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2018 Season Review: Gyeongnam FC

2018 K League 1 Season Review: Gyeongnam FC

Gyeongnam FCs 2018 campaign was a truly remarkable achievement for everyone involved.  For a club that was returning back to the top flight of Korean football last season after suffering the heartache of relegation in 2014,  to finish second behind run-away leaders Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and to play an attacking brand of football was a colossal effort all around.  The Reds, as a result, will compete with Asia's elite in the AFC Champions League in 2019.

What Went Well

Gyeongnam, from the opening day, looked like they were still riding on the feel-good factor of promotion and beat the army outfit Sangju Sangmu 3-1.  Leading marksman Marcão really had a K League 1 debut to remember, scoring a hat-trick but then getting himself sent off for two bookable offences. Despite this, he really made the step up a division with ease. New key additions to the ranks in the winter included Negueba and Kunimoto.  The latter in particular really proved to be an astute signing.  His willingness to work for the team and his vision and passing range throughout the season was a joy to watch.  At only 21 years old, the Japanese wonder kid, had the ability to unlock any defence in the league.  Negueba started the season a bit hot and cold.  He had pace to burn and he would run for ninety minutes but his quality on the ball and his selfishness was without his question his downfall in the initial part of the season.  But, through sheer determination on his part, and with the coaching staff working with him, he turned his season around in great fashion.  Proving a major asset across the midfield all season, his link-up play with Marcão was scary at times.  Gyeongnam had an ability to score goals from anywhere on the pitch and the goals were spread all throughout the side.  Yes, of course, Marcão took home the golden boot with 26 goals but the rest of the team's goals were scored by a variety of players.  The spine of the team also stayed fit all campaign.  Starting from the goalkeeper in Son Jung-hyun, the center back mainstay in Park Ji-soo, central midfielder enforcer Choi Young-jun and Marcao up top.  With these players in the side week in week out The Reds really had a solid base to build around.

The manager Kim Jung-boo really rose to the challenge of pitting his wits against the league's best managers.  He was ruthless in changing things if things weren't to his liking on the pitch.  He often made changes at half-time, which mostly worked and helped the team in the second half.  He is a very animated gaffer and you can often see and hear him barking out orders to the players.  He can take this a step too far sometimes as he did serve a ban last season for his over exuberance in a game.  He has recently extended his contract with the club for another year until 2020.

The supporters came back and the overall vibe around the club was vibrant.  In the K League 2,  Gyeongnam would barely get 1,500 through the turnstiles and, on midweek fixtures, not even 1000 would come to watch.  Gyeongnam FC are not the biggest supported club in Korea by any means, but during our promotion campaign and last season the average attendances were well up and a lot of the old supporters that "went missing" for few years are suddenly attending games again.

What Didn't Go Well

It's extremely hard to pin point what didn't go well as, on the whole, the 2018 season was a raging success for Gyeongnam FC.  But if I were to say an aspect which concerned me, it would be a two month stretch from the start of April to the end of May where Gyeongnam only picked up two victories in that time frame and the side looked devoid of any ideas in the final third. The Reds were getting into a habit of conceding late goals in games which would cost them vital points.  I can in particularly remember an away midweek fixture at the Big Bird against Suwon Bluewings and it was like watching men against boys.  The Bluewings coasted home and won 3-1.  The so called "better" teams in the league had worked Gyeongnam out.  Basically, stop Marcão and the supply to him and you'll get joy in the game.  More players needed to start pulling their weight in the side.  Gyeongnam were a new beast to the league in March and no one knew what to expect. Teams had now done their homework and sides were proving to be much sterner opposition. Gyeongnam got thumped at home by a rampant Jeonbuk side as well during that lean spell.  The World Cup break proved a very timely intervention for The Reds at the end of May as it gave the management team and players time to reshuffle the pack and talk about what was going wrong within the ranks. This was proven when Gyeongnam really picked up their performances throughout the summer months and they went on an eleven game unbeaten run, winning nine of those matches and drawing the other two.

Young Player of the Year

This isn't even a close call. The aforementioned, 21 year old Japanese wonder kid Kunimoto by a distance.  The way he maneuvers the ball using both his feet can be mesmerizing at times.  While predominately left footed, he can pass just as accurately with both feet.  His dead ball delivery into the box was brilliant and his range of passes was a joy to behold.  He popped up last season with some very important goals, most notably away against Jeonbuk Motors in early August in a 1-0 win, and the all important winner to put The Reds into the Asian Champions League in the dying embers of the game versus Suwon Bluewings at home in a 2-1 success.

