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2018 Season Review: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

2018 Season Review: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

A record-breaking domestic season offset continental heartbreak for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors as they strolled to their sixth K League title and sent their long-serving manager Choi Kang-hee out in style. Having left their closest opposition some way off the pace, there should be nothing but smiles around the club, yet there still remains a lingering sense of what might have been.

What Went Well

This season saw Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors win the K League 1 at a canter, even by their own lofty standards. Wrapped up with six games remaining, the North Jeolla side stayed hungry and went on to break their own highest points and goal tally, in addition to besting the league’s record point and goals per game averages (2.26 and 1.97 respectively), both previously held by the 2012 iteration of rivals FC Seoul. Finishing the year an impressive 21 points ahead of second place serves as both a confirmation of their superiority and a worrying indictment regarding the level of competition in Korea’s top flight.

Guided by long-serving, yet now outbound manager Choi Kang-hee, this year also saw the club handle a sizeable injury list, international call-ups and a return to three competitions, which was mostly taken in their stride. Even when the depletion of centre-backs was at its worst, a makeshift role for striker Kim Shin-wook helped ensure that the side held on. In a season in which the manager himself has said he has done very little, the management of the squad selection and player absentees should be applauded.

What Didn’t Go Well

Part of the reason for Jeonbuk’s domestic excellence was that this squad was assembled to reclaim the AFC Champions League trophy that they were unable to defend last year. With marquee signings in pre-season, the club were favourites for all three competitions yet they will see their quarter-final exit to Suwon Samsung Bluewings as a huge disappointment.

A disastrous first leg that saw the side concede three away goals without reply was somehow nearly rectified in the second leg when Jeonbuk were let off the leash and leveled the tie back in Suwon, yet a penalty shootout, something that Jeonbuk rarely face, would lead to heartbreak and ensure that this would be the biggest letdown for the team, even if their spirited comeback rounded the edges somewhat.

Although not targeted to the same extent, Jeonbuk also crashed out of the FA Cup to second division opposition for the third season running, losing to eventual K League 2 Champions Asan Mugunghwa. While admittedly the side was weakened to deal with fixture congestion, the half-hearted resistance to the police side once again makes it appear as if this cup is rarely on the club’s radar, which is a shame as the fans would undoubtedly like to see their side compete admirably on every front.

Young Player of the Year

Jeonbuk sent three players to the Asian Games in the summer, with them all earning gold and subsequent military exemption. While Kim Min-jae is undoubtedly fantastic, and Jang Yun-ho a known and reliable entity, the pick of those three should really go to goalkeeper Song Beom-keun.

While Song did not exactly have the best of performances at that tournament, in a Jeonbuk shirt he has excelled. At the start of the season, much was made about the lapses of the two goalkeepers ahead of him in the queue, Hong Jeong-nam and Hwang Byeong-keun. Song had been brought in during the off-season at the age of 20, having recently played between the sticks for Korea in the U20 World Cup the summer prior.

All three goalkeepers were handed starts during the first two months but, after victory against FC Seoul, manager Choi Kang-hee publicly stated that he would choose Song Beom-keun as his first choice for the season. It was a huge step for a player with no professional experience prior to this year, but the manager does seem to have a track record in this department, having previously entrusted crucial first-team roles to youngsters Lee Jae-sung, Kim Min-jae and, perhaps more relevantly, goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae.

Song did not disappoint, collecting 19 clean sheets for the year in 28 league appearances, made all the more noticeable when his elder understudies had to fill in during his spell at the Asian Games for a month, conceding almost half of Jeonbuk’s goals for the season and seeing them out of the FA Cup and effectively the Champions League by the time he returned. While having a strong defence in front of him certainly helps, it is also reciprocal, with those ahead of him being able to depend on the youngster to deliver if required.

Team MVP

Having spent around half of 2017 injured, despite it being his first season with the club, right back Lee Yong came into this campaign with a point to prove. By the close of this season, he had not only made his case for being one of Jeonbuk's strongest talents but also had found himself on the K League's MVP nominations list, a rarity for a defender in recent years. Lee Yong not only made 11 assists in the league but found himself with the most crosses and the third highest number of key passes in the division. He also led for tackles and placed fourth highest for interceptions, showing his nomination was not just in recognition of his ventures forward.

It has been a remarkable comeback for the player when a solid season would have sufficed. He has shown leadership as well, providing a calming presence in was an often altered Jeonbuk backline. This campaign has also seen him return to the national team fold and put in some solid displays for his country during the World Cup. Korean national team manager Paulo Bento will be hoping that he will be able to replicate his domestic form in January's Asian Cup.

Most Disappointing Player

Sadly a lot was expected of Tiago when he was signed in January, with lofty hopes of him filling the void created by the departure of club legend Leonardo the season prior. In his defence, he was rarely given a run of starts, but this also seemed down to his own inconsistencies. With the manager’s known ruthlessness in his pursuit for victory though, the winger was always going to be expected to deliver in a short period of time.

With Choi Kang-hee leaving at the end of this season, Tiago may choose to stay and see if he can curry favour with inbound manager Jose Morais instead. The player does have undeniable talent but is clearly needing the game time to return to level he achieved during his previous stint in the country. However, given that he was absent for many of team’s final squads this season, it would be perfectly understandable if he chose to look for pastures new in the winter.

Most Important Decision in the Off-Season

Outbound manager Choi Kang-hee says farewell to veteran striker Lee Dong-gook on the final day of the season.

Arguably, the most important decision has already been made by the club. Long-serving manager Choi Kang-hee has been replaced by Portuguese manager José Morais on a two year contract and the team will now look to transition to a new era. While Morais has powerful friends in football having assisted Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea, his individual managerial record leaves a lot to be desired, with the coach unable to hold down a long-term position or garner success at nearly all his previous positions. Jeonbuk is also his third club of 2018, having underperformed at both Barnsley and Karpaty Lviv.

Concerningly, going by the club's statements, Jeonbuk appear to have appointed Morais based on his high profile assistant roles, something that his other clubs have previously done to their detriment. Early transfer speculation does suggest the board still have some grip on the wheel, however, with rumoured signings very much matching previous Jeonbuk transfer behaviour (ie. Young and military exempt).  Also, given how far ahead of the pack Jeonbuk ultimately finished, it would also require a spectacular misstep to tank this club, but there should be a great deal of trepidation in North Jeolla about what the future holds.

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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