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Analysis: Defensive efficiency and tactical concentration key in Ulsan Hyundai's AFC Champions League Final victory


Doha: The AFC Champions League trophy returns to Korea Republic for the first time since 2016 with Ulsan Hyundai's defence once again rising to the occasion. 

Ulsan Hyundai made it 11 of 14 AFC Champions League final wins for East Asian sides against West Asian opposition thanks to defensive adaptations and striker Junior Negrao's tenacity.

Persepolis may have suffered heartbreak at the final hurdle for the second time in three years, but there were positives from the match for the Islamic Republic of Iran champions.

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Ulsan's tactical adaptation

Ulsan Hyundai became the first ever team to win nine consecutive games scoring more than a single goal in AFC Champions League history netting twice against Persepolis in the final. However, it was once again the Korea Republic side's defence that secured victory.

In a tournament Ulsan have preferred to be on the front foot and force opposition to play their game, the opposite was true in large stretches of the final. With just 42.7% possession throughout the match, the Tigers were forced to absorb pressure from Persepolis and hold on to their narrow lead.

With a team wide 81.8% tackles success rate, it's clear the entire team was in on the effort, but few were more effective than Dutch centre-back Dave Bulthuis. In a performance worthy of becoming the first player from the Netherlands to win the AFC Champions League, the 30-year-old had four interceptions, won 80% of his duels, and had a passing accuracy of 73%.

Bulthuis' defensive efficiency proved a major frustration for Persepolis, who were limited to just two shots on target. Without the Dutchman limiting the Iranian side's attack, there's little question goalkeeper Jo Su-huk would have been called into action far more frequently than he already was. Considering how potent Persepolis were when allowed freedom to roam, it may well have spelled disaster for Ulsan.


Milad Sarlak’s midfield masterclass

Despite going up against tournament MVP Yoon Bit-garam, Persepolis' Milad Sarlak emerged the winner of the midfield battle. The 25-year-old completed an astounding 94% of his passes, won eight of his 10 duels, and had four interceptions as well.

A steadying presence in the first half with Persepolis attempting to limit Ulsan's initial onslaught, Sarlak won half of his aerial duels, 100% of his loose ball duels, and had four recoveries in the first half. Playing almost exclusively in the middle third, the Iranian stifled Ulsan's attack time and again to keep things close.

Sarlak came into the match even more after the interval as Persepolis took control of possession. From the hourmark onward, the midfielder began to roam forward more frequently and play a more direct role in the search for an equaliser.

Accurate on over 80% of his passes into the final third throughout the tournament, Saturday was no different with Sarlak connecting three times to put teammates into dangerous positions, including two second half crosses into the Ulsan box. Ultimately, he wasn't able to help his side erase the heartbreak of losing the 2018 Final, but this was a performance to build on for the former U-19 Iran international.


Junior Negrao calm under pressure

Having scored just four goals in his first 12 appearances in Continental competition, there was a fair bit to prove for Junior Negrao heading into Qatar. Finishing level on goals with Golden Boot winner Abderrazak Hamdallah with seven this campaign, it's fair to say he has proved his point.

Much of the Brazilian's success can be attributed to a calm under pressure. The prolific striker said himself "[Ulsan] started again here with a different and stronger mentality, that is why we keep winning," and has embodied it on the pitch. Finishing with five goals in three games, his influence is an obvious one, and even with multiple penalties, a self-made success.

Averaging just over five touches in the penalty area all tournament long, Junior was active once again with four touches in Persepolis' box. His positioning may not have directly resulted in a goal from open play, but Junior played a direct role setting up the penalties he would go on to convert.

Creating in multiple ways, the first penalty came from a deft lobbed pass that found Yoon Bit-garam just inside the area. The second came in more familiar fashion with the 33-year-old making a far post run that would have seen him with a clear shot on goal if it weren't for Mehdi Shiri's hand ball.

Neither opportunity was created without Junior keeping his cool and finding the right place at the right time. A composure he would utilise for the third straight match bagging another brace and securing Ulsan Hyundai's second AFC Champions League title.

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