Gwangju 3-4 Suwon Samsung Bluewings: Tactical Analysis of a Thrilling K League Round 18 Match

Article by Ben Griffis

Gwangju FC hosted Suwon Samsung Bluewings in a thrilling 18th Round K League 1 match on May 23, 2021. Both teams profited from their opponent’s defensive errors in a match ending 3-4 to the visitors and one which saw 3 goals after the 80th minute.

From the final score, you wouldn’t know these two teams came into this match with starkly different seasons so far. Kim Ho-young’s Gwangju sat in dead last 12th-place after 16 matches and 14 points. Park Kun-ha’s Suwon were in 3rd after 17 matches, with 27 points—almost double Gwangju’s tally. Suwon were undefeated in their last 5 league matches, recording 2 wins and 3 draws while Gwangju were win-less in their last 5, recording a draw and 4 losses.

Kim Ho-young lined his side up in a 4231, a formation he has used much of the season in rotation with a 4123. Similarly, Park Kun-ha used the same 352 formation he’s used all season with Suwon Samsung Bluewings. Neither team had any major injuries, and both put out strong team sheets, showing both teams’ intent to win—Gwangju needed to win to begin a march out of the relegation zone, and Suwon needed to win to keep pace with fellow challengers Ulsan Hyundai, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, and Daegu FC.

Gwangju FC Substitutes:

61’       #10 Kim Jong-woo for #16 Song Seung-min
86’       #8 Lee Eu-ddeum for #3 Lee Min-ki
86’       #28 Aleksandar Andrejević for #5 Kim Won-sik
86’       #13 Doo Hyeon-seok for #24 Eom Ji-seong

Suwon Samsung Bluewings Substitutes

63’       #9 Kim Gun-hee for #29 Jeong Sang-bin
63’       #36 Kang Hyung-muk for #6 Han Seok-jong
83’       #2 Choi Jung-won for #39 Min Sang-ki

Gwangju’s Buildup & Attack

Gwangju looked to build up quickly in the first quarter of the game, playing long balls up to Song Seung-min who acted as a target-winger. However, once they got in the swing of the game and realized Suwon were not pressing them much or even closing their defenders down, they took more time to build up. Kim Won-sik dropped back with the center backs and they used a mix of 3313 and 343 formations as the game progressed. In the early stages of the match, Gwangju attacked in the 4231 they lined up in, with one fullback staying deeper when the other pushed higher.

Gwangju’s 3313 in buildup
Gwangju’s 343 in buildup

One of the main patterns in Gwangju’s play was moving the ball up the pitch via the wings and half-spaces. Gwangju avoided using the central areas of the pitch once the ball left the back 3 buildup. Reis and Lee Hee-kyun enabled this by forming a triangle with the winger and fullback. However, while Gwangju switched from mostly long balls to shorter ground passes after the first quarter of the match, they still liked to switch play with a long pass to Song Seung-min.

Song Seung-min’s mismatch with his defender Lee Ki-je allowed Gwangju to use him as a target-winger to bring the other attackers into the game while he held up the ball. Suwon were unable to counter this tactic and Song had many free layoffs after backing into his defender. Song was a key cog in Gwangju’s attack in his 61 minutes on the pitch. Many attacks started from Kim Won-sik and went through Song Seung-min.

However, Song was a net negative in the match as we will discuss in the defensive section, because his holdup play didn’t lead to many chances, but his defensive errors led to 2 goals. Kim Jong-woo replaced Song Seung-min after 61 minutes and the only thing that changed for Gwangju’s attack was they stopped playing long diagonals to the right wing.

Han Hee-hoon opened the scoring with a great bit of skill after a poor attempted clearance by Suwon from a Gwangju corner. Suwon’s Đerić should have cleared the ball, but it fell straight to Han. A great chop to move the ball to his left foot took Kim Tae-hwan out of the game and Han calmly scored at the near post.

Reis scored Gwangju’s second goal and equalizer from the penalty spot after Suwon’s goalkeeper Yang Hung-mo gave away a cheap penalty.

