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2016 Season Review: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors finish runner-up in the 2016 K-League Classic
It proved to be heartbreaking in the end for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors supporters as their team, straddled with a nine point deduction and a sudden loss of form at the most crucial point in the season, were unable to pull themselves over the finishing line, losing their title on their own turf to bitter rivals during the final game of the season. Twenty-four hours later, the autopsy of their league campaign begins.

What Went Well

It was all going very well until the league split; well at least it looked like that on the surface. Jeonbuk smashed the previous unbeaten league record by not tasting defeat until the 34th round. They looked as if they could go all the way and to lose a record that they never initially set out to claim must have certainly dented morale. Jeonbuk had not always been the most convincing in their 33 game streak, but they always were able to fight, an ability that so cruelly fled them in their last match of the year.

Jeonbuk also won and drew enough this season to win the league comfortably in a normal year and this must not be overlooked. Whilst points were deducted for a bribery offence 3 years ago, this iteration of the team did more than enough to win the league fairly and were made to pay for the mistakes of a previous generation. Titles are not awarded in September though, and Jeonbuk still had a five point lead after the deduction but were unable to halt a sudden run of poor form that ultimately cost them on the final day.

Finally, the signings of Lopes and Kim Bo-kyung were instrumental in cultivating the form that had seen them fight until the end and should be rightly applauded for their efforts in their first year at the club. Assuming they stay in the winter, they will ensure Jeonbuk remain in contention for the title in 2017.

What Didn’t Go Well

As mentioned, Jeonbuk did not always look convincing but were always able to secure at least a point for the majority of the season. In fact, they drew 16 times, the second highest in the league. Again, you would believe these draws are the fruit of their fighting spirit, but scratch a little deeper and you find two of these were comebacks, three were goalless and eleven were all from losing leads. If they held on in just two of these fixtures, especially in the instances where it was caused by a late defensive error, then they would now be holding the title. Their final run in also did not bode well, falling apart on the last straight after the points deduction and allowing FC Seoul control of their own fate.

It would not be a review without me yet again mentioning the selection policy of Choi Kang-hee. I have beaten this to death but his unwillingness to budge and offer starts to an alternate eleven in games that were either deemed not worthy, or were crucial post-split matches against 3rd and 4th place (in which he dropped five points). He is right to think the team needs rotating on occasion to avoid fatigue, especially when competing on multiple fronts. However, the manner in which he did so, often changing over 50% of playing personnel between games often disrupted rhythm and coincided with many of the 16 draws.

In terms of transfers, not all of them have worked out. Choi Kang-hee’s treatment of defensive midfielder Erik Paartalu was disgraceful, exiling him to individual training with allegedly little reason and forcing him out of the club. The player himself had done little if anything to warrant such treatment, and was provided next to no opportunity to change his manager’s mind. The insistence on signing Edu, a player who had left the previous summer to play in the Chinese second tier, and then no football from Christmas, was wrapped in blind nostalgia from the manager, subsequently not renewing the contract of the hard-working and then in-form Luiz due to the foreign quota. Finally, the signing and sidelining of promising youngsters Lee Jong-ho and Ko Moo-yeol also grates, and it would be more than understandable if they made noises to move elsewhere to ensure their careers do not stagnate in their most promising years.

Team MVP

I am torn between Leonardo and Lopes for this award due to their stand out contributions, but will opt for the former. Leonardo once again had a stand out season for the club and scenes of him in tears on the bench after the whistle blew last Sunday were heartbreaking. He was once again forced to fight for his place after he was unceremoniously dropped by Choi at the start of the season, but once he got his foot back in the door, he was there to stay.

The passion Leonardo has shown for the club is remarkable and he embodies the spirit of the fans when he is on the pitch. His free kicks, crosses, assists and goals have spared the club further embarrassment on many occasions this year and he deserves to win a Champions League medal this month, more so than any other player in the team. It seems the K-League agrees with me, placing him in the three nominations for 2016 Player of the Year.

Team Goat

I want to say Kim Shin-wook, especially after the amount of criticism I have leveled his way this year, but he eventually proved his value with time. His poor first touch still annoys me, his lack of goals is worrying, but he provides the scraps for Leonardo and Lopes to gorge on and it seems their on and off field relationship is strong.

Therefore, I am sadly going to plump for 34 year-old Edu. It is not his fault he was not match sharp, but it was clear upon his arrival that he was not fit to be in a title challenge His constant flirtation with a return to the club in the winter definitely caught the manager’s attention, resulting in Luiz leaving the club, and Lee Jong-ho losing his spot in the team. Edu may still come good with a full pre-season under his belt, but his signing was ill-timed and he offered the least to the cause.

Most Important Decision of the Off Season

The future of Choi Kang-hee and his potential replacement will be the most important decision taken this winter. The rumours of his impending resignation and move to China continue to grow, although his final few weeks may have put off any potential suitors. While he must be applauded for all he has achieved with the club and the history he has created, this season saw him reach his limits. Combined with the fallout of the bribery scandal (although he only managed for the latter half of that season), I can see him and the general manager falling on their sword once the AFC Champions League final is out of the way and the club can begin the process of clearing house.

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