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The Moneyball of South Korean Football

Over the years, Pohang Steelers' outward transfer activity and recruitment process have been open to criticism from fans and even coaches of the club. While their Moneyball-like approach has been unpopular in recent years, the club has managed to compete with the likes of Jeonbuk Hyundai and Ulsan Hyundai, all while spending less. Pohang Steelers columnist Zeno Jo gives a brief explanation of what Moneyball is, the circumstances that pushed Pohang to play Moneyball, the 'Moneyball signings' over the years and what to expect moving forward.

What is Moneyball?

Moneyball, a book published in 2003 and adapted into a movie in 2011, is about how MLB's Oakland Athletics used computer-generated analysis to assemble a winning team. Despite spending the third-least in payroll during the 2002 season, the A's achieved a record of 103 wins and 59 losses, second-best in the MLB and best in their division.  

The book and its movie adaptation are often referenced when professional sports teams like the Oakland Athletics — small-market and working on a tight budget — find ways to succeed despite the odds being stacked against them. 

In the 2002 season that author Michael Lewis followed the Athletics, the New York Yankees held the best record in the MLB. Unlike the Athletics, the Yankees are regarded as a rich large-market team. Their 2002 payroll was the highest in the MLB and more than three times that of the Athletics. 

Why Pohang Play Moneyball

While the coastal city of Pohang isn't quite Oakland, California, the Steelers and the Athletics share the similarity of being cash-strapped. POSCO, the company that owns the club, has battled through significant economic adversity in recent years. On top of the COVID-19 pandemic that took over the world in 2020, POSCO had to deal with the effects of Typhoon Hinnamnor in 2022. The category 5 storm caused a halt to all steel-making operations and a reported $1.82 billion lost revenue. 

The company has historically been known to be wary of investing in the club when it comes to its transfer activity. The last 'big transfer' that was made was the club's record signing of Ianis Zicu in 2012. 

Zicu would make just 15 appearances for the Steelers before joining Gangwon FC on a six-month loan, eventually joining the Bears on a permanent basis. This signing, the disappointment and the economic weight that came with it not only made it so that the club was a rumored €2.3 million (around €2.8 million after inflation) in the red for transfers, but it set the tone for the club to spend less moving forward.

Since then, some of Pohang's most influential signings have come by way of trade and free transfers, with a few also coming on a low fee. 

(Image Credit: POSCO Newsroom)
The above graphic comes from a POSCO Newsroom article about why the manager of a Pohang Steelers team that finished third in 2020 won the Manager of the Year Award. It compares some of the Oakland Athletics' Moneyball strategies and how it applies to Pohang Steelers. 

According to the graphic the Oakland Athletics used undervalued youngsters and foreigners, while Pohang had Song Min-kyu, Manuel Palacios and Brandon O'Neill. The Athletics recruited veteran players in order to complete their squad, and the Steelers recruited veteran and former Pohang man Oh Beom-seok. The Athletics used a variety of systems to help improve skills, while Pohang make use of its Football Performance Center, which at the time of its opening was also the first of its kind in South Korea. The Athletics also use multiple players, as opposed to playing through a single star player, while the Steelers had multiple players on the attacking front that helped push the team to be the best-scoring team of the 2020 season.

The Moneyball Signings & The Moneyball Sales

Moneyball gives and Moneyball takes. Season by season, these are the incoming and outgoing "Moneyball-esque" transfers that have contributed to Pohang's Moneyball philosophy. Each section will give a recollection of how these transfers played out and an explanation or rationale behind each signing and sale.

For the sake of briefness, these are only the key transfers since 2020, which was Kim Gi-dong's first full season as manager. As a disclaimer, transfer fees that are not linked are rumored fees, while the linked fees are believed to be close to exact figures.

2020 (K League 1: 3rd)
  • Incomings: Hwang In-jae (free, Ansan Greeners), Choi Young-joon (loan, Jeonbuk Hyundai), Brandon O'Neill (unknown, Sydney FC), Manuel Palacios (800 million KRW, FC Anyang), Oh Beom-seok (free, Gangwon FC) 
  • Outgoings: Lee Soo-bin (loan, Jeonbuk Hyundai), Wanderson (unknown, Al-Ittihad Kalba), Lee Jin-hyun (300 million KRW, Daegu FC)
Before the season, Pohang brought in Australian midfielder Brandon O'Neill on an undisclosed fee and Colombian attacker Manuel Palacios for a reportedly high fee. They welcomed goalkeeper Hwang In-jae on a free transfer and made Heo Yong-jun's move a permanent one. Both Hwang and Heo would play a crucial role in the team in future seasons. 

As far as outgoings go, Wanderson moved to Al-Ittihad Kalba for an unknown fee, and youngster Lee Jin-hyun, who had already earned exemption from the military for his role with the U-23s in the Asian Games, was sold for a relatively low fee. Lee Soo-bin would also be loaned to Jeonbuk Hyundai for one year. In exchange, Choi Young-joon was loaned an additional year to Pohang. 