Gwangju’s 3rd goal—in stoppage time—was another equalizer and also a penalty. This time, Suwon’s center back Doneil Henry gave away the penalty by stepping on the foot of a Gwangju player as they jumped for the ball. Kim Jong-woo scored to make the match 3-3 with only a minute left in the match.

Gwangju’s Defense

Gwangju defended in a 451 shape for most of the match whenever Suwon had extended periods of possession. Both wingers dropped back to line up with the midfielders. However, instead of a tight, compact shape, the midfield and defensive line had some distance between them. This did not become an issue, however, as their intense pressure coupled with Suwon’s failure to beat the press didn’t give Suwon a chance to exploit this space.

Suwon hardly had time on the ball to make decisions because Gwangju pressed their players at a high tempo from start to finish. Many times, Gwangju pressed with two players. Suwon players, believing they were the better technical side, attempted to dribble out of these situations occasionally, but only Doneil Henry consistently beat his pressers.

While Gwangju effectively stifled Suwon’s play with the defensive tactics, several major defensive errors—both individual and team errors—proved fatal. Song Seung-min made two errors that led to goals. For Suwon’s first goal, Song let the ball run by him in the box after Gwangju couldn’t clear a long throw-in by Kim Tae-hwan into the box effectively. Right behind Song was Kim Min-woo, who struck the ball with power and precision.

Song Seung-min was to blame for Suwon’s second goal as well. Song needlessly pushed a Suwon player running out of the box and with few passing options. The referee rightfully gave this as a penalty, which Uroš Đerić converted to give Suwon the lead.

Suwon’s third goal also came from poor defending of a long throw-in into the box by Kim Tae-hwan. Kim launched the ball from almost the corner flag over 3 Gwangju defenders—Lee Min-ki, Kim Won-sik, and Lee Han-do—and the ball landed right on the feet of Kim Gun-hee. All three defenders in front of Kim Gun-hee were focused on ensuring Đerić didn’t win the ball but didn’t pay attention to Kim Gun-hee behind them. While Lee Min-ki and Kim Won-sik may not have been able to reach the ball, Lee Han-do could have done better to attempt to win the ball.

Finally, Suwon’s match-winning goal—the final kick of the match—was admittedly a great free kick. However, two issues occurred before the ball went into the net. First, the free kick was given for Lee Han-do jumping into the Suwon player at the top of the box. While he needs to challenge for the ball, he should have been more careful in the challenge given the position, and that Suwon were going to try everything to win a free kick, penalty, or score a goal. Second, Gwangju’s keeper Yoon Bo-sang jumped a bit too high right as Lee Ki-je took the kick. He was in no position to save the ball going over the wall and into the near post. Suwon may have put him off before Lee Ki-je even kicked the ball, with Kim Tae-hwan running to kick the ball at the same time—a plan that worked.

Suwon’s Buildup and Attack

Suwon built up in their 3-5-2 formation, but the wingers were free to move up or down the flanks. Both central midfielders on the side of Choi Sung-keun had some freedom to push up as well, while Choi stayed slightly deeper. Henry was involved in much of Suwon’s buildup and acted as the primary player moving it from the center backs to the midfield or wingers.

Suwon’s buildup

Suwon looked to play at a relatively high tempo for much of the game, and wanted to play short, quick balls on the ground. Gwangju’s press, however, effectively stopped this plan as Suwon were unable to pass around the press and gave the ball away many times or were forced to play it long. Doneil Henry was the only player able to consistently beat the press. He would wait for the player or players to get close before kicking the ball out in front of him between the Gwangju players and running onto it before making a pass.

Kim Tae-hwan’s throw-ins into the box and corner kicks were arguably Suwon’s most dangerous attacks. Suwon found it difficult to create chances in the final third without the help of set pieces, which was as much an example of Gwangju’s defensive tactics working as it was an example of Suwon’s inability to counter Gwangju’s defense.

