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2020 Season Review: Busan IPark

Busan IPark’s first season back in the K League 1 turned out to be a year to forget. Early signs appeared to be promising, but a humiliating collapse in the second half of the season resulted in a dramatic relegation that saw the team plummet straight back to the K League 2. Tom Marcantonio and Todd Wilde look back over the highs and lows of an eventful 2020.

What Went Well

In the opening weeks of the season, Busan IPark actually looked entirely capable of holding their own in the top division. A nightmare set of opening fixtures against the league’s eventual top three could have signaled a disastrous campaign for the Royals, but despite only taking one point from those matches, Busan took heart from impressive performances against Jeonbuk and Ulsan.

In fact, for the first two months of the season Busan’s performances were largely competent. Cho Deok-jae seemed to have tightened the loose defensive screws from his leaky 2019 team, with Kang Min-soo bringing leadership to a back line that also included Kim Moon-hwan, who took to the top tier like a duck to water. Lee Gyu-sung impressed in midfield, while the likes of Romulo and Lee Jeong-hyup were finding themselves on the scoresheet with respectable regularity.

Although Cho’s team drew numerous games that they arguably should have won, Busan were chugging safely along in mid-table by the peak of summer. In fact, they looked far more likely to finish in the top six than to be caught up in a relegation battle. However, the K League 1 honeymoon didn’t last…

What Didn't Go Well

Despite doing such excellent work in getting Busan promoted in 2019, coach Cho Deok-jae must take responsibility for Busan’s disastrous form in the second half of 2020. Although his team continued to perform reasonably well against the league’s big hitters, they were often utterly lacking in imagination and guile against the teams around them.

Tactically, Busan were abysmal. Instead of attempting to recapture the quick, free-flowing football that saw the team achieve promotion in 2019, Cho opted for a much more conservative approach in 2020. Long balls aimed at releasing Lee Dong-jun became the norm, while the industrious midfield lacked a true creative force (Kim Jin-gyu was sorely missed through injury), and was often bypassed entirely. Cho’s tactics were compounded by a series of poor substitution choices, and a dogged determination to keep faith with new signings who simply failed to live up to expectations.

Goalless Gustavo Vintecinco was one of several disappointing signings.
Cho’s foreign recruits ranged from inconsistent (Dostonbek Tursunov) to entirely ineffective (Gustavo Vintecinco), while Jonatan Reis managed a mere seven minutes of league action before having his contract torn up. The Korean signings fared little better, with the likes of Kim Byong-oh, Kim Seung-jun, Yun Suk-young, and Kim Ho-jun all disappointing. Ultimately Busan’s better performers in 2020 were the players who were already at the club, with only Kang Min-soo of the new faces coming away with any credit.

However, after Cho stepped down from his post with four games of the season to play, Busan still should have been able to secure safety comfortably. Caretaker manager Lee Ki-hyung masterminded an impressive victory over FC Seoul in his first match in charge, and after drawing with Suwon Bluewings, Busan only required a single point from either of their final matches against Incheon United or Seongnam FC.

In a horrific display of tactical naivety, however, Busan managed to blow half-time leads in both games, with Lee Ki-hyung reverting to Cho’s negative tactics instead of playing his team’s strengths. After being defeated 2-1 by each of their closest rivals, no one can claim that Busan IPark didn’t deserve relegation. 

Young Player of the Year

With five goals, Lee Dong-jun was Busan's top scorer from open play in 2020.
It’s hard to overlook Lee Dong-jun for Busan’s Young Player of the Year. On the back of a barnstorming 2019, the 23 year-old has a right be disappointed with his modest return of five goals and four assists this season. However, anyone who watched the Royals in action this year will know how vital Lee was to Busan’s gameplan. In a conservative and often pedestrian team, Lee frequently looked to be Busan’s sole spark of inspiration.

Lee’s explosive pace and dribbling were often Busan’s best source of chances, and although his goal tally was ultimately disappointing, there’s no doubt that Lee would have thrived in a more talented, attack-minded team.

Team MVP

Kim Moon-hwan started all but three of Busan's league games in 2020.
There were very few Busan players who performed consistently well this season, but right back Kim Moon-hwan is one player who can hold his head up high. While several of Busan’s players struggled with the step up in quality from the second division, Kim Moon-hwan proved that he is comfortably at home in the K League 1.

As part of an unconvincing defensive unit, Kim was strong in the tackle, positionally astute, and aggressive going forward. Statistically, Kim led the team for passes, blocks, interceptions, and acquisitions, and the majority of Busan’s attacking threat stemmed from Kim’s right wing combination with Lee Dong-jun.

After four years as a regular starter for an underachieving side, and with his name penciled in for a place in Paulo Bento’s 2022 World Cup squad, Kim Moon-hwan is likely to be tempted to move on this winter. There are sure to be plenty of suiters.

Most Disappointing Player

Kim Byong-oh previously played under Cho Deok-jae for Suwon FC.
If there’s one player who epitomizes Busan’s 2020 season, it’s Kim Byong-oh. The 31 year-old winger signed from Suwon FC at the start of the year, and coach Cho Deok-jae was confident enough with his purchase to allow fellow left wingers Han Ji-ho and Kwon Yong-hyun to leave the club on loan.

Unfortunately Kim’s performances didn’t justify his continued inclusion in Busan’s starting eleven. Although a talented dribbler and an impressive physical presence, Kim lacked any kind of end product, frequently scuffing good chances or making poor decisions inside the opposition box. He finished the season with zero goals and a single assist from 20 appearances.


Most Important Decisions of the Off-Season

IPark chairman Chung Mong-kyu has swiftly responded to relegation by making wholesale changes to the coaching set-up. Chung pulled off a major surprise in naming Ricardo Peres as head coach, the inexperienced Portuguese coach becoming IPark's first permanent foreign manager since 2007. The former assistant of Paulo Bento at Cruziero and Olympiakos was directly recommended for the role by the Korea National Team manager.

More pertinently for the club's future, Chung has convinced former Gwangju FC General Manager Ki Young-ok to take over as CEO this off-season. Ki's first task at the club is an unappealing one, as IPark seems resigned to losing their star players. Youth academy products Kim Moon-hwan and Lee Dong-jun are bound to leave, and Ki will be tasked with extracting as much transfer value from suitors for the two Korean internationals. Meanwhile, target man Lee Jeong-hyeop and Brazilian playmaker Romulo are both out of contract, and Ki may be powerless to prevent the pair leaving, with neither play keen to drop down a division.

Ki and Peres have been brought in to reorganise and innovate an IPark set-up which underperformed in recruitment and coaching last season. The main question is whether they can set solid foundations for what is likely to be a transition year in 2021. Penniless and without recent success in the transfer market, the club could turn towards maximising the output from its successful academy, with the team likely to build around existing youth products like Kim Jin-kyu, Lee Sang-jun and Kwon Hyeok-kyu.

-Written by Todd Wilde

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