While 2020 did not have much transfer activity, perhaps due to the COVID-19 pandemic, transfers from the previous season gave Kim Gi-dong a solid foundation to build upon. At the time when Iljutcenko and Palocevic started to adjust well to K League play, O'Neill and Palacios joined, the latter having played 34 matches in K League 2, scoring 11 goals and assisting seven.

The 2019 and 2020 transfer windows are excellent examples of Moneyball. The club spent money that they had earned through sales and made a number of players on loan or for free that would end up playing a key role in the team. This transfer strategy resulted in the club finishing third behind the Hyundai clubs, which was enough to qualify for the AFC Champions League for the first time since 2016. 

  • Incomings: Lim Sang-hyub (free, Suwon Samsung), Shin Kwang-hoon (free, Gangwon FC), Shin Jin-ho (unknown, Ulsan Hyundai), Alex Grant (unknown, Perth Glory), Mario Kvesić (free, NK Olimpija), Borys Tashchy (free, FC St. Pauli), Park Seung-wook (free, Busan TC)
  • Outgoings:  Kim Kwang-suk (free, Incheon United), Brandon O'Neill (220-300 million KRW, Buriram United), Stanislav Iljutcenko (1 billion KRW, Jeonbuk Hyundai), Hong Yun-sang (loan + option, VfL Wolfsburg), Song Min-kyu (2 billion KRW, Jeonbuk Hyundai)
The 2021 season was a strange one for Pohang. After qualifying for the 2021 AFC Champions League, they went on to sell three key players, O'Neill and Iljutcenko before the season then Song Min-kyu in the summer, the last two both to Jeonbuk Hyundai; let one-club man Kim Kwang-suk leave due to a one-year disparity on how long a new contract should be; and also decided not to pursue permanent deals for Palocevic and captain Choi Young-joon, both of which were on loan deals.

There was reason to have some optimism, though. Before signing Iljutcenko in the summer of 2019, the club had its eyes set on a different target: Borys Tashchy. Tashchy would end up moving to FC St. Pauli, where he would play for a year and a half before having his contract mutually terminated. The void created by the departures of Kim Kwang-suk and O'Neill were filled by Alex Grant and Shin Jin-ho respectively, and the hard blow of Son Min-kyu's sale was softened by the success of Lim Sang-hyub, who would be the team's leading scorer that season. 

The club would reach the final of the AFC Champions League, losing 2-0 to Al-Hilal. The result meant that the Saudi Arabian club would break a three-way tie between themselves, Pohang Steelers and Urawa Red Diamonds to become the most successful club in the competition's history. 

The magical run to the final started with a tight qualification to the knockout stages; a difference of one goal helped Pohang advance ahead of Hong Kong side Kitchee. In the first knockout round, Pohang beat a Cerezo Osaka side that finished unbeaten in their group in Osaka. They then beat Nagoya Grampus, the team that finished top of their group and undefeated against Pohang, 3-0. In the semifinals, new signing Alex Grant scored an 89th-minute goal to force extra time and then penalties to beat arch-rivals Ulsan Hyundai.

The league would be a different story for the Steelers. They would finish 9th, just three points above a relegation playoff spot, and scored just 41 goals the 38-game season. For comparison, Pohang scored a league-best 56 goals the previous season, which had just 27 games due to the pandemic.

Had it not been for the Champions League run, the 2021 season would have been considered a failure thanks to Moneyball. Taschy and Kvesić failed to succeed, and the club was down a few key players in Kim Kwang-suk, O'Neill, Iljutcenko and Song Min-kyu.

  • Incomings: Jung Jae-hee (trade, Jeonnam Dragons), Park Chan-yong (unknown, Jeonnam Dragons), Yun Pyeong-guk (trade, Gwangju FC), Moses Ogbu (free, Wuhan Three Towns), Wanderson (free, Al-Ittihad Kalba), Kim Seung-dae (unknown, Jeonbuk Hyundai)
  • Outgoings: Oh Jae-hyeok (trade, Bucheon FC), Gwon Wan-kyu (free, Seongnam FC), Mario Kvesić (contract terminated, NK Olimpija), Lee Jun & Ha Seung-un (trade, Gwangju FC), Lee Hyun-ju (loan + option, FC Bayern II), Boris Tashchy (contract terminated), Kim Yong-hak (loan + option, Portimonense SC), Manuel Palacios (~300 million KRW, Seongnam FC), Kang Sang-woo (1.8 billion KRW, Beijing Guoan)
The club had its work cut out for it heading into the 2022 season. After failing to strike gold with Tashchy and Kvesić but finding a strong defender in Alex Grant, they needed to move on to different foreign players. They stuck to their traditional Moneyball approach of bringing back former players of the club that are veterans and would have little to no trouble fitting into the squad. 

