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2018 Season Review: Jeju United

In what was an up and down season, Jeju United did manage to finish in the top half of the table, but fell well short of last year when they concluded the campaign as runners-up.  After news surfaced that manager Cho Sung-hwan was to leave the club, the decision was reversed and he will return in 2019.  With no ACL on schedule next year, it will be a good opportunity for the islanders to focus all of their energy on the league in hopes of getting back to Asia in a year's time.  KLU's Branko Belan has a closer look at the positives and negatives from the 2018 season.

What Went Well

After a slow start to the season, in which they won only once in March, Jeju turned things around in April, winning four of six, including a 1-0 victory over Pohang Steelers at the Steelyard, their first in the league since 2015.  After a setback to Gangwon in early May, Jeju would go into the World Cup break unbeaten in three, and their position in the table looked solid.

Following a 3-2 away win to Suwon when league play resumed in July, Jeju sat second in the standings, and hopes were high that a repeat of last season could be possible.  In what was a back and forth affair, Kweon Han-jin netted a brace including a headed winner two minutes from time.

Jeju were also fortunate for the return of Kim Ho-nam to the team following the completion of his military service with Sangju Sangmu.  While having only played a full ninety minutes on five occasions this season for the military club, he was a fixture in Jeju's starting eleven when he returned in September.  With him posing a constant threat down the left side in attack, it opened up space on the pitch for others to find the back of the net, keying several late season wins for the club.  He will be an important player for Jeju next season as they try to return among the Asian football elite after a disappointing campaign in 2018.

What Didn't Go Well

Following a disastrous ACL campaign earlier in the year, Jeju had a horrible summer, and it cost them a place in next year's Champions League.  But, the root of the problem lay in the fact that they didn't do enough to bolster the squad over the winter, and their two main signings, Tiago Marques and Roberson had done little to contribute to the club's fortunes.  In fact, the latter appeared all of six times for Jeju this season, scoring only once.

After the win over Suwon, the islanders would have to wait until September to get their next win, a narrow 1-0 success over Jeonnam at home.  Over the course of their fifteen match winless streak, they conceded a total of twenty-five goals, while scoring only twelve, with the worst results being a 3-0 loss to FC Seoul in early August, and a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of league champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in mid-September, both away from home.

What was perhaps most problematic about Jeju's season was the lack of a tactical focus from Cho because of a tendency to over-rotate players from week to week, taking away from the club's consistency which had begun to be cemented in the first half of the season.  It was reported initially that Cho would step down, but after Jeju were assured of finishing in the top six, it was then reversed and he will be back with the club again next season.  He will have a lot of work to do if he is going to get back to the brand of football that made Jeju one of the highest scoring clubs in the K League in 2017.

Young Player of the Year

Jeju's best young player this year, at least toward the end of the season was Lee Eun-beom.  He showed good potential as an attacking player, and could be a good option off the bench next year.  He showed great pace in the attacking third and was able to open up spaces for his teammates to create scoring chances which led to some key late season wins.  If Jeju go the youth route next year, Lee is definitely one in the mix for more playing time.  Jeju failed to display the brand of football which made them one of the most feared offensive teams in the league the past two seasons.  If he is given more time on the pitch, it would definitely help the club diversify their options up front.

Team MVP

The most valuable player for Jeju this season could only be one man - goalkeeper Lee Chang-keun.  Had it not been for his sixteen clean sheets, good for second in the league, Jeju could have been fighting off relegation come the end of the season.

He entered the 2018 campaign as a very much unheralded name, but the 25 year-old more than proved his worth throughout, earning a clean sheet against FC Seoul in the final round of the regular season, to put Jeju into the top half, and then three consecutive in the Championship Round against Jeonbuk, Ulsan, and Suwon to close out the season, despite having to make several critical saves to preserve slim margins (and imminent defeat against Jeonbuk), at a time when United still had a slim outside chance of qualifying for Asia.

Most Disappointing Player

Jeju's back line was very unstable this season for long stretches, and the player most responsible for that was Kim Won-il.  After his sending off for a second yellow card against Guangzhou Evergrande in the ACL on Matchday Four, he did not feature in the remaining two fixtures.

His K League form did not fare much better, as he was the culprit in several of Jeju's losing performances this season.  On top of that, he was suspended twice for accumulation of yellow cards, and was not named in the squad for the final five matches of the regular season.  It could warrant his leaving the club over the winter, but there is doubt as to if there would be any teams willing to take him, as teams are looking to younger players to add depth to their ranks.  At 32 years of age, there is little he has left to offer, and, with the emergence of Park Jin-po, and the return of Aleksandar Jovanovic late in the campaign, the thought is that Kim would be a liability to the team more than anything else.

Most Important Decision of the Off-Season

Jeju struggled badly in the goals department this season, counting only 41 in the league in 38 matches.  Tiago did improve as the season progressed, as he did score in some big matches when it mattered most, but it was a far cry from what Jeju has produced in recent years.

Magno Cruz scored seven goals in the league this season, down from twelve a year ago, but that is owing to the fact that he played in behind a single striker for most of the season.  Magno is still a very good player with sound instincts in front of goal, but he wasn't utilized effectively, resulting in a downturn in his production.

Jeju have to consider what needs to be done to make the team stronger.  With the exception of bringing in Kim Sung-ju in the summer transfer window, little changed from a season ago, while teams around the league got better.  If they are to compete with the top clubs next season, they need to go back to the formula which saw them scoring for fun at times over the past two years.  They need attacking power, and perhaps one more piece in the midfield as a distributor to get opposing nets bulging again on a regular basis.

This season proved beyond doubt that the current squad is not capable of challenging for a title or silverware of any kind, much less a place among the best on the continent.  They will have to be busy in the coming months if they want to come back as a more competent side in 2019.

The K League United Podcast

The latest edition of The K League United Podcast takes a look back at the K League 1 season in full with the help of a number of our website's knowledgeable columnists. You can listen to the episode in full below, or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts or TuneIn Radio. You can also catch the show on Football Nation Radio, every Thursday at 5pm Sydney Time (3pm KST).

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