Article by Ben Griffis
The opening match of the 2022 K League 2 season saw Gimpo FC play their first-ever match in the professional leagues of South Korea. The K League admitted Gimpo to the second division at the end of the 2021 K3 League season, which they ended as champions, the third division (and top-tier semi-pro league) in the country. Until the 2020 season, the K3 League went by several names but was an amateur league. Thus, Gimpo were an amateur club until the start of 2020.
Gwangju, on the other hand, were relegated from the 2021 K League 1 after finishing bottom-placed 12th, their second season in the top division after promotion by winning the K League 2 in 2019. Having been in the K League since their formation before the start of the 2011 season, with seven seasons in the top division and four in the second tier, Gwangju were certainly favorites in this match.
Gimpo’s manager, Ko Jeong-woon, had a different idea, however. Ko’s side came out looking to defend and keep the ball away from their defensive third, something they did effectively. Two well-taken goals – the first from one of their only passages of quick, accurate passes in the final third and the second from a perfectly-placed free kick – earned them not only their first K League victory in their first attempt, but also earned them the top spot in the table after the first round.
This article analyzes the tactics Ko Jeong-woon employed to beat Gwangju 1-2 in the opening round of the 2022 K League 2. Gimpo FC came away the better side defensively and possibly offensively as well, earning three well-deserved points. Starting from Lee Sang-wook at the back, Gimpo’s defense held strong and only faltered from an individual mistake in the midfield. Gimpo are possibly unlucky to not come away with a clean sheet, but Gimpo players, fans, and staff will take any victories that come their way this season.
Here’s how both teams lined up. Like many matches in South Korea, both teams utilized a back 3.
Buildup & Attack
Gimpo FC built up and attacked in much their 3-4-3 formation. Wingbacks Eo and Park stayed high and in line with the midfield, hugging the touch line. The wide strikers also offered width, with Kwon and Son often as wide as the wingbacks, as we can see in this image below.
Having four players very wide facilitated Gimpo’s tactic of pinging long balls from their own half to send and keep the ball away from dangerous areas. Except for when building up from a deep throw in or transition with little pressure, Gimpo played quick, long passes up to Yun Min-ho. Yun acted as a target man, backing into Gwangju defenders. Yun attempted to either head the ball on to an under-lapping Kwon or Son, or to trap the ball and quickly pass to an open player.
Having Yun as an outlet also played in to Gimpo’s deep dead-ball resets. Goalkeeper Lee Sang-wook often kicked the ball as far as he could up to Yun from goal kicks, free kicks from offsides, or even punts after collecting a cross or long pass. While these were relatively ineffective at the start of the match, just before halftime and throughout the second half, Yun won many of these duels or caused enough trouble to keep the ball in the Gwangju half. These long balls to Yun were central to Gimpo’s tactics.
Once near the Gwangju final third, however, Gimpo tried to play shorter passes on the ground. These were difficult to pull off, though, because Gwangju were effectively pressing and Gimpo players were usually one touch too late in their passing decisions. Gwangju blocked many passes from Gimpo in their half, partially contributing to Gimpo’s 39% possession at the end of the match.
Wingbacks and wide strikers were not avoiding crosses, however, even if their preferred final third tactic for much of the match was short ground passes or drawing free kicks and throw-ins. Having three or four players on the touchline during attacks meant Gimpo could get the ball to an open man on the wing fairly often, and if Kim or Choi had pushed up from midfield near the box, they would look to cross it in. Yun Min-ho typically stayed in the box as well, offering a couple of players opportunity to get on the end of a cross.
A final element of Gimpo’s attack was time wasting. Gimpo players looked to draw free kicks in most areas of the pitch, understanding that they were second-best on the dribble. This allowed Gimpo to waste time, even before the first goal, and shape up if there was little support around the ball carrier. At throw-ins as well, Gimpo appeared to waste time.
Son Suk-young’s opening goal came after great ball movement in transition. This goal involved short, quick ground passes in the final third, something Gimpo tried but often saw their passes blocked. This goal shows that they could be dangerous this season if their passes are more accurate in the final third.
Yun Min-ho collected the ball after a terrible first touch by Jeong Ho-yeon. Several Gimpo players press the Gwangju players trying to clear the ball in transition, something that Ko Jeong-woon instructed his players to do, and one of the few times they consistently pressed Gwangju. Yun passed it first time to Kwon Min-jae, who saw Son in open space near the top of the box. Son finished perfectly in the bottom left corner as he saw Lee Jun cheating to the right post. Lee Jun can’t get to the ball and Gimpo score their first-ever K League 2 goal.
The second goal came from a perfectly placed free kick, won by Eo Jeong-won baiting Gwangju into the foul, one of Gimpo’s key tactics. Eo had no support and knew he couldn’t dribble free, so he effectively won the free kick on the wing of the final third.
Eo also took the free kick and delivered the ball with pinpoint accuracy between the defensive line and the goalkeeper. Kim Jong-suk hardly has any work to do to score, just letting it hit his right foot. Lee Jun hesitated in coming for the ball, so he was in a poor position to save the shot and unable to punch it away. Last, Kim is possibly offsides but barely played on by both Park Kyun-rok and Park Han-bin. But, the ref listened to the assistant after the goal and awarded it.
