Words by Tim Lee
K League is back! And I know what you’re thinking. Why watch K League if you can watch the superstars of the CSL? It’s a fair point. Except let’s be honest – the K League’s appeal isn’t on the surface. It’s rather a bit more profound. Instead of just buying old overrated European players, the K League boasts a mix of refined veteran Korean talent with youthful prospects like the deadly accurate Lee Jae-sung, the dynamic Kwon Chang-hoon, and up and coming strikers such as Hwang Ui-jo and the former soldier, now discharged, Lee Jeong-hyeop. Read on for a primer of what this K League season will be about.
Could Jeonbuk be the next mega-team in Asia? They certainly showed that desire in the winter transfer window, buying players left and right, of all different styles and sizes. The speedy, powerful Brazilian winger Ricardo Lopes moved in from Jeju United, while Ulsan’s instantly recognizable 198cm striker Kim Shinwook now dons the Jeonbuk green. A more conventional winger, Ko Muyeol, moved in from Pohang, while the flair of Lee Jongho earned him a move to the northern side of Jeolla province. Kim Bokyung returned from his sojourn in Japan, which was of course preceded by exploits at Cardiff City, to bolster Jeonbuk’s midfield dominance. Erik Paartalu will provide some structure at the base of the Jeonbuk midfield, and Kim Changsoo brings to the rightback position a fair amount of KNT experience. Needless to say, Jeonbuk have swept up just about every top tier Korean player they could get their hands on.
Why have the two time consecutive champions of Korea done this? They’re certainly not adhering to the adage of “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”. Unsurprisingly, it’s been quite clear for a while that Choi Kanghee’s ultimate ambition is to bring the Asian Champions League trophy to Jeonju. However, this mega spending spree hasn’t immediately translated into results, with an early season ACL performance that isn’t demonstrative of a so-called “mega club” (though Guangzhou Evergrande have also struggled, to be fair). Perhaps it’s normal. They have a whole new batch of players and a brand new starting XI that’s forcing even the most established players last year (see Leonardo) to work harder than ever before. That being said, there are serious questions about their central defense, a position on which they did not make any noteworthy position, with Kim Kihee’s late transfer to China forcing Choi Kanghee to shoehorn the unproven Im Jongeun into the backline.
Choi Yongsoo might finally be reaping the rewards of the work of the past three seasons. Asian Champions League evidence shows that smart investments and players suited for Choi’s beloved 3-5-2 system may at last mean that Seoul can make a title push this season and avoid their usual sluggish start. Brazilian striker Adriano, who fell out of favour with the coaching staff at the now-relegated Daejeon Citizen, moved mid-season to the capital club. He is averaging – and this is amazing – a 1 goal per game strike rate, thanks in large part to his blistering start in the first two ACL matches, scoring 4 against Buriram and 3 against Hiroshima, earning him the competition’s Player of the Week award on both occasions.
But Adriano doesn’t have to do everything, which is the difference from his Daejeon days. He can place himself between the centrebacks and finish the goals, thanks to his quick bursts of speed, his tactical awareness and ability to run into pockets of space. Dejan Damjanovic, FC Seoul legend, takes on the dirtier work. His wealth of experience allows him to help players around him play off of him flawlessly. If his age is a factor, Seoul have great options in with the up and coming Yun Jutae and Arsenal flop (though Wenger never gave him a fair chance, the fool) Park Chuyoung. Seoul also made purchases to reinforce the defense and added a smart attacking midfielder in Shin Jinho.
Jeonbuk Hyundai will win the league, but they won’t be top for the first few weeks. FC Seoul are in form and have hit the ground running, for once. In their first matchup on March 12th, I am personally expecting a Seoul victory. But the capital club’s aura will erode over the season – Jeonbuk Hyundai are in this for the long haul and they will be champions for a third consecutive K League season. The Asian Champions League, though? Remains to be seen…
Trying to keep up with the best
Suwon Samsung are perhaps still the biggest club in Korea when it comes to reputation. And like Seoul, either you love ‘em or you hate ‘em. So those not loyal to the Bluewings’ cause might enjoy a bit of schadenfreude this season. Their lack of activity in the transfer window – only picking up an older version of centreback Lee Jungsoo (or should I say, Ibrahim Lee?) – means that in light of their rivals’ forays into the transfer market, Suwon will be decidedly second best to Seoul and Jeonbuk this season. They still have some household names – Kwon Changhoon is well known for his irresistible craving for the searing vertical run, while veteran midfield Yeom Kihun needs little introduction, his left foot and set piece ability is something holy.
However, nothing else about this current group of players really captures the great exploits of this club. They are weak in central defense – Min Sanggi and Yeon Jeimin are awful as a pairing, so thank god for Lee Jungsoo – and are beginning to have to play players out of their best positions. Kwon Changhoon is moving to the right wing, to my great chagrin, and Cho Wonhee is moving from an attacker at Seoul E-Land to playing rightback. And up top? They’ve gone in house, low budget. Kim Gunhee seems to be the player of choice, the 21 year old academy product will bear main striker duties this season. Needless to say, Samsung’s gradual reduction of funding to the Bluewings won’t allow them to be title contenders for the foreseeable future. For now, however, they have enough well established players to keep them in the ACL. 3rd
Last season started with high hopes for Ulsan Hyundai – a proven manager, a perfect target man (on paper anyway) and a dose of midfield and fullback talents. But it became alarmingly evident as the season wore on that with the loss of Server Djeparov in midfield, Ulsan had no other ideas and stuck to their broken record of longball after longball all season long. They found late form and beat up the relegation scrappers in the bottom division after the split to finish 7th, but it was still a dark season. Yoon Junghwan has (thank god) acknowledged that last season was indeed an abject failure, and the former Sagan Tosu manager has reacted by completely transforming his squad (though I suspect he didn’t have much of a choice).
