2015 K League Preview

Tim Lee looks at the upcoming K League season!

I understand the intrigue of European football. It has got so many different colours, different flavours – from the flair and tactical delight of Spanish football to traditional yet extremely attaching English football, and the cozy beauty of the Bundesliga. I’ve been sucked into this hypnotizing, weekend-destroying world as well.

But sometimes, a change is nice. A league that’s smaller, that hits closer to home. A league where legends are born, where veterans come home for a final stand. A different flavour of football, a different way to experience the beautiful game. A league whose games are played on the shores and stadiums of where my heroes (as a Korean), are born – the K League.

Here’s my take on all 12 K League Classic teams ahead of the 2015 K League Classic season.

Basic notes:

The K League foreigner system is 3+1 (3 foreign players + 1 Asian foreign player). North Koreans do not count towards this.

After round 33 (triple round-robin) there is a split between the top 6 and bottom 6 teams for the remaining 5 games of the season.

The top 3 teams earn an Asian Champions League berth (3rd place is playoff) + KFA Cup winner gets berth as well.

THE RUNAWAY FAVOURITE

JEONBUK HYUNDAI MOTORS

I don’t recall a year where literally every single Korean football expert would say with 100% confidence who they thought would win the K League. But it’s really a no-brainer this year. Anything else would be a major shock. Choi Kang-Hee’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors are truly the runaway favorites to defend their title this year.

Last season, Jeonbuk’s Green Machine was simply flawless on so many occasions. Choi has his team play in a sort of gegenpress without the ball, and it was the improvement over the season in employing this tactic that proved very effective last season for Jeonbuk. With the ball, in true Choi Kang-Hee fashion, Jeonbuk play direct, to-the-point football.

This year, there are little indications that such a style will change. So goes the old turn of phrase, “Why fix something if it ain’t broken?” To make the stars align further in Jeonbuk’s favour, the team had an absolutely excellent pre-season preparation in the Middle East at top-class facilities.

Their transfer activity is also that of a powerhouse. Although they have lost winger Lee Seung-Gi to mandatory military service in the Army (thus going on loan to 2nd tier Sangju Sangmu) and defensive midfielder Shin Hyung-Min to mandatory military service in the Police Force (thus going on loan to 2nd tier Ansan Police), Jeonbuk have adequately replaced their void. Oppositions will fear the likes of Edu, formerly of Schalke, Eninho, returning for a second spell with Jeonbuk. The latter is also member of the K League 40-40 club (40 goals and 40 assists).

Jeonbuk already had a very solid starting XI before those two big signings. Leading the line, of course, is “the Lion King” and veteran KNT striker Lee Dong-Gook. Although he’s getting on in terms of age, he still is a handful for most K League defenders. On the left wing is Han Kyo-Won, a very traditional winger who featured for the Korean National Team in a more defensive role in the 2015 Asian Cup. And it would be a crime to forget Australian international centre-back Alex Wilkinson, who, despite needing to work with a new partner this year in central defense, has always been a consistent, solid player who Jeonbuk can count on.

THE VERDICT: Jeonbuk have enough talent to field 3 competitive teams. They should win the K League quite comfortably and have the depth to make a big push in the ACL. If (or rather, when) they find success again this year, you can start likening them to the Bayern Munich of Korea. 1st

THE CONTENDERS

POHANG STEELERS

Traditional powerhouses in the K League, Pohang Steelers are coming off a poor 2014 season that saw them finish in 4th place. The season started brightly but fizzled out near the end with the sale of Lee Myeong-Joo, their influential playmaker, and Kim Seung-Dae’s dip in form as well as call-up to the Asian Games team. As a result, Hwang Sun-Hong’s all-Korean squad dropped out of the Asian Champions League spots in agonizing fashion on the final matchday.

2015 is a new dawn for Pohang. Manager Hwang said it best. “Pohang Football must change, it must move forward, it must advance.” The first principal change was in their transfer activity. After a few years of only buying Koreans, Hwang turned to foreigners to find a solution to last season’s decline. The player to watch is former Bolton man and creative midfielder Andre Moritz, as well as Tiago and Lazar Veselinovic, both forwards.

The Steelers are known for their “Steel-Taka”, their ability to complete some excellent passing moves to penetrate the penalty box. That is why Moritz will be so essential. His importance was already evident in pre-season friendlies, spraying passes into the strikers, including Kim Seung-Dae.

THE VERDICT: Pohang’s foreign signings will make the difference for them. In a very direct league, Pohang’s tactical awareness and cohesion should return and be a real breath of fresh air to watch. 3rd

ULSAN HYUNDAI

A top half team who has bounced across the country, and one of three Hyundai-owned teams, Ulsan Hyundai, formerly based in Incheon and Gangwon Province, finished last season in 5th Place. It was a truly unacceptable result for a team who had a shot at winning the title. The finger was easily pointed at now-outgoing manager Cho Min-Kook for ruining a team who was literally seconds away from winning in 2013, before having the title snatched from their hands by Pohang in Manchester City fashion.

