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2016 Season Preview: Suwon Bluewings

 (Photo courtesy of bluewings.co.kr)

Team Overview

Historically, Suwon Bluewings have been one of the strongest teams in Korea. They have won the K League on 4 separate occasions and have also finished as runners up on 4 occasions. They have also previously lifted the Asian Champions League twice. Backed by one of Korea's biggest conglomerates they have been one of the more wealthy Korean teams in years gone by, however, in recent year this funding has been pulled and Suwon Bluewings' power appears to diminish season on season. Their last title was won in 2008 and it  might be a few more years until the next one is won.  

Last Season

Position - 2nd
W 19 - D 10 - L 9

What Happened?

The short answer: we let Jong Tae-se leave.

Suwon Bluewings started the season reasonably well. A 1-0 loss at home to Pohang was followed by dominating victories over Seongnam and Incheon. The front 4 of Tae-se, Santos, Ki-hun and Seo Jung-jin were linking up superbly and we were cutting teams open with every attack. Infact, after the Pohang defeat, Suwon went on an 8 game unbeaten run scoring 15 goals in the process. Then came the highlight of the season. April 18 2015: a day that will live long in the memory of every Suwon Bluewings fan, a 5-1 mauling of FC Seoul. Jong Tae-se and Yeom Ki-hun put on an absolute masterclass in the 2nd half and split the Seoul defence in two. Big Bird was rocking and Suwon hit the top of the table for the first time.

The end of April saw this run come to an end and back-to-back losses to Daejeon and Jeonbuk brought every body back down to earth with an all mighty bump. It was at this point that Seo Jung-jin's phenomenal early season form began to tail off and we were left with not many options on the right flank. The fast paced, attacking football began to dissipate and games started to become long hard slogs.

It was around the end of July that Suwon really let their title challenge slip away from them, and it wasn't even on the pitch. On the 14th of July Jong Tae-se, the club's talismanic centre foward, packed his bags and headed to Japan to take up a lucrative contract with Shimizu S-Pulse. He had only scored 6 goals that season but his contribution to the team was massive. He was the key to everything the team did, every attack flowed through him and he defended heroically from the front. The relationship he shared with Ki-hun was almost telepathic at times and it was an absolute joy to watch them play together. Losing Tae-se was the key moment in the 2015 K League season. 

Nevertheless, Suwon battled on and went through much of the summer untroubled and were only to lose two games in the whole of June and July. Unfortunately, one of those games was lost in Jeonju as our closest rivals for the title beat us. At that point, Jeonbuk had built up a sizable points advantage at the top of the table and we had lost Tae-se two weeks prior to the game. Needless to say, we were in desperate need of a victory to claw back some of that advantage. And for a large portion of the game it looked as though we might do it. We got a very early goal through Santos and then defended bravely until the last ten minutes when we well and truly bottled it and gave away two soft goals that could have been easily avoided. And just like that, the season was realistically over.

Jeonbuk did their best to allow us to claw our way back into the title fight by losing and drawing needlessly, but every time Jeonbuk drew, Suwon drew. And every time Jeonbuk lost, Suwon lost. At times it was almost like we didn't want to win.

The rest of the season dwindled by and without a recognized striker the games were rather dull. It was still great to watch Ki-hun work his magic every game, and the emergence of Chang-hoon was pleasing, but in truth August, September and October were rather uneventful months. The highlights of those months being an entertaining 4-2 victory away at Jeju and a 4-2 away dismantling of Gwangju.

The regular season ended and the K League split into it's two halves, surprisingly, Suwon were still in with a shout of claiming the title. However, we only picked up 7 points from the last 6 games and by the end Jeonbuk won the league at a canter. However, watching Kaio score his farewell goal (by the way, thankgod you're gone Kaio) with the last kick of the season to sink Jeonbuk on the final day was a satisfying feeling and it was celebrated as if we had won the league.

Overall, I genuinely think that if we had kept Tae-se we would have won the league. As soon as he left we lost most of our attacking purpose and it was too difficult to win games without a quality centre forward.

Key Player

Without a shadow of a doubt, Yeom Ki-hun is head and shoulders over the rest of the squad. There are some very talented footballers playing for the Suwon Bluewings but Ki-hun has something special about him that sets him apart from most players in the K League. He is very calm and neat on the ball and you very rarely see him hand possession to the opposing team, he is a pleasingly strong guy, which is something you don't commonly see in a left winger and he is also a born leader. The K League isn't blessed with strong leaders, in fact it is filled with quite a lot of timid personalities and there never seems to be too much talking going off on the pitch. This is something that can't be said about Ki-hun. At times last season I could hear him shouting at his team mates over the top of the banging drum and general raucousness that goes on behind me at most games. It's these attributes that sets him apart, in my eyes.

This is before we even talk about that magical left foot. I think Ki-hun can do just about anything with that left foot. 30 yard free kicks into the top corner, chipped passes over the defence, raking cross field, defence splitting balls and his trademark in-swinging cross in behind defences. I particularly love to watch his in-swinging crosses. When he executes them properly they are a real thing of beauty.

I may be biased, but in my opinion, Ki-hun is the best player in the K League. Last season, he operated without a recognized striker to aim for but still somehow led the league in assists. This is pretty astonishing when you consider the fact that for a decent amount of games he was asked to operate out of position and play as a striker himself. Moreover, he has provided more assists in K League history than any other player. That should speak for itself.

