Words by Tom Danicek
A match-up consisting of two eye-catching sides, two former Champions League winners and crucially no stand out favorite. A reflection of the long-running and society pervading rivalry between South Korea and Japan, Jeonbuk vs Gamba Osaka should be a blast in more ways than one. And even if it’s not, at the very least, it will offer a rare direct comparison of two fabulous Asian attacking prospects.
Lee Jae-sung vs Takashi Usami: two of the hottest, two of the most direct
By default, we tend to associate young guns with hot headed, rash decisions. You have plenty of direct attacking players across the whole planet who can benefit from tremendous drive, yet are being constantly let down by their fundamental ‘make or break’ attitude when in motion.
Now, I am not going to claim Lee Jae-sung and Takashi Usami, two distinguished young Asian stars, are flawless and not-at-all-raw. That would be silly and untrue. But there’s something peculiar and charming about them; an element of purposefulness and crystal clear, well-founded ambition.
They both seemingly know what they want to achieve with every single move, every single step – and they are, at the same time, technically able enough to execute the usually demanding plan to (near) perfection.
This obviously doesn’t go without saying. Take Luiz Henrique, Lee Jae-sung’s new teammate. He’s a proven, 34-year-old asset with high level thinking, whose ideas also happen to be too hard to realize at times. He’s often betrayed by his own first touch, because the situation actually begs for it.
Lee Jae-sung, on the other hand, has clearly had good education and knows his (somewhat boundless) limits. He’s always been encouraged to actively seek first-time passes, to not cuddle the ball too much. The way he times his vertical passes is absolutely breath-taking. He barely gives away a thing – his ball release can rarely be foreseen and requires a dynamic, clever receiver.
For instance, a receiver Lee Jae-sung was getting in Brazilian striker Edu, with whom he’d created an unstoppable pairing at times. The sheer number of chances created and goals scored on that route – via Lee’s through ball and Edu’s alert pounce or sprint – was simply astonishing.
Since Edu departed halfway through this season, I’ve had a feeling Lee Jae-sung has retracted from the spotlight. Jeonbuk are still a team that produces a staggering number of balls directed right behind the line, absolutely, but the 23-year-old doesn’t seem to take the centre stage anymore.
When Jeonbuk chase the lead, for example, Lee Jae-sung is more often than not used as the last midfield instance, as a pure distributor from deep; which is a great testament to his great mind and various use of the ball, but also a tad regretable.
You want to see him producing lovely one-twos and cleverly accelerating attacks the way nobody else does it in the whole country at the moment. Right?!
As for Takashi Usami, his amazing strong-mindedness is of a slightly different kind, expressed mainly through his dribbling and finishing skills. Lee Jae-sung isn’t useless whilst running with the ball and makes for a tricky dribbler himself (who can also win a penalty or two like Usami, by the way), but it’s not the main feature of his game.
Meanwhile, Usami takes on opponents for fun and offers some unrivaled cheekiness and confidence in the final third. He’s a deadly weapon; offering twists and turns, he runs and stops, shoots with both feet, powerfully as well as gently, has great awareness of what’s going on around him – a complete package, that’s allowed to perform on a consistently high level.
Granted, he now comes off a terrible East Asian Cup, but then again, his motivation probably wasn’t at an adequate level in China. And while it isn’t the most convincing excuse, his post-EAC form could easily be one.
Usami has slowed down only a little and just this week-end created Patric’s winner with a lovely through ball – which is where I arrive to my final point I want to stress here: both Usami and Lee Jae-sung don’t crumble under pressure.
The South Korean is a proper Mr. Clutch; through and through. All competitions considered, he was instrumental in as many as eight winning goals for Jeonbuk and national team. A whopping 12 league games out of 20 with Jeonbuk on scoreboard included either goal, assist or a penalty won by no one else than Lee Jae-sung.
Usami has been similarly influential. Take Round 16 of this very competition: the first leg saw him score two goals, the second one saw him create two more. If any Round 16 double header fits the popular notion of a one-man show, it was probably Seoul-Gamba. Not to mention Usami kicked off this season with nine strikes and one assist in the first eight league games. I mean… whoa!
Overall, these young lads have both had their ups and downs this year. And throughout their respective careers, naturally. But the overarching sentiment about their 2015 campaigns could hardly be any more positive; they have been just phenomenal…
Now let’s talk a bit about tactical patterns, shall we?
Ever since that stupid penalty in the 2011 Asian Cup semifinal he conceded against South Korea, most Japan national team followers couldn’t wait to see Yasuyuki Konno wave goodbye to the Samurai Blue. He’s swiftly become a favorite scapegoat – mine as well – and that, I imagine, has somehow overshadowed his performances on the club scene.
For Gamba Osaka, Yasuyuki Konno tastes like a whole different flavour. He doesn’t act like a centre back and he’s pretty dependable. Yasuhito Endo & Yasuyuki Konno have developed into that sort of veteran central midfield pairing capable of owning virtually any younger tandem out there.
Their preferred tempo may not be the most frantic one, but they can control the flow of the game masterfully, for sure, and patient passing game can prove to be a useful blueprint against Jeonbuk.