But the new year is a new hope for Ulsan, as the manager who brought Sagan Tosu from the J2 League to a real competitor in the J League, Yoon Jung-Hwan, will now manage the Tigers. Inevitably, there was a ton of transfer activity, with Yoon bringing in Kim Tae-Hwan to complete his midfield, while securing the services of Uzbekistan national team captain Server Djeparov for creativity and sheer talent.

Yoon is a positive manager who likes to make the most use out of running. This tips the balance in Im Chang-Woo’s favor to earn the nod at right-back – Im scored the winning goal in the 2014 Asian Games to secure military exemption for himself and his team. You can’t miss towering striker Kim Shin-Wook, the “Korean Crouch” leading the line, and Ulsan have an excellent man between the sticks in Kim Seung-Gyu, who made appearances at both the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Asian Cup.

THE VERDICT: Ulsan have a squad that has individual talent. With a little bit of Yoon Jung-Hwan magic, I’m backing the Tigers to finish a surprising 2nd this year. 2nd

FC SEOUL

The capital club of FC Seoul got better as the season went on last year, but never looked particularly convincing. Manager Choi Yong-Soo went for a 3-5-2 system that worked with mixed results. Ultimately, Seoul finished 3rd, just enough for an ACL spot, but it wasn’t the perfect season.

This year, Choi is building a more proactive, attacking team. However, he is going to have to do this with the group of players he already has. GS Shop don’t seem to have the funds to support the team very much, as stalwart centre-back Kim Ju-Young left for China, as did forward Sergio Escudero.

Seoul have been playing more of a 4-3-3 this year, with former KNT players Kim Chi-Woo and Cha Du-Ri occupying the left and right flanks respectively. They love to get up the pitch, overlap and provide width, although Cha is certainly the pick of the two. The midfield looks strong, with Ko Myong-Jin, Lee Seok-Hyun, Osmar or Mauricio Molina able to fill in the three midfield positions. Jung Jo-Gook, back from his military service, will be getting more playing time now that Escudero is gone. Jung is known for his booming long shots and is a good finisher.

THE VERDICT: Seoul have always been slow starters, and in a new system it will take time for Seoul’s true colours to show. I suspect it will be too little, too late again for the Seoulites. 5th

SUWON BLUEWINGS

The love it or hate it side, Suwon is the most supported team in Korea. Case in point – the Bluewings have the best attendance in the K League. Their ultras, including Frente Tricolore, are out and about every game, and have a loyal travelling base as well. Managing this side is probably the most stressful job in Korea (other than the KNT job, of course) and manager Seo Jung-Won strived under the pressure last year, leading Suwon to a surprise 2nd place finish.

The transfer window has seen Suwon bring in some excellent foreign players, including Leo from FC Sion and center forward Kaio from Jeonbuk. Kaio couldn’t maximize his playing time last season due to Lee Dong-Gook’s exploits for Jeonbuk, but certainly has the opportunity to make an impact at Suwon.

Suwon play a rather traditional 4-2-3-1 game that resembles that of the national team. The two holding midfielders are very important players, as they have the most possession of the ball and dictate play. Bluewings have a wealth of attacking magic this year, with Santos topping the scorecharts last year remaining with the squad, the aforementioned Kaio and Leo, and North Korean striker Jong Tae-Se all capable of banging in the goals. Suwon also have Jung Sung-Ryong in goals, and despite his struggles in the red and white KNT shirt, he is one of the best keepers in the K League.

THE VERDICT: Suwon should certainly be in the hunt for the Asian Champions League spots, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them place higher than Ulsan or Pohang. I’ll rank them at a close 4th. 4th

THE MID-TABLE

JEONNAM DRAGONS

The Jeonnam Dragons are also owned by POSCO, but are sort of viewed as POSCO’s 2nd team. They share a derby with the mighty Jeonbuk.

The Dragons finished last year in 7th place, just barely missing out on the top half split. Their goalkeeper is the extravagant, hair-dying Kim Byung-Ji. 45 years young, Kim was called into action often last year and will need to do so again with an ageing defense in front of him. The Dragons abounds with youth players in attack, which may explain their inconsistency last year (going from 2nd to 7th). The pick of the lot is winger Lee Jong-Ho, who found the back of the net 10 times for Jeonnam last season, and has progressed up the Korean national team youth ranks quite successfully.

VERDICT: An average squad that won’t be relegated or make the Asian Champions League. If their youth talent stay consistent, they can make the top half which evaded them last year. 6th

JEJU UNITED

Jeju United represent the Southern island of Jeju, and play their games in Seogwipo, one of two cities on the tourist island. Last season saw them finish 5th, but they never really were expected to make the Asian Champions League and finishing in the top half saw them achieve their goal.

This year, Jeju once again look like a 5th to 7th place squad. They have some good players – pacey winger (and African-Korean, cool, cool) Kang Soo-Il, midfielder Yoon Bit-Garam (his claim to fame – the winner vs Iran in the 2011 Asian Cup quarters), and midfielder-turned-striker Park Soo-Chang. Also keep an eye on tall 2016 Olympic team striker hopeful Kim Hyun. He’s not easy to push off the ball and gets around for a tall guy.

