Last week, after the draw against Kashiwa, Guangzhou Evergrande manager Lee Jang-soo sat down and talked with a reporter from the local football newspaper “Soccer News”. The “struggling” manager talks about his three foreign stars (Muriqui, Cleo, and Conca), the difficulties he faced this season, and his plans for the rest of the year. We’ve translated that interview for you below.
Since the Henan match, you’ve implemented a rotation policy and in the big match against Shenhua,you let some of the main players, including Zheng Zhi and Feng Xiaoting rest, is this because of the normal wear and tear that comes with competing in the ACL and Chinese Super League or is it because of the two straight losses?
Lee: It’s due to both of those factors. For one, we’ve played four league matches and two tough ACL matches, I thought that some of the players were tired, so decided to implement a rotation to give them a rest; the other reason, I’ve said before, granted they are tired, but they haven’t reached the point of exhaustion, however after the losses to Fuli and Buriram, especially the Buriram match, I decided we needed to rotate the squad, not doing so would be wrong.
Is this because the Buriram match exposed a lot of problems?
Lee: Yes, after the loss, I thought that I, myself, was wrong, because I didn’t follow my original principles. That is, every player needs to go all out, no matter if we’re on offense or defense, but it was obvious against Burinam that some players didn’t meet that requirement.
Those players you’re talking about, it includes Conca, Cleo, and Muriqui?
Lee: Yes. In that game, all three of them failed to meet my requirement, especially when it came to helping out in defense. Of course, it wasn’t only those three that failed.
If they aren’t playing to your expectations, why didn’t you take them off?
Lee: I admit, at the time I was very angry, though I kept it in. They took the game to us, we were constantly on defense, so at this time I couldn’t take them off, the three are all very talented and we needed them. That’s how the game goes, it’s not always in the manager’s control.
Is it fair to say that after that match [Buriram], starting with the game against Henan, you were determined to use a rotation policy?
Lee: You can say that. I didn’t stick to my original policy. After that match I was determined to stick to it, if anybody doesn’t help support the defense, no matter who it is, then they won’t be in the lineup. In fact, I already started seeing some signs in the Jeonbuk match, but I wanted to wait and see, but I never expected it would get like this. This is my fault. But after the loss to Buriram, I decided we couldn’t play like that again, we needed to change. The rotation policy is to tell the players, just because you are in the starting XI, you can’t have a sense of superiority, if you don’t try hard, if you don’t go all out, then you’ll be on the sub’s bench.
How did you criticize the three foreigners?
Lee: In front of the team, I openly called them out, I also criticized some other players. I want them, and everyone else to know, don’t think just because we beat Jeonbuk 5-1 that we are clearly the best.
After the Jeonbuk match, do you think the foreign players had a complacent attitude due to media reports praising the team?
Lee: Yes, even though they are all foreigners and don’t understand Chinese, they all have personal translators who will translate these stories for them. This situation creates a contagious emotion that’s hard to prevent, where players believe their own press, even the foreigners. It’s unfortunate I didn’t do anything to prevent it at the time.
The distances each player ran in the Buriram match has yet to be made public. This is a statistic worth paying attention to, can you tell us, for example, how far each of the foreign players ran?
Lee: On the contrary, some players actually ran more than they did against Jeonbuk, but a lot of it was wasted running. I don’t think these distances can actually tell what the real problem is.
In the Henan match, you kept Conca on the bench, many viewed that as your first move toward righting the ship. Is it fair to say of the three foreigners, Cleo had a long career in Europe previously and you respect his professionalism. Muriqui may sometimes be a little lazy, but he is controllable, however Conca, the biggest star, is also the one you worry the most about keeping in line?
Lee: That’s not the case. When it comes to all the players, including the foreigners, I don’t discriminate. The reason why after the Buriram match, I kept Conca off first was because he didn’t play well in that match. This has nothing to do with anything else, it was the same with Gao Lin.
So with the results against Henan and Shenhua, after the players faced your criticism and your policy was put in place, are you happy with the results?
Lee: It’s gone okay, especially considering we won both matches. Since the policy has been put in place, some other players have performed well, including the scorer in the Shenhua match, Feng Junyan. Most importantly, the team is back on track.
After losing two in a row, the media and fans started questioning your coaching more than at any other time since you came to Evergrande, did you feel any pressure?
Lee: As a manager, if you lose two matches and you start to feel the pressure is at a point that you can’t deal with it, that’s not normal. Of course, the media has always been focused on Evergrande. I’ve already said, the two losses, especially the loss to Buriram, they were due to my mistakes, because I gave up my original policies.
As I understand it, there were many city and provincial officials at the Buriram match, including the Guangdong provincial governor and the Guangzhou city secretary and all of the top Evergrande officials, including Xu Jiayin, were in attendance, though you lost the match, did Xu give you any added pressure after the match?
Lee: He came to talk with the team saying that losing is normal, work out the problems and play better in the matches to come. I told him that I’d already figured out where the problem is and know how to fix it going forward.
I want to thank the boss, he was confident that the team could fix the problems itself, and we want to use our future performances to show that his confidence wasn’t missplaced.
You’ve talked a lot about the rotation policy, we’ve noticed that almost all the starters have been rested with the exception of Muriqui, are you not worried about his physical condition?
Lee: Muriqui’s recovery period is very fast. To compare him with Cleo, Cleo was injured for much of last season and he now tends to need a slightly longer period to recover between matches, but that’s not the case with Muriqui.
Evergrande was last year’s league champions, but this year they have to deal with two competitions [the league and the ACL] for the first time, what’s the biggest difference having to deal with multiple competitions?
Lee: It’s simple, last year the schedule wasn’t intensive, we played a match and then had time to relax and slowly get ready for the next one, but this season from March to May, there’s pretty much two matches each week, with no time for relaxing. The other thing, compared to the K-League sides, China’s so huge, when Evergrande has to leave Guangzhou for away matches, it’s the equivalent of a K-League side having to leave Korea for a match. The difficulties of travel on a player’s body and energy is an invisible factor that makes a difference.
So what is your solution for this problem?
Lee: I told the players, they need to make sure to get a good rest. They should go for a massage everyday and try to avoid outside distractions. Sometimes its unavoidable, like in Japan, the hotel rooms were very small, so I told the players to try and get out and walk around a little, this was a very important match and I wanted to get them to relax, to keep the match from their minds.
That match [against Kashiwa], Evergrande’s strong play returned, but the club still failed to earn three points, what was the problem?
Lee: Everybody played hard, all 11 players met my requirements, the result wasn’t completely satisfying, but it was still pretty good. In an away match like this, we must have the belief and desire to win, overall we played well. That’s how the game goes, sometimes you put in a great performance and you only get a draw, or even lose. We played to our ability today.
You didn’t make any subsitutions during the match, why, when your players started getting obviously tired in the second half, did you still not make a change?
Lee: Everybody on the pitch put in a lot of effort and ran a lot, it wasn’t only us that was looking tired in the second half, the opponents also were getting effected too. I kept thinking there was hope we could get a goal and I didn’t want to disrupt our attack.
You only got a point out of this match [against Kashiwa], can you tell us what you think the situation is in the group after the opening three matches?
Lee: From the moment the group selections came out, I knew this would be a complicated group. After the first match it was complicated, after the second game it was complicated, and after this match it’s complicated. It’s probably going to remain tight going into the final group match.