This goal mainly is because of Eo Jeong-won winning the free kick and then delivering the perfect ball.
Both of Gimpo’s goals involved key elements of their tactics. The first goal came from pressing after poor touches and then quick, short passes in the final third. The second came from winning a free kick by baiting Gwangju into an unnecessary foul when other attacking options were unavailable. Even though this is Gimpo FC’s first K League 2 match, if they can consistently and successfully employ their tactics, they’ll be a dangerous team this season. Of course, it’s too early to tell where they may finish on the table, but there are promising signs in the first match against one of the strongest teams in the league.
After losing the ball, Gimpo were relatively slow in transition for much of the first half. Especially if they lost the ball to a long ball deep in Gwangju’s half, Gimpo players were sluggish to get into their positions. Luckily, this did not lead to any major transition defensive errors. Ko Jeong-woon must have noticed this, because after halftime his side were much quicker in their transitions to defense.
Another change Ko made in the second half was to have his team counter-press more often. Whereas in the first half Gimpo only counter-pressed when Gwangju were untidy in their transition to attack, in the second half Gimpo were much more consistent in their pressing after losing the ball.
Finally, after the second goal, Gimpo players worked much more diligently to quickly solidify their defensive shape than they did in the first half and early in the second. This allowed them to keep Gwangju at bay with their powerful defense.
Gimpo defended in a 5-2-3, which could become a 5-4-1, with the wingbacks consistently dropping in line with the center backs. Kwon (and Maruoka after halftime) and Son dropped back with the two midfielders in prolonged stretches of Gwangju possession to form the 5-4-1, with Yun Min-ho staying forward to offer a target outlet for long-ball transitions.
Gimpo’s center backs played a relatively deep line, not wanting to venture too high, which would have given Gwangju’s attackers too much space to exploit. Gimpo’s center backs were also slower than Gwangju’s players, so they needed to stay deeper for that reason as well.
As mentioned earlier, Gimpo pressed little during the first half. Even during lengthy Gwangju possession chains, Gimpo hardly pressed until they closed down the opposition in their defensive third. They allowed Gwangju players both time and space, especially in their own half. Gimpo elected to stay in their sturdy shape and attempt to intercept slow or misplaced passes. They would, however, meet Gwangju players out wide and try to get the ball to deflect off either team for a throw in—thus wasting more time, a key part of both offensive and defensive tactics for Gimpo FC. In the second half, however, Gimpo pressed Gwangju much sooner and higher up the pitch.
One highlight of Gimpo’s defense was the goalkeeper, Lee Sang-wook, who was exceptional in goal. Lee was very reliable at claiming crosses and corners or punching them to safety. None of his punches went back into dangerous areas, which allowed Gimpo time to regroup or win possession. Further, he stopped all the shots that he should have, with the only goal coming from a bad mistake in the midfield during Gimpo’s transition back to attack.
Gwangju’s consolation goal in the 88th minute came from a mistake by Kim Jong-suk. Kim won the ball back from Lee Kun-hee right at the border of the defensive and midfield third. Jong-suk then took a few steps with the ball to get away from his box, and then tried to dribble past Lee Hee-gyun. However, he ran right into Lee Kun-hee who stole the ball back, turned, and had a free look at goal. Three Gimpo players tried to close him down in time, but Kun-hee’s shot came too quick. He placed it in the top right corner, just past Lee Sang-wook. Lee is probably very unlucky to not get a clean sheet, as this goal resulted from Kim Jong-suk’s mistake more than Lee’s goalkeeping.
The final part of Gimpo’s play was their transition to attack. If they won the ball back in their own half, Gimpo typically hoofed the ball up long to Yun Min-ho. This was to quickly get the ball away from their half and eliminate the possibility for counter-pressing, as Gimpo players found it difficult to play around Gwangju pressing.
An interesting element of their attacking transition was that Gimpo didn’t seem to care if the ball went out off one of their own players for a Gwangju throw in. Of course, wasting time was one of their tactics, but Gimpo were okay with giving possession away but moving it 20+ meters from where the ball was previously—just like in rugby when a team purposefully kicks the ball out just to move it away from their half.
Gimpo effectively implemented Ko Jeong-woon’s tactics to beat Gwangju 1-2 on the opening round of the new K League 2 season. Through sturdy defending and a couple of bright attacking moments, Gimpo earned a well-deserved victory. Goalkeeper Lee Sang Wook possibly had the best individual performance, but the entire team acted as a unit to see out their victory—even if their passes were sloppy on paper, they were part of Gimpo’s tactic to move the ball away from their half and burn more time.
There’s hardly enough information from one match to make any strong predictions about an entire season. However, Gimpo FC looked strong against a team that might be one of the best in the league this season, and made a great name for themselves in their maiden K League 2 match. We’ll have to see if they can consistently get results over the course of the season, but if they can successfully employ Ko Jeong-woon’s tactics, they will be a dangerous team to face.