VERDICT: Much like Jeonnam, an average squad. Their Brazilian imports seem a bit hit or miss, so that could be the deal breaker to achieving their goal of finishing in the top half. 7th

SEONGNAM FC

Seongnam FC used to be a powerhouse in Korean football, and the franchise is still the most successful Korean team ever. However, their transition last year from Unification Church/cult-owned to Seongnam city-owned has seen a drastic dip in funds, despite a surprise KFA Cup win and ACL berth.

As a result, Seongnam have brought in a lot of players in an attempt to improve their depth, including a few Incheon United players. But the pick of the lot is former West Bromwich Albion man Kim Do-Heon. Kim has been compared to Paul Scholes for his playmaking talent and football IQ. However, on the way out are two key players – Server Djeparov to free agency, and midfielder Kim Tae-Hwan to Ulsan.

Seongnam manager Kim Hak-Bum can turn the Sparrows into a difficult side to break down, which could prove useful in one-off matches. But their ACL campaign saw them lose to Buriram United in the opener, of all teams.

VERDICT: Suffice to say, this is a below-average team in Korea that won’t be making any fireworks in Asia. 8th

THE “LET’S JUST STAY UP”-ERS

DAEJEON CITIZEN

Daejeon Citizen are famous for being the first city-owned football club in South Korea, as opposed to the conglomerates that own most top teams in the country. Daejeon were promoted last season from the 2nd tier and their principal goal will be to avoid relegation.

They have lost a couple key players in the window but retained the services of striker Adriano, who scored 26 goals in the 2nd tier last season. The Brazilian is excellent on 1v1s, abounds of confidence, can compete in the air, makes excellent, speedy runs and is a smart finisher. Daejeon will usually have a tall striker, such as the likes of Kim Chan-Hee, beside him. The squad also boasts plenty of youth talent in midfield, including Seo Myung-Won and Lee Gwang-Hoon. The Citizen play very directly, and I wouldn’t expect that to change this season.

The Verdict: After running away with the title last year, Daejeon look favorites to stay up among the bottom half teams. Their squad quality is good for a promoted team. I’m also sort of biased (DCFC supporter here) so I’ll place them at 9th. 9th

GWANGJU FC

Gwangju FC peaked into form at exactly the right time last year, sneaking into 4th place in the 2nd tier on the final matchday and winning the promotion playoffs against Gangwon, Ansan and Gyeongnam. They are newcomers to the Korean football scene, being founded in 2006.

Gwangju has been very quiet in the transfer window for a team who needs to boost their overall squad quality. They have made a few changes to their defensive set-up, but their achilles’ heel, that is to say, scoring goals, hasn’t been addressed. Gwangju’s goals scored stat was in the bottom half in the second tier, and without any new additions, I don’t see how they can possibly to find the back of the net regularly this year.

The Verdict: Although they are known for their tight defensive set-up, unless striker Gilberto, winger Lee Ho-Nam, playmaker Fabio Neves and company can produce goals against top-level defenses, Gwangju will be relegated automatically. 12th, relegated

INCHEON UNITED

Incheon United are another city-owned team, which explains their constant poor results in the league, save for a miraculous run in 2005 that saw them finish 2nd. After being so lackluster for most of last year and yet surviving relegation, Incheon fans will be hoping for some more heart from their team.

Unfortunately, very few people see anything inspiring happening from Incheon. Their squad quality is sub-par, and only two names are really recognizable for the average Korean, both players past their peak. The first name is winger Lee Chun-Soo (thank you for the goal vs Togo in 2006) and the second is 2002 World Cup veteran Seol Ki-Hyeon (thank you for the goal vs Italy in 2002). Also keep your eyes peeled for Belgium striker Kevin Oris, who has had success in the K League before.

The Verdict: But that’s really it. There’s no one else to mention or talk about. It’s not a strong team defensively, and for them to stay up this year, they would be asking for a couple veterans and a foreigner to lift the world on their shoulders. Unless Daejeon or another relegation contender choke hard, Incheon are in serious trouble. 11th, relegation playoff

BUSAN I’PARK

Busan I’Park were one of the founding members of the K League, as the Daewoo Royals. They have an illustrious history, and four titles to their credit, so you would expect this team to be more popular and receive more funding than the others. This is not the case, however, as the I’Park are based in Busan, a baseball market, and as a result, are firmly mid-table most years.

This season, however, there is lots of concern for I’Park supporters. Their playmaker and most reliable player, Lim Sang-Hyub, has left to do his military service at Sangju Sangmu (in the 2nd tier). Despite having a solid goalkeeping tandem (Lee Bum-Young/Lee Chang-Geun) the rest of the squad is very average, if not worrisome.

The Verdict: If Daejeon overachieve, Busan could find themselves in an unfamiliar relegation battle. Don’t be surprised if they escape the relegation race at the last minute, like last season. 10th

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