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Daejeon Hana Citizen's next three games will decide the course of their season

Daejeon Hana Citizen must target at least five points, ideally seven, from their next three matches if they are to get their season back on course. It has been a mitigated disaster for Daejeon with Lee Min-sung's injury-ravaged squad sitting on just one win from their first eight matches, remaining rooted to the foot of the table heading into the visit of FC Seoul this Saturday. 

With FC Seoul also not exactly in a rich vein of form, the match has to be seen as a much-win.  Gimcheon Sangmu visit Purple Arena next Tuesday before Daejeon head off to face a Gwagnju side that, heading into Round 9, is on a run of five straight losses. Daejeon's results - and to a lesser degree their performances - in these matches will decide the course of their season. The team that sat bottom of the table after the first round robin in the last two seasons - Suwon Bluewings and Seongnam FC - went on to suffer relegation.

Why are Daejeon struggling?

Too many key players from last year left. Too many goals, for that matter, too with Tiago (16), Masa (6), Lee Jin-hyun (3), plus two each from Cho Yu-min, Kim Min-duk, and Jeon Byeong-kwan. In terms of creativity, Tiago weighed in with seven assists, Masa three, Lee Jin-hyun six, and Jeon Byeong-kwan three. 

A lot of experience and leadership has left the team, too. Cho Yu-min, Seo Young-jae, and Kim Young-wook all left for one reason or another. It's therefore had to be something of a rebuild at Purple Arena. The starting lineup against Jeonbuk in Round 1 saw seven players make their debuts plus one more off the bench.

There's been a half-hearted change of approach, too. Caught in two minds, Lee Min-sung had tried to steer away from being a counterattacking team but Cho Yu-mi's sudden departure left him unsure with time running out and the need to find a formula that works. Against Jeonbuk, Daejeon looked dangerous with Lee Soon-min having as good a debut as any,  mopping absolutely everything up and helping the Purples counter quickly.  Gutek hit the crossbar late on with the score at 1-0, had that gone in then it might be a different Daejeon. Fans wont help but feel like that was a bit of a sliding doors moment because the overall performance that afternoon was impressive. Daejeon were the better team for much of that match. 

Against Ulsan in Round 5, Daejeon were devastating on the counter and were deserved winners. They were aggressive in pouncing on errors and punished Ulsan when they were made, but they've seldom had much of an identity in the other matches. 

Errors of judgement

Hindsight is always 20-20, but the manager has made some strange decisions. Gutek should never have been put in the starting lineup to face Incheon just a couple of days after returning from Latvia for international duty. Lee Min-sung held his hand up afterwards and admitted as much but losing Gutek, the focal point of Daejeon's attack, for several months has left the team very short up top.

Against Pohang Steelers, having gone 1-0 up just after half time and still leading with 12 minutes to go, Lee Min-sung takes off midfielder Ju Se-jong and replaces him with centre back Hong Jung-un in order to shift from a 4-4-2 to a 5-4-1. Basically, Hong came on to shut up shop but an error allowed Pohang to leave with what they wanted including the cash register. 

Daejeon's shape vs. Pohang (via Wyscout)

Shifting to a back five with 12 minutes plus nine more in injury time was naive and sent out the wrong message. Lee Min-sung always wants his teams to attack, to keep going, and not rest on their laurels. This has often been the message to his players but such are the levels of desperation and anxiety to get the three points, Lee did something that was, on the whole, out of character. In the 1-1 draw at home to Gangwon, Lee set Daejeon up in a 5-4-1. A 5-4-1 at home to a side that finished tenth last year.

In the end, the Purples were able to rescue a late draw through debutant Peniel Mlapa but after a poor display against Jeju the week before, there seemed to be a safety-first approach. Team selections have been odd, too, even with injuries leaving Lee Min-sung with one hand tied behind his back. 

Mitigating circumstances

Injuries have hindered Daejeon and impacted Lee Min-sung's team selections, though,including for the opening day draw with Jeonbuk. He was without Anton Kryvotsyuk and his first-choice keeper Lee Chang-geun, he then lost Park Jin-seong and new club captain Lee Soon-min shortly after. He lost vice-captain and first-choice right back Kang Yoon-seong, Kim Jun-beom is also out injured, and Aaron Calver missed the draw with Daegu. The back four is made up of three centre backs - one who only has a handful of appearances at K League 1 level to his name - and a full back playing on the wrong side. On the whole, they've performed okay defensively but it's chopping and changing of personnel in midfield and up top that's hindering any real progress. This is, supposedly, why the club hasn't looked to pull the trigger just yet.

The stats don't lie

Daejeon currently rank twelfth for total shots with 64, ninth for shooting accuracy at 34.4%, twelfth for shots from open play, and twelfth for shots from outside the penalty area. This is not the Daejeon of last year when shooting accuracy was the third-best in the league with 38.3%, and fifth overall for shots from outside the area. Daejeon were bold last year, they had players who were composed in the final third, and they had a goal scorer. After eight games played last year, Daejeon were sat fourth having won four, drawn two, and lost just two, scoring 16 goals to pick up 14 points. Heading into Saturday's visit of FC Seoul, it's a stark contrast with just six goals scored and six points and the second-worst goal difference in the division.

In 2023, Daejeon ranked fifth for total crosses but they are as low as ninth currently and tenth for deep completions. In short, they aren't getting the ball into their forward players effectively and this is despite being sixth for touches in the box. Daejeon are currently tenth for key passes, ninth for passes to the final third, tenth for passing rate (passes per minute of possession), and eighth for progressive passes. They aren't performing well but it's about results and that's exactly what the manager told his players on Sunday before they stepped out onto the pitch against Daegu.

Courtesy: Hana TV, Off The Pitch

"Today is really about coming together as a team, and it's fine if the performance isn't good, we just have to get the result, no question."

Forget about ACL, as was the target, and even the top six, just concentrating on winning the next game is the most important thing. Results first, performances later and they might just have a season to salvage. In fact, brazenly announcing that ACL qualification is the target, a club that is only in its second season back in K League 1 after eight years in the doldrums of the second tier, was extremely naive. Daejeon have to get their act together, get their attacking players in areas of the pitch where they're going to be effective - get the best out of Leandro, Mlapa, Kim Seung-dae, and Kim In-gyun and they'll do alright.

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