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Osmar is more important to FC Seoul than the club realises

Osmar Ibáñez is among a small group of foreign players in K League who have become synonymous with the team they play for. Some overseas stars move within K League, they may even play for a several clubs in Korea, but there are those such as Osmar who will only ever look right wearing that team's colours. Osmar has been at Seoul since 2014 and has racked up 270 matches, over 200 in K League alone. He captained FC Seoul to their most recent K League triumph and for that he will go down in history as a club and K League legend. With a pivotal year ahead for FC Seoul, Osmar is even more important than the club even realises.

It was love at first sight for Osmar and FC Seoul, that's how he put it when reminiscing about his 200 games in K League last month. While with Thai giants Buriram United in 2013, Osmar faced then Choi Yong-soo's FC Seoul in ACL 2013 and knew instantly that the Korean capital just had to be his next destination. At this point, Osmar was less than 18-months to his career in Asia and didn't really know where he would end up next.

That season Buriram United reached the quarter finals, no small feat, and FC Seoul went on to reach the AFC Champions League Final, losing only via the ever-cruel away goals rule. The club's stock had never been higher and had ambition. The same could be said for Osmar. He could have stayed in Thailand, it would have been easy to. There he won the 2013 Thai Premier League championship, two Thai FA Cups (2012, 2013), Thai League Cups in the same seasons, and a Kor Royal Cup. He had offers from China when it was, as he put it, in the "China boom" when all of a sudden hundreds of millions of dollars were being pumped into the Chinese Super League. But he had eyes purely on signing for FC Seoul:

Osmar in ACL 2014

"So when I was in Thailand, I started following Asian football and I first noticed that K League was one of the best leagues and then I faced FC Seoul in Champions League. And I just fell in love, the way they played, and I imagined myself living in Seoul, in a huge city like this and it was like like a dream. Then I started thinking that Thailand would be a great opportunity, to give me a chance to open up to  Asian football and trying to reach the biggest clubs in Asia. Back then FC Seoul was one of the probably top three to five clubs [in Asia]. So, I wanted to come here."

Full 200 K League Appearances Interview: here

He made an immediate impact at Seoul, too, scoring on his debut in an AFC Champions League Group Stage win over Central Coast Mariners from A-League. Escudero was fouled in the box by Central Coast left back Josh Rose, Osmar placed the ball down on the spot and slotted it into the far corner, in off the post. But, it wasn't just his goal in an eventual 2-0 win which impressed his new coach, it was a seemingly new take on how to play as one of the outside centre backs in a back three:

"The coach started to make changes in practice. He changed from the four to I think they played before a 4-2-3-1, he changed it to the three-back - this new system that everybody uses now. I played on the left and I think I kind of impressed him because I wasn't the normal centre back who just passes the ball and smashes the ball when under pressure. I came up to shoot a few times, I made crosses, even though I was a centre back. He never told me but I like to think that I impressed him that day and that I showed him a kind of a different idea of the three backline centre back, you know. So I think it was a good start."

In 2019, something of a comeback season for both FC Seoul and Osmar, the Spaniard played the majority of his games on the left-hand side of Choi Yong-soo's now trademark back three. It was a successful season for FC Seoul overall, they finished third and reached the Champions League. But for Osmar too it was one of his best in terms of goals and assists. He scored four and assisted five and was exactly the sort of centre back he started out to be, marauding forward up the left as a second wing back. When discussing his exploits from that year, immediately, Osmar's tactical brain kicks and begins explaining the benefits of playing in a back three. It's clear he enjoys talking in-depth about the tactical side of the game:

"That's something that I liked from that system. I used it a lot, used it also in Thailand but I played in the middle, in the centre. But I think it's good. You know, at the end it's pure maths if you play three-back, but you play for example, long balls, you're missing players in front, if you want to play the long balls it is better to put more players in front in order to find the first ball and get the second one. 

"So my style or what I like to think, is when you use the three-back, first of all is to control the build-up because you can be more wider at the back. But once you cross some certain line, one of the three has to support and help, it can be a midfielder it can be a fullback. I think it's important because it keeps the balance otherwise the three-back will step back and six will stay front and there will be huge holes in the middle for someone to cover. So, I think it's important for one or even two of the centre backs to step forward when the team is attacking. I think it's very important to be able to carry the ball and make a good build-up in order to be in a better position for the strikers to score the goals."

But Osmar didn't start out as a defender or defensive midfielder, in fact he began as a left winger because, he says, there was a lack of left-footed kids at that time:

"I started playing as a winger because there was not many left-footed kids. I was tall and my legs were long so my steps, I could run fast because my steps were fast. So I started as a winger. Then I started growing up and I dropped back to left back, then centre back, left centre back, which is rare. It's very convenient for a coach to have a left-footed centre back. But only one year I played at left back, because there was no one else. I like to play in the middle, I grew up with this desire of playing in the middle, you know, surrounded and seeing how I can manage these situations. I was told by some coaches that I could be good a midfielder, but never got the chance in Spain."