A special mention must go to 20 year old youngster Kim Joon-Beom who didn't look out of place in K League 1 at all, making 20 appearances  He looked very assured on the ball in the middle of the park and he scored the winner with a wonder strike from 25 yards up at Sangju in mid July.  He will only improve as he matures.

Team MVP 

All the media attention before the league got underway was on Marcão to see if he can have the same impact in K League 1 as he did last campaign.  The Brazilian certainly proved any doubters wrong by scoring 26 goals in 31 games, an astounding feat.  He missed eight games throughout the season due to various injuries and he was suspended for 3 games.  So to miss a total of 11 games and still score the number of goals he did is a colossal effort indeed.

Of note, he scored two goal of the season contenders.  His first was away against FC Seoul with a spectacular scissor kick from around the penalty spot for the opener in the game,  He also scored the winner in that game in a 3-2 away victory.  He only went and bettered that effort against Daegu FC a few weeks later, finishing a similar type of goal with it being a scissor kick but it was made all by himself.  A hopeful cross was swung in from the right from Kunimoto and from just inside the 18 yard box he stretched his 6ft 2 inch frame up in the air,  brought the ball down on this chest and, in one motion, swiveled and, using the scissor kick motion, smashed the ball into the bottom right hand corner of the goal.  His all round game was vital to how the team functioned in the final third,  The ball stuck to him like glue and his link up play with strike partner Kim Hyo-gi caused defences headaches up and down the country.  He was just as vital in his own penalty area defending set pieces when balls were being put into the box.  Rumors have since serviced that his performances have been noticed and a move to the Chinese Super League looks like it's on the horizon for him.  It will be a huge loss for the club if he leaves for pastures new.

Most Disappointing Player

Tough one this as everyone did their part throughout the season in some shape or form, but for Kim Shin the season just went from bad to worse for the player.  In the first five games he started in three of them and came off the bench for the other two.  In the three games he did start he was pulled off at half time in two of them. He only made nine appearances for the club in total.  He came to the club from Bucheon FC 1995 in the winter and he arrived wia th good pedigree having started his career at champions Jeonbuk before then playing in France for Olympic Lyonnais II for two seasons.  He came back to South Korea and plied his trade with now disbanded side Chungju where he really made a name for himself scoring 13 goals that season playing as an attacking midfielder, a very productive season for someone playing in that position.  Bucheon 1995 liked what they saw and picked him up for their 2017 campaign.  He always seemed to save his best performances in a Bucheon shirt for when he played Gyeongnam strangely.  Kim Jung-boo seemingly liked what he saw and The Reds signed him in the winter.  He just never lived up to his obvious potential last season, however.  He has tricks to his game and can see a pass but the club didn't see any of them in the colors of Gyeongnam unfortunately. He looked off the pace and he maybe needed to shed a few pounds if he wanted to push for a regular starting berth.  It's a shame as there is obvious talent in him.

Most Important Decision in the Off Season

The club are entering into a totally new chapter for everyone involved with Gyeongnam FC.  They have suddenly become a team people are noticing around Asia.  Who are Gyeongnam FC?  A small provincial team from the south of Korea with no real history to date and no trophies in our cabinet, bar the K League 2 winners plate in 2017.  It's whether the club can handle this pressure.  Can they now act like a "big" club and establish themselves on the map in Asia?

The Changwon Football Center where Gyeongnam FC play their home games is a beautiful football specific built stadium with a capacity of just below 17,000.  Surrounding the stadium you have four full-sized beautifully cut grass practice pitches and one under covered astroturf (3G) training facility.  The whole place screams of high quality and is something every successful sports team needs behind them. Gyeongnam FC has this in abundance.

On the field of play the team needs to keep the nucleus of the squad intact if they are to challenge in all three competitions.  Already captain Choi Young-jun has signed for Jeonbuk.  It's been heavily rumored that both key players in defender Park Ji-soo and talisman Marcão are pondering about moving to play in the Chinese Super League.  If they go, which they are touting as doing, these three simply have to be replaced.  But how can you replace a golden boot winner, your 26 goals a season center forward? Kim Jung-boo and his scouts need to bring in players to replace these three that can hit the ground running.  Gyeongnam FC's scouting system is one of the best around and they have a knack of unearthing and finding hidden gems in Korea and other leagues around the world.  The squad will have to be larger in size than ever before and it willll need to be rotated more than normal with the games coming thick and fast from early March.  With The Reds' ACL qualification certain this can only attract a better calibre of player to the club and can hopefully take them to that "next level".   Kim Jung-Boo and his staff are taking their squad away for a training camp in Guam this week, putting their players through their paces far away from the freezing weather we are now experiencing on the Korean peninsula. 

The K League United Podcast

he K League United Podcast took 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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