The Fate of Football Managers in Korea

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Yes, dismissing Claudio Ranieri was completely disgraceful, yet it was the reality of modern football. English football especially has always been about producing short-term results and some wonder if the recent increase in wealth in the Premier League has given clubs the luxury to start replacing managers in short cycles. But it’s not just the EPL managers who face the fate of losing their jobs. The problem is just as severe in the Korean League where money isn’t as bountiful as the Premier League.

The Korean League, simply referred to as the “K-League”, is divided into two professional leagues: Classic and Challenge. For the 2017 season, K-League Classic saw four teams out of twelve replace their managers. Challenge, on the other hand, suffered even greater turnovers: two teams from last season completely withdrew from the league (Goyang and Chungju), six teams replaced their managers, and two brand new teams entered the league (Ansan and Asan). Only Suwon FC and Gyungnam, out of the ten teams in Challenge, kept the manager from the previous season. More than half of all the teams in both leagues (12 out of 22 teams) started the new season with a new manager. Sadly, the numbers get worse if we include managers replaced in-season.

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Why is it that teams are replacing managers so quickly? Is it the forthcoming system pressuring teams to perform? Is it the relationship between the manager and club owners? Is it the pressure from the fast-growing and cash-strapped leagues in China and Middle East? Whatever the reasons may be, we will never get the full picture, but by examining how club administrators work with managers in the Korean League compare to those in the Japanese League, we get a general idea of the existing problems in the K-League.

Seoul E-Land of Challenge for instance closed the contract with Martin Rennie and his coaching staff mid-season in 2016. Rennie was pressured to promote the team into Classic in his first year in charge of a brand new team. And for failing to promote the team into Classic, he was asked to leave only after 18 months in office. Martin Rennie was an exciting recruit to the league, having plenty of experience in the MLS with Vancouver Whitecaps. He was tipped to bring a unique Western footballing influence into Korean football. If only he had more time to adjust to the Korean league and assess his team’s potential promotion to Classic, he may have truly seen his work bear fruit. 

KunHa Park replaced Rennie mid-season. Seoul E-Land’s results for that second half of the season improved with Park in charge. The team won 11 games, drew 8, and only lost 4. K-League Challenge doesn’t have relegation yet, but Park had successfully turned the table around for a struggling E-Land side. Everyone expected coach Park to lead the team for the new season, but he was dismissed at the end of that season. The club’s statements for his dismissal was simply “to start fresh with the new club executives.” Talk about an outrageous comment. Poor decisions from the club continue to hinder the club. Seoul E-Land is currently (5/29/2017) sitting 9th out of 10 teams with just two wins in 13 games. Now leading the team is a coach from the U-League (University-League), a first-timer to the professional league. We do not know for sure how secure his job is, but the club has grandiose plans – its website lists as one its goals to become Asian club champions by 2020 (win the Asian Champions League). 

What can the K-League sides learn from this Japanese team? Since 2010 for seven straight seasons, Shonan Bellmare had gone up and down in the first and second division in the J-League. The team only won 7 in 34 games and was comfortably relegated to the second division in 2016. Despite its inconsistent performance in the J1 League, Cho Kwi-jae continues his management since 2012. Experiencing two promotions and two relegations during his regime, he could have easily been sacked by the standards set in modern football, but the club, acknowledging his leadership qualities, gives him full assurance that he’ll be given time to build his team. Shonan Bellmare is sitting third place out of total 22 teams in the second division, ready to be promoted again and challenge the first division.

Sir Alex Ferguson says the support from the club administration played a significant role in the development of a football club. In his book, Leading, he describes the support he got from the club owners and executives as a ‘privilege’ that a leader needs and must have. The fact that he was free from an urgent pressure to produce immediate success enabled him to concentrate on building the basis for the long-term generational success of Ferguson’s teams.

This is the culture K-League needs to inherit – developing a working relationship between the club administrators and coaching staff, together setting realistic goals, together taking time to move up the ladder one step at a time. And as Korean football system experiences more change in the upcoming years, teams must live up to the challenge of strengthening the cooperative relations between the club administrators and the coaching staff. 

When your best players are not your best players

“Korea, only nation in Asia, to become the sixth nation to advance to the World Cup for the 8th consecutive time”

The media is all about this record when no one, but few, dares to know. There’s really nothing valuable about this record when the team’s performance is hardly convincing.