Being a player who has most of the pitch ahead of him for most of the game, Osmar agrees that his playing style should stand him in good stead if he does decide to become a coach:

"Probably, probably and hopefully, for me (I can become a good coach), if you if you see the coaches nowadays, I like to believe that the best coaches were either centre backs or midfielders. Probably because when you're a player and you play in the those positions, you see many things. So, your brain is more open to more options. You get used to seeing more things, reading more things. Anticipate, if you're good enough, and you have more options in your head that you have to choose. So at the end, you'll learn how to make better decisions, among more options than others. 

"Maybe, a winger has either three options, running forward, running back, running inside. That's it, you know, they have to choose between three. But the midfielder or even a centre back sees everything. And if you're able, with your experience, you're able to develop your mind and your brain and your grid. You can be a good coach, it doesn't mean you will become one because you have to transmit, you know a lot but maybe you don't know how to teach and verbalise it."

Eulji Lewis

Reading the game has always been one of Osmar's strengths, certainly judging on his time in K League, and perhaps something which FC Seoul are taking for granted. In 2015 (193), 2016 (224), and 2017 (235) he ranked third in K League 1 for interceptions made and on all three occasions the top two were out-and-out centre backs. In 2019 too, after returning from J.League, Osmar ranked sixth in this regard but third as a midfielder. Passing too is, naturally, his forte. 

In 2015 he made the most passes in K League 1, second in 2016, third a year later and seventh in 2019. It's a similar story with passes made to the final third, too: third in 2015, second in 2016, fourth in 2017, and ninth in 2019. What Wyscout classes as 'progressive passes,' in other words "a forward pass that attempts to advance a team significantly closer to the opponent’s goal," Osmar ranked first in K League 1 for three seasons in a row between 2015 and 2017 and was fifth in 2019.

In the present day, with FC Seoul struggling at the wrong end of K League 1 and with past glories being exactly that, in the past. Osmar's importance to the team cannot be understated. But it's also in areas which cannot be quantified, the qualitative aspects of Osmar as player and a person, which are equally as important to the club. FC Seoul's younger players probably don't know how lucky they are to have someone with a schooling which Osmar has had helping to guide them. He has been there and done it all, in K League and in other top leagues in Asia. Being a senior player in that Sangam dressing room, naturally, he likes to share his wisdom, guide players and give them advice: 

"I don't know what the club, what the coach wants from me," he says when talking about his role as a dressing room leader. "But I put this responsibility on myself. I think it's important for the team that players like me speak up. How can you not talk to the player sometimes in private? I give my opinion. I think it's important, and I think it's good for a team. Of course, I understand there are limits, there are lines I cannot cross. But while that's why you have experienced players on the team to be able to speak out sometimes.

"We are in the locker room even today I like to speak with some players while we are getting changed and the hour before we started warming up right before the game, just some encouraging words, not just normal stuff like "fighting" and these things. But that was the best point of Choi Yong-soo and me - I think we understood each other with no communication. So I gave him his time. I knew when it was time for him to talk and he gave me some time as well, time for the captain to talk. And this was a good connection."

In 2016 Osmar captained FC Seoul to the K League title. Undoubtedly, an impressive feat but he admits that it wasn't easy and that Choi Yong-soo choosing him as skipper was put under serious scrutiny:

"It was not easy for him honestly. I have to thank him and I will always thank him for what he did for me - a few times already I have. I cannot forget Choi Yong-soo signed me twice and made me captain this year. It was not easy because, again, a lot of people were saying 'oh yeah, Osmar is a good leader but how will he communicate,' you know? 'How is he going to talk to the team?' And I think I showed him and really showed the team that I was a leader by example more than by using my words, I use my acts and the way I trained, the way I played. Of course, I talked to them maybe so much, maybe some players will say that I talked too much. But I learned how to communicate, you know short, precise - not talking too long. I had to make everything short and to be precise with the information I wanted to give."

At 33-years-old it is probably time to start thinking about his next step, whether that be what he does after football, or his next move as his FC Seoul contract expires at the end of this season. He will have plenty of suitors both in K League and abroad, he could go to any league in Asia and be one of, if not the best, in his position in that league. But, it would be a real shame if his time in K League and with a club which he loves ends in a whimper, with Seoul languishing at the wrong end of the table. Seoul let Dejan go prematurely, it would be a crying shame if it happens again with Osmar.

Listen on the KLU Podcast

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