2017 Season Preview: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
20-16-2, 2nd Place
It was deemed to be all but officially Jeonbuk’s title in late September as they steamrolled their way towards the finish line, yet an ill-timed nine point deduction for bribery in 2013 detrimentally affected the team, leading them to stutter calamitously. They would go on to concede their 33 match unbeaten run and let go of their remaining five point lead in the next six games, dramatically losing the league title at home to rivals FC Seoul on the final day. Motors made up for this disappointment on the continental front however, as their strong home form saw them cruise to the final where they would defeat Al Ain 3-2 on aggregate and be crowned Asian champions, a title which they have recently been informed they will be unable to defend. With their reputation irrevocably stained, Jeonbuk will now be looking for a successful domestic campaign to remind the rest of the league of the dominant force they can be.
Leonardo: The Brazilian's goals, assists and inspiring performances last season capped nearly a five year stint in Jeonju and sealed his lucrative move to the Middle East. Not only was he perhaps the best player at Jeonbuk, but arguably one of the standout performers in the division and even across Asia. Both club and K League will be poorer for his absence.
Kwoun Sun-tae: If supporters thought losing Leonardo was bad, the unexpected departure of club captain, goalkeeper and talisman Kwoun Sun-tae to Kashima Antlers came as a real body blow. His frequently strong performances helped compensate for what was a sometimes shaky defence, picking up the league's goalkeeper of the year award for the third consecutive season in the process. The club have since opted to promote reserve keeper Hong Jeong-nam to the number one jersey rather than seek a replacement on the market.
Kim Jin-su: It looks as if Jeonbuk's marquee signing for the season is a promising Korean international left back starved for game time at his previous club Hoffenheim. Despite earning 22 caps for his country, Kim has also not featured for South Korea in nearly a year. The 24 year-old, Jeonju-born defender will now be looking to restart his career on Korean shores with his eyes on returning to the national setup.
In total, Jeonbuk have sold or loaned out talent in this window and the previous summer window that can be credited for scoring just over 35% of the teams league goals in 2016. Include the seriously injured Lopes in this statistic (the Brazilian is expected to be out until mid-season) and the percentage surpasses the half way mark. Jeonbuk’s strikers were found lacking last season (although 37 year-old Lee Dong-gook did show up when required) but this drought up front was offset by the threat posed by wingers Lopes and Leonardo who took on the brunt of the goal scoring mantle. With a pre-existing three-man strike force boasting a combined age of 100, Jeonbuk really needed to look at increasing their depth in this department yet their signings have failed to inspire. It could be seen that the failure to attract higher-profile acquisitions is yet another repercussion of Jeonbuk's recent exclusion from Asia's top competition.
So far, the only notable attack-minded players brought in are Brazilians Eder Luiz, a player who managed just six goals in the Challenge for Daegu last year (although admittedly he was not played as a striker), and Mazola, who was signed from recently promoted Chinese side Guizhoui Zhicheng. Eder Luiz spent two seasons in Daegu to favourable reviews, but he will now be required to step up at Classic level. He will also fill Jeonbuk's vacant Asian spot as he holds Palestinian citizenship. Most interestingly though for Jeonbuk fans, he once played alongside Leonardo at AEK Athens. Less is known about Mazola in Korea however, with his career being mostly a series of loan moves, the most encouraging being a spell at Brazilian side Guarani back in 2010 before a season long spell at J League team Urawa Reds in 2011. It should be noted that Mazola's contribution to the latter's cause consisted of 3 goals in 25 league appearances, only 2 of which were starts. He also spent the two following seasons at then Chinese Super League side Hangzhou Greentown, featuring fairly regularly. After brief underwhelming spells in Portugal and back in Brazil, Mazola would secure a permanent move to the Chinese second tier at the start of last year with Guizhou Zhicheng. With fourteen goals in twenty eight league appearances to help the side earn promotion, the attacker has now been picked up by Jeonbuk on a free transfer.
I was going to opt for Lee Jae-sung here like last season as he is easily the best player in the side but rumours continue circulate that this summer could finally see him seal a move to Europe. With this in mind, I have tried to select a player whose influence and ability will be crucial for the season's whole duration. Kim Bo-kyung joined the club last season and his presence on the pitch was immediately felt through absentia as he sustained a six week injury in his second game. His return though coincided with an upturn in form, first helping his side to a 3-2 win against a then high-flying Seongnam before going on to assist his team in what I would strongly argue was their performance of the season; a 3-0 away win in Tokyo that effectively saved the club's continental ambitions. As the campaign progressed, he helped forge what became arguably the most feared midfield in Asia.
While his career in England eventually fell flat, his return to Korea at the start of last year and his motivated performances helped restore himself to a National Team that had looked to have moved on without him. While his place on the international front is by no means cemented at present, there can be no argument that Kim's move to Jeonbuk proved successful in forcing himself back into the fold. With the team having taken on board defender Kim Jin-su who also finds himself in a similar situation in regards to a failed stay in Europe and the current national setup, hopefully Kim Bo-kyung's example will prove inspiring and something to follow.
Reason to Watch
Given their off-field misdemeanors and recent years of dominance, there will already be a reasonably sized contingent of other teams' supporters watching to root for the club's demise. For those who choose not to though, Jeonbuk are a team now aching to set the record straight. With just two competitions to focus their attention on, their aim will be to claim both of these trophies and reassert their authority over their title rivals. The team is lacking in strength so if they are to ascend to the league summit, it could certainly prove more nerve-wrecking than in recent years, and therefore possibly more exciting for the neutral.
The side also notably boasts a number of domestic players on the fringe of the national team who are desperate to catch Uli Stielike's eye. Lee Jae-sung, Kim Bo-kyung, Kim Shin-wook, and Choi Chul-soon have all made national team appearances in the last year and they have now been bolstered by the arrival of Kim Jin-su who also has a point to prove. With players such as these motivated to achieve their own national team goals as well as the club’s, Jeonbuk’s individual displays in 2017 should at least be driven.
Is Choi Kang-hee capable of both rebuilding this side and winning the league?
Given the fallout from the scandal, finally winning the coveted Champions League trophy and also having hinted at it himself, many thought Choi Kang-hee would have resigned from the club at the end of 2016, leaving having achieved everything and making way for someone else to come in, rebuild and help these players fulfil their potential. Instead, the manager has opted to stay put and oversee the transition period Jeonbuk now surprisingly find themselves in.
Choi will be under pressure to restore the team's domestic standing and reputation quickly, particularly now the supporters and new signings have since been denied continental football. With few stand out names incoming to offset the loss of key players though, and considering his limp defence of the league title when it mattered most through questionable tactics, it remains to be seen if he will be up to the task.