Suwon’s first goal and equalizer in the 16th minute came from a long throw-in. As described earlier, Kim Tae-hwan threw the ball to Jung Sang-bin who headed it toward Kim Min-woo. While Song Seung-min should have done better in defending the ball, Kim’s strike was powerful and difficult to save.

Suwon’s second goal was Đerić’s penalty, given away by Song Seung-min. Their third goal also came from a Kim Tae-hwan throw-in. While Gwangju’s defense should have done better, Kim’s throw-in was inch-perfect. Throwing the ball over 3 defenders right to the feet of the striker is no simple task. Kim Gun-hee’s strike was also very good, as he had little time to make a decision. Right as he controlled the ball, he turned and shot, putting the ball between his defender’s legs and into the net.

Finally, the last kick of the match was Suwon’s winner—from yet another set piece. Lee Ki-je struck the ball perfectly to get it up over the wall and down into the top corner. While the keeper should have done a little better, that should take nothing away from the quality of the shot. Further, it shows how effective Suwon were at set pieces—even if they struggled to create from open play they made use of their set pieces.

Suwon’s Defense

In defense, Suwon brought their wingers into the back line to form a 532. The three central midfielders stayed in a line but one would push out to engage an onrushing opponent. At times, however, Suwon defended in a 5122, with Choi Sung-keun dropping behind the other 2 central midfielders. Suwon hardly pressed throughout the match. Both strikers let the Gwangju defenders have the ball and acres of space to run into if they wanted to. They were not cutting out passing lanes to the midfield either, as Gwangju brought their players wide to play through wings and half spaces. The pressure intensified somewhat the further Gwangju marched up the pitch, but Suwon didn’t press nearly as intensely as Gwangju.

For most of the match, Suwon didn’t have an effective counter to Song Seung-min’s strength and size on the wing. Lee Ki-je was no match for Song’s physicality, and the left-sided center back thought it was too dangerous to venture out of position to help out. This was a risky, yet correct, decision, as Song was never threatening himself and it allowed all center backs to stay in position to tackle or close down the players making runs to get onto Song’s passes.

Gwangju’s first goal came from an inability to effectively clear a corner. Kim Tae-hwan wasn’t as aggressive as he should have been to try to clear the ball just in front of the near post. This put Đerić off, and his attempt to clear the ball ended up being a perfect layoff to Han Hee-hoon. Watch this goal again, this time focusing on both Kim Tae-hwan and Đerić.

Gwangju’s next 2 goals were both penalties that Suwon should not have conceded. The first, for Reis’ goal, was given away by Yang Hyung-mo. Yang rushed out to catch a long ball from midfield, but instead ran straight into the Gwangju player in the air and took him out. Despite objections, the referee made the correct decision for a penalty.

Doneil Henry gave away the second penalty by stepping on the Gwangju attacker’s foot as he jumped. It appears as though Henry was unaware of where the player’s foot was, and he and the team objected to the decision for a while before finally seeing Kim Jong-woo’s penalty leave the match at 3-3 in the 90’+5.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this was a high-energy and very enjoyable match that had its fair share of great plays and poor defensive errors. Gwangju were probably the strongest side defensively in open play, but they also had costly defensive errors from set pieces. Further, Song Seung-min had two major defensive mistakes that led to 2 of Suwon’s 4 goals.

Suwon were relatively standoffish when Gwangju had the ball but then found it somewhat difficult to consistently play around Gwangju’s pressure. They didn’t have a counter to Song Seung-min’s target-winger role, but that did not end up hurting Suwon. Their effective use of set pieces—coupled with Gwangju’s inability to defend them—led to victory but masked their poor open-play chance-creation.

Gwangju were possibly the better side in this thrilling match but had too many costly defensive errors, so manager Kim Ho-young will have left this match with mixed feelings. Suwon’s manager Park Kun-ha will also have mixed feelings about this match—one the one hand, his side won the match, but on the other, they were reliant on Gwangju to gift them goals via defensive errors and were unable to craft many chances themselves. However, his set-piece work on the training ground has obviously paid off.

Header image source.

Gwangju World Cup Stadium, where the match took place.

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