Without Ki-hun, Suwon would probably be a mid-table team. If Suwon are to do anything this season they need Yeom Ki-hun firing on all cylinders.

Korean National Team Player To Watch

This was also an easy choice as we currently only have one player in the national team squad; Kwon Chang-hoon. The 22 year old, central midfielder made quite a name for himself last year scoring 10 goals from midfield in the K League. His great form added to his high potential earned him a call up to the national team where he has gone onto play 7 times scoring 3 goals. Recently, Chang-hoon represented South Korea in the AFC U-23 Championships, in which he scored 5 goals, helping Korea to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games.

Big things are expected of him this season and even at such a young age he is an absolutely pivotal player at Suwon. He has two superb feet and is extremely comfortable either running with the ball or playing the ball out wide and arriving on crosses from the flanks. In fact, quite a few of his goals last season came from him arriving late into the box. He is very good at creating and finding space on the pitch and with the technical ability he possesses, space is not something any team should afford to him.

There were a few rumors in pre-season that maybe he could move on to a club in Germany, but I think the right decision was made for him to stay and develop in Korea. He has superb potential and he could possibly play at the highest level. But his potential needs to be nurtured in an environment that he is comfortable in. Perhaps, in 2 seasons time Europe will come knocking, but if Chang-hoon can perform well at this year's Olympics then maybe they will come knocking sooner.

Transfer Window

If the end of last season was a bit of a damp squib then Suwon's pre-season transfer activity has been pretty disastrous. I don't want to judge the players too harshly before I even see them play but, so far, the players brought in have been hugely underwhelming.

The first player brought in was Kim Jong-min, a Korean striker that has played every game of his career in Japan's 2nd tier. Admittedly, I had never heard of Jong-min before he signed for Suwon. He has only been a bit part player for Tokushima Vortis since making his debut in 2011, going on to score 7 goals in 56 games. But with the club still needing a replacement for Jong Tae-se is a young, scrawny striker who has only scored 7 goals in 4 years of first team football really the answer?

The next underwhelming striker to come through the doors was our new foreign superstar, Hygor. Again, I don't want to judge too harshly, but while Jeonbuk where going out and signing a proven K League goal scorer and international player, Suwon decided to go out and acquire a player from Ferroviaria, a club that plays in the 2nd tier of the Sao Paolo District of Brazilian football. Although Hygor scored 17 goals last season, he has never played in such a high level league before and I do wonder how quickly he will settle into life in the K League. One positive thing to take from this though is that he does appear to have a significant amount of pace and that is something we missed last season.

However, it's not all been doom and gloom. Lee Hyun-woong, Kwak Kwang-seon and Cho Dong-geon have completed their military service and have returned to the club. I don't expect Lee Hyun-woong to see any game time, but the return of Kwak Kwang-seon and Cho Dong-geon are welcome. Particularly that of Cho Dong-geon. This is a man who started his career exceptionally well scoring 19 goals for Seongnam and earning himself a call up to the national team in this period. A move to Suwon came, but he couldn't live up to his potential with the Bluewings and only managed a measly 7 goals before being called up to serve in the military. However, last season he was able to find his goalscoring boots again for Sangju playing 14 times and scoring 6 goals. If he truly has found his form again then he could be a handy understudy for Hygor.

A transfer that had gone under the radar until Wednesday night was that of Kim Gun-hee straight out of Korea University. The 21 year old made his debut against Gamba Osaka in the opening round of fixtures of the ACL and played very well. He is a tall, rangy striker with a great touch and good close control. He never had any scoring opportunities during the game, but his interplay with the midfield was good and he created a couple of goal scoring opportunities for others, most noticably teeing up Chang-hoon in the first half only for the midfielder to blaze wide. But the most pleasing aspect to his play that night was his physicality. He won numerous headers and personal battles with the Japanese defence and was a constant nuisance. He looked very assured playing as a lone striker and Suwon Bluewings fans will be hoping for more of the same in the coming weeks.

But by far the most pleasing thing about this transfer window has been the return of Kim Jong-woo after his loan spell at Suwon FC finished. This is the one player that I am truly excited to see and as he never played a game for Suwon Bluewings before he was shipped out to our baby brother club, I am treating this like a new signing. He had an exceptional season at the heart of the Suwon FC midfield last season and his 4 goals and 9 assists contributed hugely to their promotion campaign. He is a box to box, high intensity midfielder and this is something we missed last season. He will add to an already strong looking midfield and will bring a well needed balance to the team.

Expectations This Season

On the face of things, I guess you could say that I am quite pessimistic about the season ahead. 7 months on, and we still haven't replaced Jong Tae-se and I struggle to see how we will score anywhere near enough goals to even challenge for the ACL qualifying spots this year. But, and this is a massive but, if by some miracle Hygor, Jong-min, Dong-geon or Gun-hee (or a combination of the 4) can find the back of the net on a regular basis, then I would expect us to be close to the top of the table. As I have already said, I think Suwon have the best player in the K League in Yeom Ki-hun and Suwon have a very good attacking midfield, the only thing missing is a good striker. On paper it would appear that we don't have that, but we all know how quickly things can turn in football.

Predicted Finish

If the strikers can't score - 4th
If the strikers can score - 2nd (again)

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