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Busan IPark: Another Year of Mediocrity?

Busan IPark have endured a difficult start to the season, with two draws and two defeats from their opening four games in the K League 2. On Sunday they were downed by a former beloved player, and coach Ricardo Peres could already be facing the wrath of disgruntled supporters. Are recent results a sign of things to come, or can Peres turn this faltering team around?

And this is what you could have had…

There was a kind of painful poetry in Han Ji-ho’s late winning goal for Bucheon against Busan IPark on Sunday afternoon. The veteran winger, who racked up 231 appearances in ten years at Busan, cheered and pumped his fists when he tapped in to condemn his former club to their second defeat of the fledgling season. And who can blame him?

Despite being adored by fans, the former Busan captain was deemed surplus to requirements at the end of 2020. 15 months on, he is top scorer and an integral cog in a resurgent Bucheon team who top the table with three wins from their opening four games. 

Han Ji-ho celebrates scoring against his former club.

He might even have felt a grim satisfaction in watching Kang Yun-gu struggle once again to make an impact on the left flank of Busan’s attack. While Kang fed off scraps as part of an isolated and frustrated front three, Han rolled back the years and gobbled up the turf at the Asiad, the ground where he made his name. 

Kang, on loan from Ulsan Hyundai, is still only 19 years old and a real prospect. He should not be judged on a handful of games at a new club, especially as his appearances for Ulsan last year suggested the left footer was suited to a central or right-sided role. In four starts for Busan in 2022, he is yet to show fans why Ricardo Peres feels he is Busan’s best option at left wing. Averaging only 12 passes per game with a pass completion of 67.6%, he has registered only one key pass and has rarely made an impact around opposition penalty areas. (For reference, Han Ji-ho has averaged 23 passes per game with 78.6% completion, and has notched three key passes along with bagging three goals.) 

This isn’t Kang’s fault, of course, and the comparison is perhaps unfair on the young player. This is a laboured and disjointed Busan team, and far from an ideal setup for a teenage midfielder looking to learn his trade in an exciting, attacking unit. I make this comparison only to highlight how some of Ricardo Peres’ managerial decisions have left Busan supporters scratching their heads.

Same Old Problems?

The manager’s winter transfers appeared sensible, perhaps even shrewd. He has, however, taken a gamble by not signing a new central defender despite the obvious deficiencies of last year, and by sticking with his foreign signings, particularly Valentinos Sielis and Domagoj Drozdek. 

Valentinos was sent off (rather harshly, it has to be said) on his only start so far this season, while Drozdek has yet to make the starting eleven in the league. Overseas players are so crucial to K League 2 teams that they can often mean the difference between promotion and mid-table obscurity, so it begs the question why Peres didn’t opt for replacements if he isn’t backing players like Drozdek to be mainstays in his team. 

Busan led Gyeongnam 2-0 before Valentinos' red card. They went on to lose 3-2.

Busan’s young players are once again getting their fair share of minutes on the field, and there have been some promising cameos from the likes of Hong Uk-hyeon, Cho Wi-je, and the hotshot duo of Park Jeong-in and Lee Tae-min. In total, there were seven U22 players involved for Busan on Sunday, which is fantastic for the individuals and for the league. 

But while Peres’ focus on youth is admirable, is he making the right calls on team selections and tactics? I would argue not. At home to last season’s bottom club, Busan fans don’t expect their players to be parked inside their own half at 0-0. 

Take nothing away from Bucheon, who were excellent on Sunday, but Peres claims to have brought attacking football to the club, and that’s a claim that’s hard to justify, especially when compared to other recent Busan teams. Cho Jin-ho’s 2017 team were famously entertaining, while Cho Deok-je’s promotion-winning side of 2019 were runaway top scorers, and even Choi Yun-gyum’s 2018 team were often slick on the attack. 

Peres’ team, meanwhile, are rudderless and unimaginative. Against Bucheon, the Busan players trudged out onto the rainy turf for the second half looking like they would rather be anywhere else in the world. Within 15 seconds of kicking off, Busan managed to work the ball back to their goalkeeper, who bizarrely still seems to be tasked with starting every Busan attack. Eight seconds later, Busan lost possession. Another ten seconds on, Bucheon had a free kick on the edge of the Busan penalty area. Barely 30 seconds after kicking off, Busan were already handing out free pot shots at their goal. One can only imagine what An Byong-jun was thinking as he traipsed back towards his own penalty area.

An Byong-jun, by the way - the K League 2 MVP two years in a row - barely had a sniff of the ball all game.  

Make or break in March?

Four league games into the new season, Busan IPark have two solitary points. They are winless. They have a negative goal difference. They also have one of the strongest squads in the division. 

Right back Choi Jun has been one of Busan's better performers.

There have been solid performers in the early stages of the season. Park Jeong-in has worked wonders with little service, while Park Jong-woo, Kim Jeong-hyun, Ryan Edwards, and Choi Jun have been steady, and goalkeeper Ahn Joon-soo has been a surprise standout performer. As a unit, however, Busan have been lacklustre at best. 

To be fair to Peres, he had to do without his two star players in the opening three games. Unfortunately for the Portuguese manager, An Byong-jun and Kim Jin-kyu’s return to the starting eleven at Bucheon only served to highlight how woeful Busan’s approach to matches has been. 

There is still time to turn the club’s fortunes around this season, and it could even start this week. Busan travel to Anyang on Wednesday before hosting Jeonnam Dragons on Saturday. A couple of wins and Busan’s season will well and truly be kickstarted. Another pair of dour performances, however, and Peres may struggle to keep his big names motivated. That goes for the fans, too – at least, for those who haven’t already lost interest.



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