Gone are the days of Kim Shinwook, as he’s gone over the Jeonbuk. Djeparov left for Uzbekistan, Cho Young-cheol has to go serve in the army, KNT goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu chased the cash over to Japan while rightback Rim Chang-woo chased the cash over to Al Wahda. Enter 21 year old talent Seo Myeongwon on the left side, and behold the incredible pace of former CSKA Moscow right wing Kim Insung. And of course – Lee Jeonghyeop. He made international headlines when the little known Sangju Sangmu soldier scored two goals in the Asian Cup, including the winners against Australia (in the group stages) and Iraq (in the semi-finals). Ulsan is a good place for him to nail down the parts of his game that are lacking. All in all, Ulsan have had enormous turnover this season, and if they hit the ground running then they are superior than Pohang and will challenge for the Asian Champions League. However, if all the transfer activity means they have to take some time to get settled, a top half finish would still be a respectable result. Yoon Junghwan is building a squad that could win in 2-3 years – but not this season. 4th
For the first time since 2010, Steelers fans peer into their team’s dugout and do not see 2013 coach of the year Hwang Sunhong at the helm. Instead, it’s former Korea U17 manager Choi Jincheul at the helm. Pohang’s philosophy under Hwang was really one based on an all-Korean approach, or at least, a transfer market style that was not based on buying some random Brazilian forward like nearly K League squads still do today. Choi is in some respects continuing this legacy, replacing the losses of FW Kim Seungdae and MF Shin Jinho with Ulsan’s Yang Donghyun and Incheon’s Cho Soochul. The most successful club in Asia are not be well equipped for any run for their fourth Asian Champions League title, but they’ve put in a good account of themselves of late, resisting Guangzhou Evergrande’s pressure and squeaking by the Urawa Reds on home turf. U23 star Moon Changjin and the ever present Son Junho will need to shine this season to give Pohang the creativity required, and their defense doesn’t seem too shabby all things considered. I’m giving them a fifth place finish, but with a twinge of uncertainty. Which Pohang will we see? The structured Pohang that held off Guangzhou or the iffy defend of the Hanoi ACL qualifier? Only time will tell. 5th
And all the rest
Seongnam rely on three pillars – their stellar central defense pairing of Yoon Youngsun and Im Chaemin, the team’s star playmaker, formerly of West Bromwich Albion, Kim Doheon, and the KNT’s own Hwang Uijo up top. It may sound good, and they haven’t really succumbed to any losses during the window, but the truth is that they can be one dimensional and skate on very thin ice when one speaks of depth. Despite this, if their parts don’t crumble catastrophically, they are a good call for top six. 6th
Jeonnam Dragons had a bright start last season, with the swashbuckling play of Stevica Ristic, Mislav Orsic and Lee Jongho propelling them into uncharted territory near the ACL zone. However, time had the final word and the Dragons slid into the bottom half. Although Lee Jongho has gone now, I’m still (perhaps overly) optimistic about Jeonnam’s chances. I like the transfer of Cho Sukjae to Jeonnam to clean up poor defending – he’s a natural poacher – but there are some defensive concerns and an unproven goalkeeper that could cost them top six. 7th
Incheon United made K League headlines with an iron curtain defense that was nearly impenetrable. They conceded the least goals last season and were frustrating to play against, especially when target man Kevin Oris was at his most influential. They’ve for the most part managed to hold on or adequately replace what made them effective last season, with centreback Matej Jonjic somehow remaining the backbone of their staunch defense. They should frustrate more teams again this season, but Oris can’t do all the scoring on his own. 8th
Jeju United’s manager has laughably declared expectations of earning a ticket to the ACL through the league this year. With the aforementioned Lopes gone to Jeonbuk, and playmaker Yoon Bitgaram joining Yanbian Changbaishan in China, I don’t see any route for a top three finish, especially with a leaky defensive group that hasn’t been patched up. 9th
Gwangju FC surprised many last season with their outstanding start to the year, but like Jeonnam, declined as time wore on. They aren’t a bad side, but their poor finishing cost them a lot of points last season and the loss of Kim Honam will do little to alleviate that struggle. Expect a relegation scrap. 10th
Suwon FC, newly promoted, dreaming of a derby win over the Suwon Bluewings. The municipality-owned club lost most of their core of players during the transfer window but interesting, calculated foreign signings might give them a fighting chance. 11th, relegation playoff
Sangju Sangmu are strong now, but when most of the Army club are discharged in September, Cho Jinho will have the unenviable task of throwing together a brand new side. It hasn’t worked in the past and it won’t work again. 12th, relegated