NISI20160814_0012047959_web.jpgMore and more players picked for the national team are not playing for their respective club teams. Being called up for the national team means the squad has to prepare for the game in a short period of time. However when you have players who are short of game experience from lack of regular football, preparation is slowed down. Anyone who’s been a player will know how much not being able to play slows you down not only physically, but also mentally. The sad reality is that it’s also impossible to obtain this physical and mental aspect of the game through just hard training. A player NEEDS to get in the actual game. Coaches, speaking to the media, will confirm they will only pick players who are first-team members of their respective clubs, but they’re still partial to players who play in Europe – even if they’re struggling to break into the first team at their club. It tells you something about Korean football. The national team, for some reason, is forced to rely on these foreign-based players and has a small pool of players to pick from the domestic K-League. There’s a real dearth of quality players from Korean domestic football, which is the result of a poor coaching system and an ineffective league system, leading to less opportunity for all age groups and genders.

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Joo-ho Park struggling at Dortmund

An answer to the question of why a player isn’t getting playing time is rather simple. He’s not good enough. What’s really hard to answer, though, is why Korean players, as a bigger mass, struggle with this issue. Coach Shin Tae Yong, who led the Olympic team to Rio, is very much concerned with this issue. He describes current Korean players as all around too robotic and that they are missing something special in their style of play. Because of this undistinguished style, coaches are rather forced to prefer the veterans. It’s time to correct this stereotyped idea that age is stopping young players from playing. They are only going to get their experience over the veterans when they are set apart from the norm. Marcus Rashford of Manchester United didn’t make his surprise Premier League debut against Arsenal last season because he was young. He was given the chance because he had the abilities which in turn made his potential that much great. That’s the world we live in, asking for striking expertise and competence.

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Coach Shin Tae Yong at Rio Olympics

So the root of this problem is planted in Korea’s youth coaching system. How can coaches assist in developing a set of definite qualities into young players? Here, coach Shin stresses the importance of how coaches must learn how to help young players mature and sharpen their innate talents. There’s obviously a ton that goes into youth coaching, but coach Shin says, the primary focus should be on maturing their raw talents. Korean coaches are too focused, or rather, only focused on settling the fundamentals and executing tactics. That’s why Korean coaches prefer the veteran over the rookie. There’s not that much to compare besides the former having more experience. We need to criticize this ‘coach-centered’ coaching. And it just makes coaching that much harder. While perfecting the fundamentals and teaching them how to execute the team’s tactics, coaches are challenged to discover and implement creativeness to players’ natural talents. This is the direction of coaching Korea needs to take, differentiating players with their own unique abilities.

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U-19 coach Ahn Ik-Soo

The U-19 coach, Ahn Ik-Soo, approaches the problem of players in late teens and early twenties not getting regular football at a different perspective. He points to the entire league system. No matter how talented you are at age 19 or 20, it’s true that you are more likely to spend more time watching the game than actually playing. But, let’s go back to Marcus Rashford’s example. Before Rashford broke into the first team, he didn’t just train with the first team. He had plenty of opportunities to keep playing for the reserves in the U-21 league, which we know already, is separate from the Championship, the second division. With this subdivided league system in Europe, young players are able to maintain and raise their real game experience and even work on closing down the gap between the regular starters. That’s exactly what Korean football is missing – a subdivided league system. The league system is shallow and does not account for the young players and even the women’s teams. Many players in early twenties are just entering the professional K-League, playing for their universities, or playing in the lower divisions of K-League. In each respective situation, young players simply don’t play because they are rookies. They don’t have an alternate solution for gaining game experience. Like European football, the KFA must develop better young players by reshaping the leagues under K-League and creating more opportunities for each age group and women’s teams to participate in.

Amazingly enough, the KFA has been working on a lofty goal of expanding Korean football league. The table below shows the current league system:

Division Level
K-League (Classic) Pro
K-League (Challenge) Pro
N-League (National) Semi-Pro
K3-League Amateur

KFA, partnered with Korean Olympic Committee, is mapping out a plan to subdivide the entire league system into seven different leagues.