They brought Wanderson and Kim Seung-dae for cheap or free. They also signed two members of Jeonnam's FA Cup-winning squad: center-back Park Chan-yong and the competition's MVP Jung Jae-hee. They made another big sale at the beginning of the season, with Kang Sang-woo heading to Beijing Guoan after a long and drawn-out transfer saga. 

In terms of transfers playing a role in the squad's performance throughout the season, the club has a lot of reasons to feel satisfied with their business. Heo Yong-jun and Shin Jin-ho lead the team in scoring and assisting respectively, while Yun Pyeong-guk, who arrived via trade, was the main goalkeeper while Kang Hyun-moo battled an injury. 

The Steelers would finish third, qualifying for the Champions League after suffering heartbreak in the final the previous season. 

  • Incomings: Kim In-sung (free, Seoul E-Land), Baek Sung-dong (free, FC Anyang), Oberdan Alionço de Lima (loan + option, Figueirense FC), Zeca (unknown, Mirassol FC), Kim Jong-woo (~300 million KRW, Gwangju FC)
  • Outgoings: Lee Hyun-ju (unknown, FC Bayern II), Moses Ogbu (contract terminated, Shaanxi), Lim Sang-hyub (free, FC Seoul), Lee Soo-bin (unknown, Jeonbuk Hyundai), Lee Gwang-hyeok (free, Suwon FC), Shin Jin-ho (200 million KRW, Incheon United), Heo Yong-jun (loan, Vegalta Sendai)
The 2023 season is not over yet, but as of the time of writing this article, Pohang sits second in the league, behind a dominant Ulsan Hyundai side. The club welcomed one of its biggest signings in recent years, signing Brazilian striker Zeca. He played for Daegu FC in 2022 on loan from Brazilian side Mirassol FC, and was brought in for an undisclosed but believed to be high fee. They also brought in another Brazilian in Oberdan, on loan with an option. The transfer was a low-risk, high-reward move, but has paid off so far. Kim In-sung and Baek Sung-dong were also signed on free transfers, both bringing a lot of experience and skill. 

A lot of the club's 2023 outgoings were expected. The Moses Ogbu experiment was unsuccessful, and his contract was terminated before the conclusion of the 2022 season. Lim Sang-hyub reignited his career in two years at Pohang and wanted to make a final big move for his career to FC Seoul, while Lee Gwang-hyeok's time at Pohang was clearly over after a summer 2022 move to Suwon FC fell apart. The same could be said for Lee Soo-bin, who had just finished the last season of his career as an under-22 player. However, the departures of Heo Yong-jun and Shin Jin-ho could be considered disappointments.

The arrival of Zeca meant that the backup striker position would either be Heo Yong-jun or Lee Ho-jae. Heo was allowed to leave on loan to Japanese side Vegalta Sendai, meaning Lee would be the backup, which in hindsight has been a good decision — the former Korea University Tiger has five goals and one assist as the second option at striker. The club triggered a clause in Shin Jin-ho's contract that would extend his contract with the club for another season, but Shin had his eyes set on leaving. In an interview with GOAL, Kim Gi-dong said, "If I knew [Shin was going to leave], I would never have let Lee Soo-bin leave." 

To fill the void created by Shin's departure, the club would sign Kim Jong-woo from recently promoted Gwangju FC, meeting his release clause and even giving him Shin's number 6 jersey. Of the signings made, only Kim In-sung has yet to find success while playing for Pohang. 

Review & A Look Ahead

Pohang's Moneyball-like transfer strategy in recent years has paid off. They were able to deploy this strategy thanks to one of the strongest youth systems in Korea, responsible for some of Korean football's all-time greats, and perhaps most importantly, one of the best managers in the K League at the moment. 

The youth system and Kim Gi-dong's tactics and ability to use players in a variety of positions have made it so that Pohang do not need to recruit in positions that they otherwise may have needed to. Just this season, they have lost key players such as Jung Jae-hee, Kim Jong-woo and Sim Sang-min to injury. In the absence of them, players like Kim In-sung, Kim Seung-dae, Wanderson, Kim Jun-ho and Lee Seung-mo have filled those gaps effectively, allowing for the Steelers to not miss a beat and remain in second. 

Kim Gi-dong's successes will not go unnoticed. His 3-year contract renewal could be seen as a sign of the times changing. Even this past transfer window, the club made an uncharacteristic move in signing Zeca, but still show signs of their old selves through the sales of Shin Jin-ho and Lee Soo-bin. 

The upcoming summer transfer window, which is set to open on June 23 and stay open until July 20, will be a significant 'fork in the road' point to see if Pohang will stick to what has been a safe and profitable approach, or if they will go all out and chase their a trophy — which would be their first in ten years — in the club's 50th anniversary season. 

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