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2018 Season Preview: Ulsan Hyundai

Ulsan Hyundai will be looking to build on their FA Cup success last season while avoiding the drastic dip in form that saw them drop out of championship contention. Having kept their most talented players, the Horangi have made some smart signings, creating an air of optimism around Munsu going into the new season.  Some may even be whispering about a push for the K League 1 title. 
(image via uhfc.tv)

Last Season

W17, D11, L10.

4th position in K League Classic

What Happened?

Last season tailed off badly for Ulsan, but finished on a high when they ended up lifting the FA Cup, the club's first piece of silverware since 2012.

2017 started with a mixed bag of results for the Horangi.  They crashed out of the Asian Champions League after failing to qualify from a group that on paper should not have been a problem.  However, by May things were looking up for the south coast club after a string of fine results, including victories away at Jeonbuk and Suwon. Over the summer months the Tigers moved into third place, closing in on Jeju in second.  Meanwhile they had sauntered into an FA Cup semi-final against lower league Mokpo City.  A scruffy but successful two legged victory over the minnows meant they were heading to their first final since they won the Asian Champions League in 2012.

But it was at this point the league campaign fell apart for the Boys in Blue.  Terrible autumn form gave the third ACL qualifying league spot to Suwon, meaning the FA Cup had become all the more significant for Ulsan.  They went into the controversial two-legged final with just one win in five, facing a Busan team looking to pay fitting tribute to their manager Cho Jinho who had sadly passed away two months earlier.  The new format seemed to help Ulsan and after winning 2-1 away, they knew they could sit back in the return leg rather than having to chase more goals. It was no surprise when the second leg ended 0-0; hardly a great advert for the K League, but Kim Dohoon's men didn't care.  The ticker-tape rained down and Ulsan could book their tickets to the ACL in 2018.

Notable Moves

[IN] Yohei Toyoda
It became painfully obvious to everyone connected with Ulsan last year that the team lacked a reliable goalscorer.  So going into the winter break the pressure was on manager Kim Dohoon to find the strong target man his team's style demands. Well he may well have found his man in J League veteran Yohei Toyoda.  Signed on loan from Sagan Tosu, the 6'1" striker boasts an impressive scoring record for his parent club, scoring 119 goals in 234 appearances.  Toyoda has already caught the eye during the early ACL games for his tireless effort, neat touches and strong aerial presence. Could he be the player to finally fill the hole in the Tiger's attack left by Kim Shinwook?

[IN] Park Jooho
Another cause for optimism amongst the Ulsan faithful is the signing of the versatile fullback  from German giants Borussia Dortmund.  Clearly trying to find his way back into the Korean national squad in time for the World Cup in Russia, Park joins Ulsan with a point to prove.  He has already started in two different positions in Ulsan's two ACL group games - left-back against Melbourne, and midfield in the victory over Kawasaki Frontale.  Undoubtedly talented, Park should provide that extra bit of quality to an Ulsan team that lacked ideas last season.


Be more ruthless
The Horangi really need to find that second or third goal to kill off their opponents.  So often last season Ulsan won games by one a single goal margin.  How else can you explain a team spending much of the season in third place having a negative goal difference?  Kim Dohoon, knowing his side's attacking deficiencies, would regularly order them to sit back on a one goal lead, which was their undoing in the latter stages of the campaign.

The good news is the forward line should be more balanced this year with the addition of Hwang Ilsu on the right wing. And in Toyoda and the Brazilian, Junior, Kim Dohoon may have found the goalscorers he so desperately needs.

Find a Plan B
Compared to the other teams in the top half of K League 1, the Horangi do not enjoy playing possession football.  They play with pacey wingers and a strong target man, enabling them to break quickly, exposing the other team's back four. However, while surrendering the tiger's share of possession to Incheon or Sangju may not be a big deal, they really struggle against the top teams simply because they do not see enough of the ball to hurt their opponents. Ulsan need a Plan B for the big games that helps them keep the ball for longer periods of the game so they can stay on top once they have got there. 

Key Player 

Mislav Oršić
Oršić was probably a popular choice for this position last year too. He returned to the K League from China and immediately caught the eye with his brace in the ACL opener against Brisbane Roar.  However, as the season wore on opponents found way to isolate him on the wing and suffocate his creativity.

Well, this year has started in much the same way for the ex- Jeonnam Dragon. Oršić scored twice against an Australian side in the ACL opener, again gaining plaudits from across Asia.  However, the difference this year should be the quality of the players around him.  Park Jooho will provide good overlaps on the left wing. A strong front line should mean teams cannot double or even triple up on the tricky Croat.  Expect Oršić to be involved in a lot of goals for the Horangi in 2018.

Biggest Question 

Can Ulsan beat their top half rivals away from home?
Ulsan won just one of their games after the league split last year, giving up third spot to Suwon and almost being caught by a mediocre Seoul side.  The Boys in Blue have to do better against the teams around them if they are to be successful this time round.

Can Kim Youngdae keep hold of his place?
The veteran goalkeeper has always been a good shot-stopper, but his handling and distribution continues to be an issue. Too many mistakes could see him lose his position between the sticks to his apprentice Jo Suhyuk.

Reason to Watch

Ulsan look a far more entertaining prospect this year than they did last. That is clear after just the first two Asian Champions League games.  They have scored five in two, hitting the back of the net from outside the box four times already.  Kim Dohoon has ordered his side to play at a faster tempo and press higher up the field like Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, meaning you can expect goals, probably at both ends.  And maybe even a title push. Well that's the idea anyway. Trust me, they have to be more exciting than last year!

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