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2017 Season Review: Ulsan Hyundai

It’s that time of year again.  Those decorations your local hof has had up all year suddenly don’t look so out of place, you can’t avoid Mariah Carey’s annual warble, and you'll have to wait til next year for the K League to start again – yes Christmas is here. Over the coming weeks K League fans can take some time to reflect on the season past while dreaming of what Santa may bring them before the new season starts.* And looking back at the 2017 season, Ulsan fans’ wish lists are pretty short. All we want for Christmas is someone who can score some goals! 

*Yes I’m well aware the transfer window doesn’t open until after Christmas (January 5th), but I’m feeling festive and it’s my first column for K League United so go with me on this.

(image via uhfc.tv)


That pretty star twinkling at the top of Ulsan's otherwise shabby looking Christmas tree is the FA Cup – our first piece of silverware in five years. The fans were undeniably happy to see the Horangi lift a trophy again, but their journey to the final was not exactly the greatest story ever told. Ulsan managed to avoid any of their main K League rivals in the earlier rounds, beating Chuncheon, Gyeongnam and Sangju, before stumbling past the giant-killing Mokpo City in the semi-final.

The two-legged final against Busan suited Ulsan’s conservative style and once they got their noses in front in the first leg, the team’s resolute defense held out for a 0-0 at Munsu. It was not exactly the showpiece game the neutral may have been hoping for, and you had to feel sorry for the further heartbreak Busan had to endure just a week after they missed out on promotion. But Ulsan ended the season on a much needed high and no one was happier than manager Kim Do-hoon. The FA cup victory may just have saved him his job. I guess if you have to paint over the cracks, silver is the best colour to do it in.

Noel, noel, noel, noel, these are the things that didn’t go well

Looking at the K League table at any point in 2017, you may have noticed that Ulsan spent much of the season in the top three, despite having a negative goal difference.  Most of the year they dug out win after win by single goal margins, with the occasional heavy loss to the teams around them. And therein lies the story of Ulsan's season. Of course fans of teams outside the top half may be hoping for a little more perspective at this point, especially at this festive time of year. But to regular watchers of Ulsan the lack of goals was an inconvenient truth just waiting to pop up and bite us in the baubles. And so in October it did. After the league split, the inevitable collapse happened. The goals dried up, the summer signings, Danijel Subotic and Takuma Abe failed to adapt to the league quick enough, and Ulsan went without a win in six games. They duely slipped down the table and out of the Champions League spots.

What made things all the more infuriating was the manner of those defeats. There was a clear lack of a Plan B from Kim Do-hoon's men if they conceded first. In the crucial post-split games  the manager's inflexibility became all too apparent. Ulsan’s defense, marshaled by the excellent Richard Windbichler, did their best, but they couldn’t keep the likes of Johnathan and Lee Jae-sung quiet for long. The pace of winger Mislav Orsic was often Ulsan’s only hope of getting back into games, but opponents soon sussed out how to stop the talented but lightweight Croatian, and he was an increasingly isolated figure on Ulsan’s left wing. Overall Ulsan’s 2017 K League Classic campaign was going surprisingly well until our luck finally ran out and we could no longer disguise our lack of imagination in the final third.

Who’s been a good boy this year?

This title has to go to Ulsan’s most consistent and hard-working player this year, Richard Windbichler. Signed from Austria Wien in the close season, the 26 year old looked like a great aquistion from day one. He plays with the calmness and technical quality required in the K League, but also has the strength and organizational ability to stop opposition attacks in their tracks. Windichler even chipped in with the occasional goal in the first half of season. (Who could forget his breakaway goal at Suwon? Never offside!)

Despite his questionable mid-season hair bleaching, the Austrian defender’s form remained a bright spot in Ulsan’s dwindling campaign and he rightfully finished the season with a cup winner’s medal having cemented himself as a firm fan-favourite. Honourable mentions have to go to Windbichler’s defensive teammate Kang Min-su, along with youngsters Lee Myeong-jae and Lee Yeong-jae who had their breakout seasons this year.

Stocking Full of Coal

This may be a controversial choice, but this dubious honour has to be shared by Ulsan’s top two goal scorers: Mislav Orsic and Lee Jong-ho. Sure they were the team’s leading marksmen, but after Ulsan’s season that’s a bit like being the biggest sprouts at Christmas dinner. Lee chalked up just 8 goals in 34 games, while Orsic got 10 in 38. Those stats are disappointing considering so much was expected from these marquee signings.

It all started so well too. Orsic looked unplayable early in the season, especially in Ulsan’s 6-0 thrashing of Brisbane Roar in the group stages of the ACL. He bagged two goals that night and seemed to be the pacy threat Ulsan had been crying out for. Lee Jong-ho looked an excellent spearhead, with power and aerial prowess, and of course, a trademark goal celebration. But as the season went on, they both became predictable – like Harry and Marv lining themselves up to take another paint can to the face. Orsic particularly seemed to be one-dimensional, cutting in on his right boot time after time, before being easily swallowed up by the opposition defenders. Hopefully both players will come back in 2018 refreshed and hungry, because Ulsan will really need an improved goal threat in the coming campaign.

Christmas Wish List

Had Ulsan not lifted the FA Cup a few weeks ago, I would probably be speculating about a new manager at Munsu. But with Kim Do-hoon seemingly safe, he faces the challenge of finding the additional twenty or so goals Ulsan will need to really trouble the teams above them. The Horangi are crying out for some pace upfront – a willing runner in the middle of the park to take the pressure off Orsic and create space on the wings. Swiss striker Danijel Subotic may yet surprise everyone and find some form, but he looks to be an impact sub at best. Having qualified for the Asian Champions League again thanks to their cup win, Ulsan can surely attract some more established talent.

Finally, Ulsan fan’s will all be asking Santa for a big fat contract extension for Richard Windbichler – and if rumours are to be believed, that particular wish may soon be coming true.

Merry Christmas K League fans.

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