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2017 Season Preview: Jeonnam Dragons

Coming off their best finish in seven years, the Dragons will look to take the next step this year and qualify for the 2018 AFC Champions League. If they're to be successful a slew of young talent will need to show they can not only hold their own at this level, but earn leadership roles and consistently beat the top teams in the league. Roh Sang-rae is at the helm again to begin the year and will need to figure out his best XI quickly if Jeonnam's to avoid their usual slow start.
(photo via facebook.com/dragonsfc)

2016 Finish & Record

5th Place 12-11-15

Recap

2016 saw the Dragons earn their best finish since 2009 thanks to a summer surge similar to that of the 2015 season (chart below). The main difference in 2016 is that the surge wasn't immediately followed by a nosedive into the bottom half of the table. Though Jeonnam stumbled to the finish in Championship Round plateauing them in 5th place, the year as a whole was a positive and helped identify young talent that seems poised to take the reins this year.
(turboscores.com)

Notable Moves

Park Gi-dong: As detailed in the Transfer Talk series, Park's departure from Jeonnam is notable because it frees the offense to stop relying on a lone target man and play a more possession-oriented passing game. With Park in the lineup the Dragons often lobbed the ball to the big man and watched him lose it time and again. The strategy left Ahn Yong-woo and Jair doing most of their running off the ball and unable to capitalize on their speed on the wings. In Jair's case it also limited his efficiency on the ball to maintain possession in favor of hurling crossing into the middle faster than preferred. Equally significant to what Park's departure does on the field, the off field decision by the front office to rapidly ship out an offensive option that wasn't working is a welcome change. Park's sale lets the rest of the Dragons know their time is limited if results don't show on the field.

Róbert Feczesin: With Park Gi-dong gone and a squad built to keep Roh Sang-rae's favored 3-4-3 system in place this year, all that was missing was a forward who can score goals. Jair proved he's capable of this last year, but he's better utilized on the wing where he can ping in crosses as well as creating his own opportunities. Enter Róbert Feczesin. The 30 year old Hungarian forward comes to Jeonnam via Hungary's league leaders Videoton where he scored 20 times in 64 appearances. Unafraid of mixing it up in the box, Feczesin will regularly be in position to score if the Dragons can provide service to him. If not, his ferocity in the penalty area may serve him well as a poacher who's in the right place at the right time to knock in the inevitable rebounds. If Feczesin can quickly settle into his first season playing in Asia, the Dragons offense will be one of the league's most formidable. Keeping the pressure on himself and Jair will allow young attacking midfielders Heo Yong-joon and Han Chan-hee to find their footing and contribute offensively. However, should Feczesin struggle early on, the brunt of the offensive load shifting to Jair and the youngins may be too much for them.

Needs 

Jeonnam did quite well exploiting the channels last year in their preferred 3-4-3 and have tailored this year's roster to fit the formation. Speed won the day and saw the likes of Bang Dae-jong and Lee Ji-min shipped out because they couldn't keep up. The globally recognized success of Antonio Conte's 3-4-3 at Chelsea proves the system works at the highest level, assuring it will be on the rise globally and Jeonnam won't be looking to move on any time soon. However, an area where they'll be forced to move on sooner than later is one of the most crucial to the 3-4-3 working: wingback. The wingbacks cover a slew of ground and have a ton of double duty playing both offense and defense. 37 year old Hyun Young-min is in what's surely the last year of his career and an heir apparent must emerge in the early stages of the season if Jeonnam's to avoid being exposed on the left side. Go Tae-won could fill the role, but is better suited on the back line where his one on one defending is more valuable. The position should go to 23 year old Olympian Lee Seul-chan who was often overlooked by Roh Sang-rae last season. In his young career Lee has proven capable of playing fullback and defensive midfielder, so a move to the hybrid wingback only makes sense. However, Lee will need to earn the spot and there may well be a reason the manager left him out of the side in 2016. Only the two of them know for sure. Regardless of who it is, Jeonnam needs to identify Hyun's replacement early because relying on a 37 year old to play more than 2,200 minutes for the fifth season in a row is a pretty big ask.

Key Player 

Róbert Feczesin

While I'd like to pick nonstop workhorse captain Choi Hyo-jin or one of the up-and-coming youngsters, the simple fact of the matter is Jeonnam need to score goals if they're going to improve in 2017 and Feczesin is the man they brought in to do it. Only four teams scored less than Jeonnam in 2016, and one of them (Suwon FC) got relegated for it. In fact, 18% of Jeonnam's matches ended scoreless last season, more than double the league average of 9%. When they did find the back of the net, it often wasn't in high enough quantities to take the points needed to move up the table. Looking at Jeonnam's 2016 goal difference (below) illustrates how important a single goal can be in the long slog of the K League season. In 18 of their 38 matches the outcome either had no goal difference or -1, resulting in 11 points out of 54 on offer. If just four or five of those matches has another goal for Jeonnam, they would've taken 15 points out of 54 on the low end and could have taken as many as 21 out of 54 points. A point swing that may well have been enough to leapfrog Ulsan in the table and earn a spot in this year's Champions League.

It's in those 18 narrowly contested matches where Feczesin needs to step in. He doesn't necessarily have to lead the team in scoring, but he has to be the guy that comes up big when the team needs a goal to save a point, or turn a single point into three and move up the table. Jeonnam's strong defense kept them in a slew of games last year, but if they're going to make a serious push for a top three spot in 2017 the offense needs to be far more ruthless and the Hungarian newcomer is going to have to lead that charge.
(turboscores.com)


Reason to Watch

Because they're going to play the kids. Jeonnam have gone all in on the "play the kids" strategy with only four players over 30 years old on the roster this year. The aforementioned Lee Seul-chan has long been a fixture of the Korean National Team youth setup and will be looking to earn a spot with the senior squad this year through regular minutes with the Dragons. Fellow 23 year old Go Tae-won will look to improve on a strong rookie campaign that saw him lock down the starting left back spot and turn in over 2,000 minutes. Additionally, the attacking midfield spot is there for the taking and 19-year-old dynamo Han Chan-hee may well be primed to take it. Han proved capable of dribbling through traffic and making intelligent runs. If he can start finding teammates with more regularity and setting up opportunities, he may well be the next Jeonnam academy product on the national team radar. Up top fellow academy product Ahn Yong-woo will be looking to have the game-breaking year he's seemed on the verge of for two seasons now. If the 25 year old winger can improve his first touch and dribbling to match his game-breaking speed and nose for goal few defenders in the league will be able to stop him. It's a lot of pressure to put on four players that have yet to turn 26, but they have energy to burn and if they can put it all together they'll drive opposition mad literally running circles around them.

Biggest Question

Can they beat the top teams?

Nine of the Dragons 12 wins in 2016 came against teams that finished below them in the table and none came against Seoul nor Jeonbuk. They did manage to beat Ulsan twice and Jeju once, so the precedent is there to beat Champions League caliber squads, but they'll have to do it with more regularity in 2017 if they're to finish in the top three. More than anything else, beating Jeonbuk and/or Seoul would provide a much needed confidence boost that any team can be had by the Dragons on their day. They'll have a golden opportunity on opening day when they travel to Jeonju to face a weakened and tremendously uncertain Jeonbuk side that's seen ACL striped away and many of their core players hit the road. But the question remains: can Jeonnam set a winning mentality from day one this year with a strong showing against their Jeolla rivals? We'll find out soon.


How do you see the Dragons season playing out? Will they achieve the lofty goal of Champions League or fall back to mid-table mediocrity? Let your voice be heard in the comments below or join the conversation on Twitter.

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