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2016 Season Preview: Jeonnam Dragons

(photo via dragons.co.kr)
Team Overview
Perennial mid table finishers, Jeonnam is rarely in danger of relegation, but equally as rarely contending for much more. In recent years the team has been amazingly streaky with impressive wins over top teams followed by losing streaks that last months. This season the Dragons will look to finish in the Championship Round and perhaps a run in FA Cup.

Last Season
9th Place: 12-13-13

What Happened?
The perennial mid-table finishers somehow managed to make a lower mid-table finish seem like a gut punch. The emergence of Mislav Oršić, continued growth of Lee Jong-ho, and Stevica Ristić's presence up top proved the bright spots of the season and fueled an improbable stay at 3rd place in the standings and a semi-final appearance in the FA Cup. Unfortunately, after the Dragons astounding May-July run of 9 wins out of 13, they fell off the face of Earth. As surprising as the early summer run was, the autumn's 12 game winless streak is still far more stunning. The entire months of August, September, and October came and went without a win. It wasn't until a meaningless final home game in front of a season-low 628 people that Jeonnam managed to pick up all three points. In a season where ACL seemed amazingly feasible, dropping the FA Cup and failing to even make the top 6 still stings quite a bit.

Key Player
Kim Min-sik. It's tempting to go with 2015 standout Mislav Oršić, veteran Ristić, or newcomers Cho Suk-jae or Vedran Jugović, but the man between the sticks will be under the most pressure. Following in the footsteps of living legend Kim Byung-ji was never going to be easy, but it's especially difficult for Min-sik as this is his first full season as the irrefutable number one for any team. At 30 years of age he's at the beginning of his prime years as a goalkeeper, so the time is now to figure out if he's got what it takes. Serving as the backup for Jeonbuk's championship runs in 2009, 2011, and 2014 should help give him a mental edge and know what a winner looks like. However, riding the bench and studying isn't the same as doing, and organizing a revamped (and previously quite leaky) backline is no small task.

With the four offensive players mentioned above, the Dragons shouldn't have many issues putting the ball in the back of the net. The difference between Championship and Relegation Round this year will be how many they can prevent, and Min-sik's the key to that. Kim Byung-ji's a living legend, sure, but he ponied up a ton of weak rebounds for poaching attackers to pounce on. And they did. A lot. He was also often unsure of when to come off his line, punch or catch, and honestly just seemed tired during the abhorrent winless streak. Min-sik's athleticism alone should take care of a lot of those issues, but a 33 game regular season is a grind and his mental stability will be put to the test. Should he be able to do his job and give the team confidence there's a wall at the back, the offense-heavy roster will be able to rush forward, own possession, and play more attacking football. If, like last year, the team has to bolster their keeper by playing deep they're bound to concede as they simply aren't built to sustain pressure. The talent on this roster suggests the goals will come, but whether or not they convert into wins will depend on the man at the back.

Korean National Teamer To Watch
Technically it's not cheating to say Cho Suk-jae. The Korean U23 International just completed his first full season of competition for K-League Challenge side Chungju Hummel FC and bagged an impressive 19 goals. It wasn't enough to move Chungju from the cellar of Challenge, but it was good enough for 4th place in the Golden Boot race and a 0.53 goals per game average. For comparison, Lee Jong-ho led the Dragons with 12 goals and a 0.39 goals per game average. The drastic difference in goalkeeping abilities from Challenge to Classic shouldn't be overlooked, but it's still an appealing stat to be carrying into your second year for a soon to be 23-year-old.

With limited video, Cho seems to be an out and out poacher and that could fit quite well into Jeonnam's plans this season. Stevica Ristić clearly re-signed because he was promised minutes, so expect him to continue to be the target man, but he'll need a partner. With Lee Jong-ho's departure to Jeonbuk, the Dragons may well abandon the 4-3-3 of last year and play more of a 4-4-2 with Cho partnering with Stevo up top. This could allow the speedy Cho to play as a Center Forward and clean up the inevitable rebounds from shots outside the box and whatever the keeper can't handle from Stevo. Cho has a knack for being in the right place at the right time and though it's a cliche to say so, it's an instinct that can't be coached and has served him well enough times it can't really be considered luck anymore. For as much attacking prowess as the Dragons had last season, they never did have a true poacher lurking around the goal to clean up a mess. Should he be able to convert most of the chances he's given, then he may well find himself a spot on the 2016 Olympic squad heading to Rio.

Newcomer To Watch
Vedran Jugović. Wrote a bit about him when he was first signed, but what his actual role will be for 2016 is still as much of a mystery. Like Oršić, Jugović joins the Dragons from HNK Rijeka in The Croatian First Football League and should slot immediately into the starting midfield. One of the main reasons to watch him this season is to see where manager Noh Sang-rae decides to deploy the new foreign midfielder. Jugović has played both on the wing and in the middle, but has a preference for the latter. Jugović's not a goal scorer, so his placement will determine what kind of offense the Dragons are trying to run. If he's set up outside, then we can expect more of the "run it up the wings and hoof it into the middle with a prayer" strategy that popped its head up so often in 2015. However, if he's put in the middle as either a true center mid or more of a CAM, then Jeonnam may finally use the middle of the pitch more for its offense. Vedran's ability to create was what earned him a starting spot in Croatia, so he's proven he has the capacity to operate an offense. Yet, where he'll be placed and how he'll fit into the Dragons system will determine if he'll have the chance to do so in K-League. Should be interesting to see where he takes the field in the first few weeks.

Expectations This Season
Mid table as always. The overwhelming consensus for those following K-League is that Jeonbuk will yet again run away with the title, and my opinion is no different. However, even if the greenies of Jeollanam-do weren't quickly becoming the Yankees of K-League, thoughts of Jeonnam challenging for the title are entirely delusional. FC Seoul look like world beaters in ACL and the usual suspects of Suwon and Pohang look to be quite strong as well. Add in the surprising Seongnam, feisty Jeju, and potentially resurgent Ulsan and finishing in the Championship Round looks all the more daunting. But, that should still be the goal. Make no doubt about it, this is a transition year for Jeonnam, so challenging for an ACL spot shouldn't be on the to-do list. However, settling for finishing just above typical yo-yos Sangju or first-time-in-top-flight Suwon FC won't cut it this year. For a team owned and operated by the struggling POSCO, another season merely avoiding relegation may well leave the franchise on the chopping block for 2017.

Predicted Finish
7th Place.

There are just too many unknowns heading into this season to predict them beating last year's top six. Can Kim Min-sik handle a full season in net? Can Oršić find his mid-summer form again? What does Ristić have left in the tank? How does Jugović fit into the formation? Can Cho transition Challenge success into Classic success? Is Noh Sang-rae the man to be leading this team? That's a lot to get sorted and attempt to storm out the gate in a league where a hot start can sustain an entire season.

What do you think? Do you have some answers to the questions above? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, or you can find me on Twitter @MrRyanWalters.


  1. Only 3 players of level A for the Dragons. Stevo, the newcomer Vedran (surpsing? Orisic would have been a better choice) and the Korean player..I don't know who is he. Do you agree? http://sports.news.naver.com/kleague/news/read.nhn?oid=452&aid=0000000433

    Gwangju season preview -> http://sports.news.naver.com/kleague/news/read.nhn?oid=452&aid=0000000432

    1. I think that article's saying Stevo's the only "A" player and Han Chan-hee and Jugović are the "dark horse" (다크호스) players. I definitely agree about Jugović being a dark horse, but can't say I'd throw much stock behind Han Chan-hee.


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