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2018 Season Review: Suwon Bluewings

2018 promised much for the Gyeonggi based giants, but despite a couple of highlights, the year ultimately disappointed, as the Bluewings stumbled their way to one of the worst points totals in their history. Their failure to seal Champions League football in 2019 will hit the club financially and new manager, Lee Lim-saeng, must now preside over the ashes of the blaze created by the board and the outgoing manager, Seo Jung-won. 

What Went Well

Despite having a horrific campaign in the league, Suwon did embark upon an epic run in the ACL, a run which took them within minutes of making the final itself. A roller coaster campaign, in which they escaped elimination by the skin on their teeth, on several occasions, will forever live on in the minds of the supporters, if not only for those legendary penalty saves by Shin Hwa-yong.

Suwon, despite not having the most talented squad in the competition, defied logic again and again, and their fighting spirit and never say die attitude was the one defining character that saw them progress so far.

An unlikely victory away to eventual champions, Kashima Antlers, on the final match day of the group stage, saw them defy the odds and make the knockout stages. A 1-0 loss in the first leg of their round of 16 tie against Ulsan didn't scare them, and they came back to win the tie 3-1 on aggregate.

Suwon, with the help of their supporters, conspired to lose their manager the day before the huge quarter final against Jeonbuk, only to go on and miraculously win the game 3-0. In the second leg, Jeonbuk mounted an unstoppable wave of attack and the K League champions looked poised to win the tie, when Adriano was awarded a penalty in stoppage time, only for Shin Hwa-yong to save and force the game into extra time. As the game plodded it's way to penalties, with the likes of Lee Dong-gook, Kim Shin-wook and Adriano in the Jeonbuk lineup, not many people gave Suwon a fighting chance, but they still prevailed, thanks to the inspired performance of Shin.

Suwon played out a topsy-turvy semi-final with the imperious Kashima Antlers and took a 2-0 lead in the first leg, only to shoot themselves in the foot, conceding three, with Kashima scoring a last minute winner. And most people thought that the semi-final was finished when Kashima scored early on in the second leg. But a scorching assault on the Kashima goal saw Suwon rise from the canvas once more, to score three and lead the semi-final on aggregate. They came within touching distance of making the final, but a Kashima goal in the 82nd minute sealed their fate.

The sheer drama created in those games will never leave a single soul that witnessed them and although they ultimately failed, the squad briefly brought some pride back to a fan base who deeply needed it.

What Didn't Go Well

Just about everything, besides from that run in the ACL, went wrong for Suwon and despite being tipped as potential title challengers, their final position of 6th is only the second worst finish by the club since the format of the league changed in 2013.

The season began with hope and the exciting signings of Lee Ki-je, Lim Sang-hyub, Waguininho and Dejan Damjanovic hinted that big things were to come from the Bluewings. By the time spring had come around Suwon were sitting comfortably in second place and were still within touching distance of Jeonbuk. But some poor squad management by Seo Jung-won led to a flurry of losses and Suwon quickly lost pace with the eventual champions.

With only five league wins throughout June, July and August, the pressure mounted on Seo Jung-won, and after a game in which the Suwon supporters demonstrated their disapproval by not supporting, Seo resigned from his post. Unfortunately, Suwon's form under caretaker manager, Lee Byung-keun, didn't improve much and he won only two of his six games as manager until Seo, bizarrely, returned to the club in mid-October.

An end of season slump saw Suwon fail at the semi-final stage of the ACL and the FA Cup. The Bluewings only managed to take one point post-split and the club disastrously slipped out of contention for ACL qualification.

Young Player of the Year

One of the most disappointing aspects of Suwon's season has been the lack of any significant run in the team for any of Suwon's promising starlets. The foursome of Yoo Ju-an, Jeon Se-jin, Yoon Yong-ho and Kim Hyung-jun have all seen minutes this season but they all came sporadically over the course of the season. On the face of it, Jeon (692 minutes), Yoo (831 minutes), Yoon (249 minutes) and Kim (329 minutes) all got time to impress in the league but only Yoo Ju-an was given an extended run in the team at any one point.

