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2019 Season Preview: Jeju United

2019 Season Preview: Jeju United K League 1
Last year saw some positives as well as negatives for Jeju United.  The islanders managed to finish in the top six despite being mired in a winless run that stretched to fifteen matches following a win over Suwon Bluewings after returning from the World Cup break.  With some notable acquisitions in the off-season, and in particular Costa Rican international Elías Aguilar from Incheon United, there is optimism that the islanders will return to the offensive brand of football which made them one of the most explosive teams in 2016 and 2017.  KLU's Branko Belan looks ahead to the new K League 1 campaign, breaking down the new additions, key questions and much more.

Last Season

W14 D12 L12, 5th place

What Happened?

Jeju's fortunes finally started to take a turn in the right direction as they won four of six in April, including their first win at the Pohang Steelyard since 2015, after getting out of the gates slowly to start the season.  A victory over Suwon coming back from the World Cup break had them sitting second in the table, but then the wheels came off, as Jeju reeled off a fifteen match stretch in which they didn't win a single match in the league, and rumours of Cho Sung-hwan leaving the club began to swirl.

Autumn would present a different picture, as the islanders pulled out consecutive victories in the final three rounds of the regular season against Jeonnam, Gyeongnam, and FC Seoul to sneak into the top split.  However, despite three victories in the Championship Round to go with three clean sheets to close out the season, Jeju still fell short of gaining a place in the ACL, although Daegu's spectacular FA Cup win would have kept them out of the picture even if they finished in the top four.

Jeju's season could have completely went into the tank well before the end had it not been for goalkeeper Lee Chang-keun, who compiled a league second best sixteen clean sheets.  Having come into the season as a relative unknown, he proved time and again to be Jeju's best player last season, and will be counted on once more to mind the sticks as the islanders' number one in 2019.

2018 Season Review: here

Notable Moves

Elías Aguilar racked up 10 assists last term, the second highest in K League 1.
Elías Aguilar: The acquisition of Costa Rican international Elías Aguilar from Incheon United was one of the biggest early signings in the transfer window, and there is a lot of optimism that he could be the key to unlocking Jeju's offensive potential this year.  His ten assists ranked him second in the league in 2018.  He is skilled on the ball and links well in attack with the players around him, as he did with Moon Seon-min and Stefan Mugoša.

He is an offensively-minded central midfielder, and his presence could prove beneficial to Jeju perhaps changing tactics and going with two up top to add firepower in the final third, as they have been experimenting with during their training camp.

Jung Woo-jae: Jeju struggled defensively at times last season, so the addition of Jung Woo-jae from Daegu FC is a welcomed one.  Jung played over one hundred matches for the Sky Blues, including 32 starts in 2018, and was also named as the best defender in K League 2 in 2016.

He has a very high work rate, is dependable, tackles well, and is effective on the dribble.  His ability to play as a winger is something that Jeju will be sure to utilize in the best possible way, but they will have to wait a short while to make use of his services, as he is still not yet fully recovered from surgery on his ACL last November.  He is slated to return to action in early April, and will be an exciting piece of the puzzle for Jeju fans when he finally takes the pitch.

Yun Il-lok finished as K League 1's second highest assist maker in 2017.
Yun Il-lok: The former FC Seoul player joins Jeju United on loan from J League side Yokohama F. Marinos for the 2019 season.  He is regarded as a solid attacking player who could have a presence on the left side of Jeju's midfield this season.  He has previously won a Korean FA Cup and a league title with FC Seoul, so his winning track record will be a welcome addition to the squad.

His numbers in the league up to this point include 154 appearances with 24 goals and 26 assists.  With Yokohama last season, he featured quite a bit in the first half of the season, but was used only sparingly in the second half, and the hope is that he will catch form early on and become a notable contributor for the islanders.

Key Player

Magno Cruz: The 30 year old Brazilian center forward saw his numbers taper off a bit last season, as he found the net eight times, but 2019 has good things in prospect for him as he will be surrounded by a wealth of capable talent.

A big part of the reason for a slight decline in his output was due to the fact he was playing in behind a main striker in too many matches last season.  For him to be effective, it would be productive for Jeju to re-invent their tactical scheme to pair him with Tiago leading the line.

The midfield already is looking very solid with the return of Kim Ho-nam last season after his military service with Sangju Sangmu, the addition of Aguilar, and having Lee Chang-min back after a prolonged absence is sure to benefit the club as they look to return to their goal-scoring exploits of seasons past.

Magno Cruz (R) has been with Jeju since the 2017 season.
There is, however, one thing that cannot be underestimated - Magno has had a penchant for scoring critical goals for Jeju when they need it most.  His 65th minute winner in the Championship Round against Ulsan at Munsu last November is a perfect example.  With Jeju on the back foot almost the entire match and just managing to soak up pressure, it was Magno who latched on to a ball crossed into the box which fell kindly for him to put into the roof of the net from close range.  He still is an offensive threat, and needs to play his natural position to be most effective.

Young Player to Watch

Lee Eun-beom: The 23 year old center forward, who is also capable of playing on the wing, recorded nine total appearances last year.  Going into his third season with the club, he could see more playing time, but will be in competition with Kim Hyun for minutes off the bench.

If last season is any indication, there is a chance for him to be selected in early matches, as he saw action in three of Jeju's first four fixtures last season.  With strike options the likes of Magno and Tiago likely to take up the brunt of minutes, the best chance for Lee to crack the starting lineup would be as a wing player.

He did show at times last year that he is capable of putting good crosses into the box, and can play with speed box to box, but it is important for him to get minutes to improve his game.

Biggest Question

Will 2019 see the return of "Citrus Taka" to the island?

Jeju's overall goal tally was a paltry 42 in 38 league matches last season, a far cry from the previous two years, where they scored 60 in 2017, and 71 in 2016.  It certainly looks that Jeju have realized it would be detrimental not to address the issue, and have brought in new talent accordingly.

Jeju's team play could also benefit from a switch in tactics.  On paper, the team is too talented to play in a defensive shape, and with Tiago finding his range in front of goal in the latter half of the season, a second campaign in the K League will likely see him be much more productive.

With the likes of Aguilar, Lee Chang-min, Kwon Soon-hyung, Kim Ho-nam, and now Yun Il-lok in midfield, and players like Park Jin-po and newly acquired Jung Woo-jae to complement them, the islanders already look to be a squad the rest of the league will have to take notice of once proceedings get underway in March.

Cho Sung-hwan did not have the array of talent last season that he currently does; it will be interesting to see how he will utilize players and if the squad rotation will be a bit more balanced in comparison to last season.

A lot depends on how Jeju opens the season.  They play their first six matches away, and open their home schedule at Jeju Civic Stadium against defending champion Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on April 13th.  Seogwipo World Cup Stadium is in the midst of renovations, thus they will have to wait until early May when they host Gyeongnam, to finally set foot on home ground.  If they can weather the storm well enough, it could set the table for a special year.

Reason to Watch

The newly formed triumvirate of Aguilar, Magno, and Tiago is likely to produce some very entertaining football in 2019, and, with a solid supporting cast, another run at ACL could be in the cards.  When the team gathered early in the year before heading off to their first training camp in Thailand, Cho made it clear that the goal this year is to make a run at a title and qualify for Asia next season, saying that he would do everything possible along with the players to erase the disappointment of 2018.

Early news coming out of Thailand suggests that the team have been working with a variety of tactical sets, and judging by the bits of information being provided by the club, all players are actively involved and getting runs out to build chemistry and depth within the team.  If all manages to function cohesively, the goals, which seemingly dried up last season, should start coming in bunches once again.


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