2017 Season Preview: Ulsan Hyundai
W14-D7-L12, 4th Place
Ulsan Hyundai appeared to defend their way to fourth place (on paper at least) and an FA Cup semi final last season, rarely conceding yet hardly scoring. They even looked set to claim 3rd and an Asian Champions League spot until something inside Jeju United erupted, leading them to be overtaken by the islanders just before the start of the split. At the season close, manager Yoon Jung-hwan decided to move to the J League to coach his former club and left the growing resentment amongst the Ulsan fans towards him behind, with ex-Incheon United manager Kim Do-hoon taking the reigns at the start of the year. Ulsan then received fortuitous news that second placed Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (who had already been quite naughty) were deemed ineligible for this years continental expedition. This meant places for the Asian Champions League were pushed down and Ulsan could obtain access through the play-offs.
Lee Jong-ho: Signing from Jeonbuk in December, Lee Jong-ho was perhaps the eye-catching part of a trade that saw him, right-back Kim Chang-soo and young Olympic centre-back Choi Kyu-baek head to the south-east coast with two of Ulsan's stand out defenders Lee Jae-sung and Lee Yong go the other way. The man lovingly referred to as "Gwangyang Rooney" showed flashes of brilliance at Jeonbuk, but was never given a prolonged run in the team as his manager Choi Kang-hee instead decided to rekindle a relationship with the club's old flame Edu in the summer, casting the newly signed Lee aside to the bench. The twenty-four year old does have considerable talent though and early ACL games would suggest he is set to be the leading man at Ulsan this season, a role that both him and the club should eventually reap rewards from.
Mislav Oršić: This signing had to wait until Ulsan had first progressed past Kitchee in the play-offs to the ACL group stage, not to mention the player was originally in talks with Jeonbuk until their ban, but in signing Oršić the club has a exciting attacking winger and striker who has experience at Jeonnam Dragons playing with the aforementioned Lee Jong-ho. His short stint in China did not work out so well for him (something which the player admits himself), but he is determined to get back into the scoring habit at Ulsan.
Richard Windbichler: While there are other attacking signings also worthy of mention (see Australian attacker Dmitri Petratos), 25 year-old defender Richard Windbichler could prove pivotal to ensure that Ulsan maintain the kind of resolve they showed last season. With new defenders required, Windbichler brings with him a wealth of experience from the Austrian Bundesliga that Ulsan will look to draw from as they aim to fight on multiple fronts.
Based on last season, you would think Ulsan would need a goalscorer, especially as Mendy left early in the window for Jeju United in order to gain Champions League football. Ulsan scored the second fewest goals in 2016 yet were rescued by their capable defence, a back line which has since been compromised by the outgoing of key names and now rebuilt. They have signed strong talent in their prime though which will hopefully have fixed this drought in the final third.
Therefore, perhaps what Ulsan need most is patience and more time to work together, a luxury they no longer have. Their off-field preparations were cut short and their transfer policy dramatically altered when their late inclusion in the ACL was announced. This looked quite obvious when watching their play-off against Kitchee, a game that Ulsan were firm favourites to win yet the Hong Kong side should have claimed victory on the night. They also fell to the Japanese champions Kashima Antlers in their opening group game but signs were on show that, if this team can click, they could prove to be a difficult opponent for any K League team this season.
I have mentioned Kovačec as one my stand out players in both of my Ulsan Champions League match previews this year, yet he has not quite had the influence on proceedings in either of those games as I first expected. Despite this though, he is still a firm Ulsan favourite about to start in his third season with the club. The Croatian had a tendency to feature on the right wing under the old regime, yet has featured both on the wing and up front in the two matches we've seen him play this year. Regardless of where the new manager decides to eventually field the 28 year old though, he has often proved to be one of the more reliable members of the squad, featuring high in both the team's scoring and assist charts in his one and a half seasons. In fact, his six goals and nine assists in the league last season meant he had a direct hand in over a third of the 41 goals Ulsan scored as a team in 2016.
With his fellow compatriot Oršić most likely causing havoc on the opposite flank and possibly supplying the crosses into him, Kovačec will hopefully not have to carry the team as much as he did last year, but his determination will still see him looking to take his contribution to higher levels while also enjoying his first involvement in a continental tournament.
Reason to Watch
As mentioned, Ulsan seemed to be unable to keep key names who wanted to play in the ACL such as Mendy, Lee Jae-sung and Lee Yong who had been pivotal in the team's top four standing. With the sudden announcement of their own ACL inclusion though, a flurry of eye-catching signings have taken place and they now seem to have the personnel to be more creative and ruthless than they were last season. In addition to the three notable signings mentioned above, it also worth including the recent purchase of ex-Brisbane Roar attacker Dimitri Petratos who should also prove to be quite the threat and will increase competition for starting places. At the very least, Ulsan should certainly be more entertaining than last season and, at a considerable push, could even be considered dark horses for an unlikely title challenge.
It is also worth mentioning Ulsan's stadium has undergone a number of changes to improve the match day experience for fans, introducing cup holders for every seat whilst also inserting safe standing sections in a bid to drum up more of an atmosphere. While no K League team gets close to filling their cavernous government owned stadiums, it is small, positive improvements such as these that could at least attract more supporters than before and increase the enjoyment of the regulars who attend without fail.
Can Ulsan qualify for next year's Champions League?
Ulsan found themselves falling out of contention for an ACL berth at the final hurdle last season yet still qualified for the play-offs thanks to Jeonbuk's previous misdemeanors. This year has seen the competition for these coveted places increase with Suwon Bluewings and Jeju bolstering their squads, an ever-present FC Seoul and Jeonbuk who will still consider themselves title favourites, and a high spending, newly-promoted Gangwon who appear to have set themselves the ambitious target of buying everyone and claiming continental football for 2018. Add to this the prospect of strengthened rivals Pohang who will also want to set the record straight on their disastrous form last year, and it is suddenly looking very crowded at the top.
Ulsan have bought well but early Champions League performances this year suggest the team has not quite gelled yet, most likely due to an unplanned, shortened pre-season. They should still have enough to compete, but they will be hoping the bedding in period for new players and manager will not eat too far into their new season.