon) in a 3-4-3, left-back in a 4-3-3 (v Busan) and right back (v Suwon). Shin Kwang-hoon has also shown the ability to position both centrally and wide, often being the main full-back to invert in Gangwon’s ‘W’ shape in build-up.

The versatility of the full-backs is not just important to the construction of possession in Byungsoo-ball, but in modern football as a whole. As Andrea Pirlo describes in his recent UEFA pro license thesis (translated from Italian):

‘It is a very flexible role, there are wide defenders with very different characteristics but modern football systems allow them to be exploited by assigning them different functions. The full back who is good at pushing up will be responsible for guaranteeing width in attack, the one who is best at defending can often become a third central defender, the technically and tactically good one we can use as an additional midfielder in possession.’

Using the versatility of the full-backs, and consistent with the concepts of Byungsoo-ball, another alternative could be constructing an ‘M’ through the use of lopsided positioning. This would most likely look like a regular back four out of possession, but in possession, one of the full-backs would shift centrally to become the third centre back (most likely Sin Se-gye due to his versatility), while the opposite full-back could potentially advance in a wide position or invert to become an additional central midfielder. Inverting could also allow an additional midfielder to move into a more advanced position.

The Split

After Saturday’s disastrous 2-1 defeat v Suwon, Gangwon now find themselves in the bottom half of the split, and a potential relegation battle they did not want. With only one relegation spot available, the threat of relegation seems unlikely, but a few poor results could drag them down into a battle they really shouldn’t be involved in. It will be interesting to see how Kim Byung-soo uses these last games of the season. Being one of the stronger teams on this side of the table, does he try to play the more expansive football that we’ve come to know from Gangwon this season against perceived weaker opponents? With the fear of relegation, does he play a more reserved style to avoid rivals gaining points on them? Or will it be a flexible approach where the shape and ideas change from week to week until the end of the season? 

- Michael Booroff

Stats were obtained from K League and One Football

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