Essentially, with Endo & Konno sitting in the middle of the park, Gamba Osaka have a fine basis to build on – provided by even finer superstructure to be added.
Gamba’s fellow forward, functioning alongside Usami, Brazilian Patric, is an uncompromising battering ram that generates fear among opponents in the most literal sense of the word – just look at this celebration here. Above all, though, he’s very good in interplay and wins almost every air battle.
“Every time I see Patric in his prime I’m afraid he’s going to grow 10x his size and destroy Manhattan. When he starts moving you either get out of the way or brace for impact,” distinguished Japanese football expert Dan Orlowitz shares his own nightmare with me. And beware, seriously – because he has been in his prime recently, scoring on five separate occasions since the start of July.
Another key aspect of Gamba’s 4-2-2-2 formation is that both attacking midfielders tend to play pretty narrow, while letting both fullbacks flourish down their respective flanks. And flourish they often do. Especially right-back Koki Yonekura, who is a big threat, already on two goals and five assists in all competitions and freshly fired up by the disappointing East Asian Cup.
As Alan Gibson, Gamba supporter and publisher of the brilliant JSoccer Magazine, tells me “4-2-2-2 is normal Gamba”. But it’s apparently not that simple. “Usami played deeper in a slightly less attacking and very hard working role last game and it was more of a 4-2-3-1, perhaps with an eye on (the) away leg?” Alan asks rhetorically.
Another alternative he mentions is the one with Konno dropping back to the defensive line and creating a 3-x-y formation. However, that’s not on the cards here, as 37-year-old Tomokazu Myojin is expected to step in for the first leg, in place of the suspended Konno.
Jeonbuk isn’t awfully predictable either, albeit their shape will always somehow resemble the classic 4-2-3-1 system (or 4-1-4-1). The defining question then is: what do you do with your marquee (loan) signing from El Jaish, recent Champions League winner with Ulsan, 30-year-old Lee Keun-ho?
Last three starts together deliver a surprisingly clear message: forget about Lee Keun-ho operating in the hole (a starting option for both recent losses), where he struggles when called upon for some combination play, and put him upfront, where he can make his pace and determination really count.
With the former Best Asian Player of the Year as the highest positioned outlet, Jeonbuk earned a 2:1 victory against Jeonnam only a few days ago. And as close a call as it was, the ruthless and agile striker in Lee Keun-ho proved to be the deciding factor for the champions; first pouncing on a loose ball, then winning a penalty.
Yes, it sounds like a pity to have both Urko Vera and Lee Dong-gook sitting on the bench, but with the fantastic attacking depth Choi Kang-hee has at his disposal, this sort of situation is inevitable. And the veteran Lee Dong-gook has already scored five league goals (out of eight) coming off the bench!
Apart from Lee Dong-gook in a super-sub role (something he’d never done before), there’s also one more secret weapon Jeonbuk sometimes utilize to great benefit: and that is Lee Jae-sung’s timely runs from deep right up to the heart of the penalty area.
This scheme repeats itself over and over again: give the ball to the left, preferably in behind the line, and wait for Leonardo to cross as well as Lee Jae-sung to arrive late and try to head the ball goalwards. The young midfielder is brilliant at making these runs and embodies a fine header too – he’s already scored four times with his head this year, in three competitions including the ACL and WC qualifiers…
Watch out for set pieces on both sides of the pitch
Yasuhito Endo and his free kick or penalty expertise – do we even need to expand on this? Everyone is aware of his unorthodox technique, which saw him introduced to wider audience at the 2010 World Cup, and while he may be getting old, his legs are far from being rusty.
Running through highlights of every Gamba league game so far this season, it’s impossible not to notice how vital Endo’s set pieces still are to the Osaka side.
Even though he’s hit the crossbar twice already, and therefore hasn’t scored from a direct free-kick yet (as opposed to four penalty kicks), his delivery has been a constant nightmare for J-League opponents.
Two assists straight from indirect free kicks, one helper from a corner and two indirect (second) assists from set pieces – that would certainly be a respectable business card for any other specialist.
Jeonbuk’s Leonardo, on the other hand, may not be a particularly well-known name for a casual Asian football observer, but his delivery leaves barely anything to be desired, too. It’s not as tender as Endo’s is, yet it still very much bothers other teams.
Leonardo is arguably the best crosser in the league, as far as righties are concerned anyway (I’m reserving a spot for you, Yeom Ki-hun, don’t worry), and as a left winger frequently cutting inside, he’s genuinely dangerous from open play as well.
Leonardo used to be a different assist-machine before, much different in fact (the official K-League website grants him only two poor assists), but that doesn’t mean his crosses don’t carry significant threat anymore.
Jeonbuk have just been pretty wasteful this year and some of their goals stemmed from mayhem inside opponent’s penalty area, following such a stinging high ball from Leonardo. Gamba Osaka should therefore be prepared for these, because Jeonbuk players usually draw plenty of fouls in dangerous areas.
Sometimes it even looks like Leonardo spends more time figuring out what to do with a dead ball rather than a moving one…