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2017 Season Review: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors K League Classic Champions 2017 Review

With just a domestic campaign to focus on, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors scaled the league summit to record their fifth top flight title in what is quickly becoming routine fashion. Despite a number of high profile departures and long-term injuries to key personnel, the North Jeolla side still saw off their competition with relative ease. Here is a look back over the Champions' season.
(Photo Credit: Hyundai-MotorsFC.com)

What Went Well

It is fairly obvious to state that the league campaign went well, but there were reasonable questions posed of the side when a number of high profile players were ruled out early on in the campaign. Choi Kang-hee was forced to alter his team to cover the absence of creative midfielders Lee Jae-sung and Lee Seung-gi for the first two months as they sustained serious injuries. This, in addition to the six month lay-off of Ricardo Lopes during the same period, saw Jeonbuk struggle to keep their grip on first place as they fought off challenges from Jeju United, Pohang Steelers and Ulsan Hyundai early on. They managed to hold on and when these names returned to the side, Jeonbuk sailed into the lead and never really looked like losing it.

For this steady hand, the manager deserves credit. Choi Kang-hee has his detractors (and I will admit to having often been one of them), but when his side faced real depth issues, he managed to keep finding ways to edge out the results required. His identification of the defensive issues last season, and the subsequent rebuilding of the back line in the winter transfer window, formed what was often an impenetrable foundation to ensure Jeonbuk kept apace.

It was also a strong year of youth development, with young midfielder Jang Yun-ho and goalkeeper Hwang Byeong-keun deserving mention. However, this progress cannot be better represented than by the rise of Kim Min-jae. Signed up and loaned out to Gyeongju last season, Choi Kang-hee praised the centre back before the season began as one of the best youth talents he had seen since Lee Jae-sung. Despite the risk of overhyping a player yet to kick a ball in the professional league, there is no doubt that the centre back proved to be exceptional, starting in the first game of the season and featuring for every minute he was not injured or suspended. The 20 year-old's ascent has been so rapid that he made his national team debut in the crunch World Cup qualifiers against Iran and Uzbekistan, even though he had not featured for Korea at any youth level prior, playing a role in keeping two vital clean sheets. For a player at such a young age he is built incredibly well, yet still possesses the pace and ability to out manoeuvre opponents. His efforts saw him comfortably take home the young player of the year award this season and, with Jeonbuk playing continental football again in 2018, he should continue to develop by facing more testing opposition, potentially booking himself a place in Korea's World Cup squad.

What Didn't Go Well

While there is rightfully praise for the management of a thinner squad, questions should be asked as to why it reached such a state in the first place. Jeonbuk started the transfer window well, signing three strong defenders in Kim Jin-su, Lee Jae-sung and Lee Yong. Yet, shortly after, the outcome of last year's bribery case was further punished by the Asian Football Confederation, disqualifying the reigning Asian champions from this year's tournament. With this, Jeonbuk put mostly a halt to signings, purchasing underwhelming wingers Mazola and Éder to supposedly fill in and see out the season. The rationale was fine perhaps, but with injuries being inflicted early on, it could have risked derailing their season before it had even begun. Fortunately, as mentioned, the team put in an exceptional amount of effort to ensure they always had control of the title race.

Jeonbuk also endured another underwhelming FA Cup campaign, losing yet again to K League Challenge side Bucheon 1995 at home for the second year running. Choi Kang-hee played more than a strong enough squad and there should have been no excuses for limping out so early. Given that the club were already not competing in the Champions League, priority should have been on fighting for both remaining trophies, yet to fall so early to supposedly lesser opposition will grate.

Finally, it was not a strong year for Jeonbuk's design department, revealing a kit considered so bad that the official supporters group 'Mad Green Boys' requested that it should be boycott due to the encroaching royal blue over the team's known colour of green. With the "V" shape design on the rear of the shirt matching that of baseball team KIA Tigers, a side owned by the Hyundai Motor company, the supporter's group felt that Jeonbuk was becoming part of the franchise and losing it's identity. The release of the 2018 kit and new club emblem (see below) will not have done much to allay those fears, and it remains to be seen whether than fans will continue to take their stance towards their club's rebranding.

Team MVP

Despite whether you think he deserved to win the league's official MVP award or not given the competition, there is no doubt that Lee Jae-sung has been one of the standout performers in the league and easily the best player in the championship winning side. However, it was not all plain sailing. The attacking midfielder began his fourth season at Jeonbuk picking up a hairline shin fracture a day before the season curtain raised, ruling himself out for the first ten rounds of fixtures.

Upon returning, he marked his first start of the season with a stunning effort against Incheon United at home, putting in a performance that visibly lifted the quality of play within the team. As he recovered, he took on a bigger creative role than previously expected of him, additionally covering for the sudden departure of fellow central attacking midfielder Kim Bo-kyung.

Lee rose to the challenge however, contributing eight goals and ten assists, with some spectacular efforts that will live long in YouTube highlight reels. His close control and technique is simply a joy to watch and Jeonbuk fans will be hoping that the club can hold onto him for another window, whilst also knowing full well that he deserves to play at a far higher level.

Most Disappointing Player

Having been the highest paid domestic player in the league last season, and will most likely feature amongst the leaders again this year, Kim Shin-wook's return in performances does not warrant such remuneration. Admittedly he fared better than in 2016 on paper, but having been given somewhat of a pass for settling in during the previous campaign, more was expected of him this season, especially as the only other two strikers in team finished the year with a combined age of 73. Considering he scored less than Edu, and is level with 38 year-old Lee Dong-gook yet made four fewer assists, not to mention that he has also played more minutes than either of them, his place in this squad needs to be quickly reassessed.

Last year, Kim Shin-wook was often criticised for his shooting accuracy and inability to convert, but there was admittedly a role for him in creating scraps for other players, namely Leonardo and Lopes. It was a role he performed so well that it saw him return to national team consideration. He provided a sense of anarchy, spilling and deflecting balls out into the path of players more ruthless, but even that ability seems to have fleeted him of recent as he continues to fall to ground with ease under a challenge when a man of his stature should be jostling to win every opportunity. Much improvement is needed in the off season if he is to find a consistent role within the team in 2018.

Most Important Decision of the Off Season

Jeonbuk should concern themselves with bringing in a striker with exceptional quality during the off-season. For two seasons the team has relied heavily on the midfield to pull the weight for the underperforming strikers and now, with Edu having retired and veteran Lee Dong-gook considering whether to sign on for one final stint, this area of the pitch is in dire need of investment.

With Éder also leaving the club, there will be three foreign spots (one having to be an Asian player) available to Jeonbuk. The club should scout well and try to avoid squandering these positions as they have been known to do, especially as it provides an opportunity to buy beyond the domestic talent available. A club with Jeonbuk's stature in Asia should be looking at the higher end of the talent realistically available. If the North Jeolla side can conduct their business well, there could once again be no stopping them next season.

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