Division Level
K1-League (Classic) Pro
K2-League (Challenge) Pro
K3-League (Advanced) Semi-Pro
K4-League (Basic) Semi-Pro
K5-League (National Best) Amateur
K6-League (18 District Leagues) Amateur
K7-League (142 Regional Leagues) Amateur

emblem_of_korea_football_association-svgStarting next year, K7-League’s 142 regional leagues consisting of 852 teams will begin their establishment. The government is supporting about $2.6 million, so each league will be allocated with about $18,000 to furnish necessary facilities and organize management for the league opening. Going with the new system, the KFA announced earlier this month that all divisions will now be introduced to the promotion and relegation battle just like the European league system. Now, any team from any league can move up and down in the system. Currently this system is only applied to two pro leagues – Classic and Challenge.

In all respects, this is exciting news to hear. The KFA is surely making a great first step in raising competition and widening the pool of players to pick for the national team by merging all the leagues and implementing the promotion/ relegation battle for both professionals and amateurs. This is also a great way to invite more amateurs to play, especially to those who couldn’t play up to the standard of pro or given up because of conditions of football environment in Korea. They can start enjoying football again and who knows, we might just see a Korean Jamie Vardy some day. It’s an open game to all.

It’s time for all of us to accept the current situation with Korean football and embrace the fact that Korean football has been poor in producing quality players which in return, worsened the competition in the national team. Coach Shin associates this poor line of production players with weak coaching system and asked for a shift from ‘coach-centered’ coaching to ‘player-centered’ coaching. On top of this problem, this overall problem of players lacking regular football is situated far more deeply than just the national team. Coaches of men’s U-23, men’s U-19, National Women’s team, women’s U-20 are all facing dilemmas with players lacking real game experience. The best players of Korea are coming to play for their country, but they are struggling to play regularly for their club teams. There’s more than just substandard coaching, Korea doesn’t acquire a robust environment for both genders of young players to simply play at their level. However, we’ve seen reports made by the KFA that changes ARE happening. Leagues are merging. Even though there’s still long ways to go to provide more opportunities for young players and even the women’s teams, these long-term changes on youth coaching and overall football environment should have gradual effects on Korean football in all levels and one day bring better performance from the national team.

2015 EAFF East Asian Cup: China VS. Korea Analysis

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The EAFF East Asian Cup, held every 2 years, is a regional competition played by top four of the East Asian countries. This tournament is not organized by FIFA so the teams in Europe are not obligated to send their Asian players to play for their countries. As a result, the teams are entirely composed of players who play in Asian leagues. The top four countries participating this year are S. Korea, N. Korea, Japan, and China.

This is a great opportunity for Uli Stielike, the head coach of the Korean team, to work with the young players, especially those who play in the K-League.

The first game against the host, China, was very positive. I honestly can’t think of last time Korea played this well as a team. Three things that I saw in the game were:

  • Very organized defensive shape that led to effective pressing

This was the most impressive aspect of the game. Korea exemplified a very good display on how to defend as a team. Pressuring together, closing down space together, forcing long balls, winning second balls, Korea was excellent defensively. This all starts with the striker who really begins the shaping. The forward #18 (Lee Jung-Hyup) was busy and ran tirelessly running left to right to keep Korea’s shape. Behind the forward, Korea placed four players who closed down space. Young midfielders did well pressing and winning the ball. Especially in the first half, China barely had an attempt on goal and hardly crossed over their half because they were forced to lump in long balls from behind.

  • Attacking has gotten better, but there’s always room for improvement

When you defend as a team, you’ll get the ball. The next step is keeping the ball and doing something useful. Unlike the Myanmar game, Korea was way more efficient with the ball. Most of the attack came from the right led by #17 (Lee Jae Sung).  Lee and #22 (Kwon) were really focused on moving the ball towards goal, making sure Korea was attacking! Still, Korea needs improvement in making sure the attack leads to a shot. Korea would do well moving the ball and starting attacking patterns, but the end of the attack was not satisfying.

Here’s a video of what that means.

  • Rise of K-League youngsters!

Several players were key focal points in Korea’s good moments.  Many recognized the work of #17 (Lee) and he definitely deserved the MOTM (Man of the Match), but #22 particularly caught my eyes. Resembling Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, he loves running past guys with pace and a low center of gravity. His awareness of his surroundings and mental speed in tight spaces were noticeable.

The key thing to watch over the course of this tournament is how consistent these players perform. Overall, very positive stuff from the young Korean team in which tells a lot about our K-League! I’ll be back again after Korea vs. Japan.