Jeon Se-jin, in particular, has been the one stand out young player for Suwon in 2018. After scoring on his first league start, the 19 year old then scored in the next game making him one of the most exciting prospects in the K League. But, unluckily for the teenager, he was dropped completely from the match day squad when Suwon traveled to Jeonbuk for their next encounter, a misfortune that would continue throughout the youngster's season.

But when the winger was called into action for Suwon he consistently performed, bringing an extra edge to Suwon's lackluster attack. Jeon has pace and trickery in abundance, and he is one of the few players in the Suwon squad with the ability to take on opposition defences with his direct running, an attribute that was constantly ignored by Seo Jung-won.

Although he found playing time limited in a blue shirt, his performances for the Korean U-19 and U-21 national teams led to the teenager being part of a three man shortlist for the AFC Young Player of the Year and he later picked up the KFA's own Young Player of the Year award.

Suwon's lack of ACL football should mean that budgets will be tightened within the club next year and new manager, Lee Lim-saeng, may need to rely on that talented set of young players a little more in 2019. If he does just that, K League fans should get used to hearing the name Jeon Se-jin as it may well be making a few headlines next year.

Team MVP

The club's own player of the year award went to veteran Dejan Damjanoivc and it is hard to argue with that decision. The Montenegrin hit 27 goals and provided six assists for his teammates, and he was only one of two players to get to double figures in the goal scoring charts. Playing in front of a midfield that was often bereft of ideas, Damjanovic often found clear cut chances difficult to come by but his clinical finishing and accurate shooting ensured that Suwon probably finished further up the table than their performances warranted.

Damjanovic recently extended his contract at the club and will remain with Suwon until, atleast, the end of the 2019 season.

Most Disappointing Player

After such a dreadful season, there are a number of contenders for this crown. Lim Sang-hyub has had a woeful first season with the club and often looked completely lost in K League 1. But his spirited performances against Kashima Antlers in the ACL semi-final means that his time with the club might not be over just yet.

Brazilian right-back, Christovam, was the pick of the worst though and didn't even last a full year in Korea before jetting back to his native country. Arriving with a big reputation having helped Parana achieve promotion to the Primiera Liga, much was expected of the skillful right wing-back.

Christovam began the season well enough, even scoring against Kashima in late February. But it soon became evident that for all his attacking flair, he could not defend. Goal after goal was conceded down Suwon's right flank before the Brazilian eventually dropped out of the first team. He was later loaned out to Bucheon FC for the remainder of the season, where he didn't fair much better, and he has now returned to Brazil.

Most Important Decision of the Off Season

The biggest dilemma facing the new manager, Lee Lim-saeng, is what Suwon's identity should be. In the past, Suwon have always been known as a team famed for it's fast, attacking brand of football. But under the management of Seo, Suwon lost that identity. The former manager's insistence on his prized 3-4-3 formation left the Bluewings with an identity crisis. Under Seo, it has been difficult to pin down exactly what type of team Suwon were. Did they play defensively; did they play on the counter attack; did they attempt to play possession football? Rather than having any identity, Suwon were just a team of 11 professionals playing reactionary football, and that must now change under the new man at the helm.

How Lee intends to play remains to be seen, although most of his former teams have been more defensively minded. But whatever his strategy, he needs to identify it quickly and make plans to overhaul a squad that is filled with oddly matched types of players.

If Lee is to take a more defensive approach then he will need to invest in quicker and younger forwards than the ones that he currently has at his disposal. On the other hand, if Suwon are to play a more attacking brand of football, than they did last year, then fresh ideas in midfield will be needed, with Elvis Saric seemingly the only player capable of making a forward pass. And whatever Lee's footballing philosophy is, Suwon desperately need reinforcements in defence, particularly at right-back, an area in which they have struggled for years now.

It's a lot to ask of a board room who has failed so spectacularly with transfers over recent years and with cloth being cut at the club Lee may need to pull a rabbit, or two, out of his hat 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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