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First Impressions of Jeonbuk's New Era



Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors once again raised the curtain on a new K League season with a 2-0 victory over capital-based rivals FC Seoul. Under the stewardship of new manager Kim Sang-sik, who was taking charge of his first match as head coach, there was intrigue into how he may try to differ himself from his predecessors. Matthew Binns lists some of the early takeaways for the Green Warriors from the opener.

Depth Still Jeonbuk's Greatest Strength

Neutrals may be forgiven for thinking it was business as usual for Jeonbuk as the side navigated their way to victory through solid, yet perhaps not too enthralling, play. Manager Kim Sang-sik opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation, only a slight variation from Jeonbuk's renowned 4-1-4-1 shape, allowing him to hand a debut to Ryu Jae-moon to double up in covering central midfield alongside Choi Young-jun and assist in neutralising the creative threat posed by Seoul's central midfield trifecta of Ki Sung-yueng, Aleksandar Paločević and Osmar.  


For the most part, it served its purpose, with Seoul finding the most joy out wide. Furthermore, with Ki Sung-yueng removed towards the end of the first-half, Seoul's outlets began to stall and so began Jeonbuk's process of grinding out the win by utilising their envious bench. Having already brought on Kim Seung-dae in the first half, the additions of Modou Barrow and last season's Golden Boot runner-up Stanislav Iljutcenko in the second-half made it seem that goals were inevitable. 

Jeonbuk have traditionally never looked at their sharpest in the league opener, and there are signs that they will look better as new players and a new manager bed themselves in, but with such quality to call upon, the Green Warriors can continue to be afforded this luxury of time knowing that they can find results regardless of performance.

Jeonbuk Continue to Lack at Left-back

While both Lee Ju-young and Choi Chul-soon stepped in to fill the void created by the sale of Kim Jin-su in the latter half of last season, it was understood that both were not considered a first-choice option, shown by the club's reluctance to let Kim depart. However, Jeonbuk still were able to find the results needed to get themselves over the line and claim silverware once more.

With a full transfer window then, recruiting a left-back seemed to those outside of the club as an area that would be high on the priority list. However, Jeonbuk's only defensive recruitment was that of Lee You-hyun from Honam rivals Jeonnam Dragons. While Lee is a promising, young full-back with plenty of potential, his position is predominantly down the right and he seemed a purchase mostly to provide needed backup to Lee Yong. Having not featured in Saturday's matchday squad, only time will tell how he will feature.

Therefore, Lee Ju-young and Choi Chul-soon currently look tasked with covering the position once more. Lee was given the nod on Saturday and continued to show promise moving forward yet it was in his defensive duties that proved worrisome. Lee often left areas of space for FC Seoul to exploit when Jeonbuk were out of possession, particularly Na Sang-ho, requiring centre-back  Kim Min-hyeok to move across and cover to which he admittedly did to good effect.

Choi Chul-soon was eventually introduced after the opening goal to shore things up, with Lee being allowed to move forward. While both players certainly command respect and would likely claim a starting spot in many of the division's sides, it does feel that Jeonbuk's biggest weakness may well be this position and other clubs could take note moving forward.

Competition Not Enough to get Gustavo Firing



There must have been an air of inevitability when Gustavo saw the number nine held aloft in the 57th minute and his replacement, the newly-signed Stanislav Iljutcenko, waiting on the sidelines to come on. His heart may well have sank further when it looked as if Iljutcenko had scored twenty minutes later, only for it to be ruled an own-goal.

Gustavo, who fired Jeonbuk into life at the latter half of last season with his summer arrival looked out of sorts in the weekend’s opener, starved of service at times and unable to convert the opportunities provided. The signs had been there perhaps though with the striker struggling to maintain his scoring rate towards the end of 2020 and no longer posing the threat his initial arrival had brought with domestic opponents wising up. Gustavo has not scored in the league since September, with his only goals being in the AFC Champions League in November. The hope was that, after what was an intense ending to the campaign, a full pre-season would help him rediscover his form.

Gustavo’s missed header from six yards out within a minute from the interval proved to be the main highlight for the striker on a difficult afternoon. With Lee Yong continuing to produce threatening crosses, the Brazilian forward rose to meet the ball unmarked yet glanced his header down and wide leaving many questioning how he could miss such an opportunity. 

Casting too much judgement on one game is foolish, and Gustavo may well rekindle his scoring touch in the upcoming rounds as he learns to adapt to his new teammates and manager. With additional competition for the striker's position this year in Jeonju though, Gustavo will need to learn to take his chances otherwise risk losing his place in the long-term.

The Kids Aren’t Alright

One talking point from a mostly lifeless first half was Kim Sang-sik’s controversial removal of U22 player Lee Sung-yoon in exchange for Kim Seung-dae. With K League sides required to field at least one player born in 1999 or later, Lee Sung-yoon would have been delighted to have been given the starting nod yet was hauled off on the 22 minutes mark after barely having had chance to showcase his talents. Lee's early removal was made all the more dispiriting by being made to traipse around the perimeter of the pitch on returning to the bench. At least the player could take some comfort in knowing that his replacement struggled to impose himself on proceedings, allowing the youngster's reputation to grow through his absence.

While many have levelled criticism, sometimes unfairly, in recent years to Jeonbuk’s lack of youth product, one sleight that commenters had to refrain from making was the early removal of these players, with previous Jeonbuk managers at least giving a reasonable amount of minutes to youngsters before considering substituting them. Kim Sang-sik opting to move from this tradition breaks from the spirit of the rule and sets an unwanted precedent early into his tenure. 

Supporters of Korean football would have been hoping it was merely a tactic to be employed on this occasion yet, as the weekend unfolded, teams across the country also chose to take similar action, with the likes of Suwon FC and Incheon United starting and removing youngsters around the twenty-minute mark.

Last season saw 44 occasions that U22 players were replaced in the first half, mostly tactical and not due to injuries. The earliest a player was taken off in 2020 was on the 27th-minute mark. This record has been broken three times in the top flight alone this weekend, with two more matches in this particular round still to be played on Monday.

It should be noted also, however, that Kim Sang-sik did hand a professional debut to young goalkeeper Kim Jeong-hoon, yet this was merely in a bid to utilise the new five substitutes rule that has been employed in the top flight this season. With the manager wanting to bring on Choi Chul-soon, but having already made three changes, a U22 player was required to come on before all five substitutes could be utilised. Song Beom-keun, Jeonbuk's U22 player himself only two seasons ago, was thus removed from play for the first time in his Jeonbuk career to make way for the youngster and allow for Choi to also replace Han Kyo-won.


In credit to the young goalkeeper, he showed flashes of good distribution to allow Kim Seung-dae an opportunity down the left to counter, not to mention a solid save with limited visibility to keep things at 1-0 late on, but the new substitute rule only served to undermine the young talent brought on. Both Lee Sung-yoon and Kim Jeong-hoon's minutes combined totalled just over 36, somewhat of a mockery to youth development, especially given how the U22 rule has previously been praised for developing the U23 national side that won last year's Asian Cup.

While it may now be too late to adjust the rule with the season having already kicked off, if the K League wishes to continue its focus on young players then perhaps measures need to be implemented to stop clubs abusing the spirit of the initiative in the long-term. Regardless of whether action is taken though, comments should be made to point out that this tactic of unforced early removal will be a detriment to the league and its reputation as it continues its reach to an overseas audience.

Post-match Thoughts

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