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2019 Season Preview: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

2019 K League 1 Season Preview: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

The reigning K League champions return under new management after the departure of long-serving head coach Choi Kang-hee. Newly-appointed José Morais has a lot to do in order to live up to his predecessor but, having kept most of the squad who won the division at a canter in 2018 whilst strengthening considerably in the winter, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors are once again well-positioned to retain their title.

Last Season

W26 D8 L4, 1st

What Happened?

With a team brought together for a bid at reclaiming their AFC Champions League crown, Jeonbuk's squad, boasting both envious quality and depth, walked the division mostly unopposed, finishing the campaign in first place and a whopping twenty-one points ahead of second-placed Gyeongnam FC. Both their average points and goals tally per game broke K League records and the club became the first side to wrap up the league before the split.

However, while their title may have proved impressive, Jeonbuk were unable to progress on the continent, crashing out on penalties to bitter rivals Suwon Bluewings at the quarter-final stage. As one of the favourites for the competition, it was disappointing for both the board and fanbase given the pre-season investment and strong domestic performances.

The season ultimately ended on a bittersweet note for Jeonbuk fans, as their long-serving manager Choi Kang-hee called time on his long tenure at the club. Having won all but two of Jeonbuk's honours throughout their history, his farewell was naturally met with sadness but the final day allowed for plenty of celebrations in honour of Korea's most successful club manager.

Former Barnsley manager and Jose Mourinho assistant, José Morais would be announced as Choi's replacement towards the end of the season, boldly proclaiming upon his arrival in January that his aim was to win a treble whilst at the helm. With the club retaining half of their coaching staff under Choi, including assistant manager Kim Sang-sik, in addition to nearly all of the squad, it seems the Jeonbuk board are hoping to minimise any teething issues as they transition into this new era.

Read the full 2018 season review here.


Notable Moves

Kim Min-jae: While most players from last season have stayed, the notable outgoing is the departure of 22-year-old Kim Min-jae. The centre-back made the switch to Beijing Guoan in January for an estimated $6 million, one of the highest fees ever received for a K League player. While the player's departure will undoubtedly be felt at the club, Jeonbuk had already moved to find a more-than-capable replacement in 26-year-old Kim Min-hyeok from Sagan Tosu.

Moon Seon-min: The left-winger's arrival at Jeonbuk from Incheon United attracted much controversy and ire from the Incheon faithful, with many criticising the motives for his move. Moon has cost Jeonbuk both a transfer fee and centre-back Lee Jae-sung, but in return, they are receiving a player who bagged fourteen goals for a relegation-threatened side, and also the highest tally for a Korean player last season. Having claimed that this switch was to test himself, Moon's first challenge he faces will be to establish himself in a team bursting with talented players who wish to prove their worth to their new manager.

Han Seung-kyu: The attacking midfielder's transfer from Ulsan Hyundai was somewhat of a coup for the Jeonju-based side. Han is the reigning Young Player of the Year and has likely been recruited to fill the void left by talented midfielder Lee Jae-sung last summer. Having featured regularly for his former club and proved pivotal to their attacking movement, it seems likely he will be used in a similar capacity at his new home in Jeonju.

Key Player 

Ricardo Lopes: Last summer saw the Brazilian winger sign a three-year extension to his contract at Jeonbuk on the back of impressive performances. Like club legend Leonardo, Lopes is an attack-minded winger posing a constant threat and capable of brilliance when it is needed most. His fiery temperament does make him vulnerable to the occasional booking, yet to curb this passion would be to nullify the drive of the player and the positive impact he has on this Jeonbuk team. Featuring in last year's best eleven, Lopes found the net on thirteen occasions as well as assisting six goals, further endearing him to a supporters base already in adoration of him. It will be players like him that will prove key in the successful managerial transition Jeonbuk are set to undertake.

Young Player to Watch

Song Beom-keun: Whilst Han Seung-kyu is the K League's reigning Young Player of the Year and more than worthy of your attention, young goalkeeper Song Beom-keun looks set for a greater challenge after an impressive debut season for the champions. Bought initially as a backup, Song capitalised on a number of mistakes from the goalkeepers ahead of him in the pecking order, claiming a first team spot by the end of March and going on to obtain the highest number of clean sheets in the division. Success at the Asian Games has also led to military exemption and the prospects of a career overseas but first, he must build on these promising foundations. Jeonbuk signed experienced goalkeeper Lee Beom-young in the off-season with Song set to understudy. However, Lee picked up a ruptured Achilles tendon in his first training session with the club and will be out of action until July. While unfortunate, it means Song has once more been handed an opportunity to cement his place at the club. It will be interesting to see if he can take it.

Biggest Question 


Can José Morais finally enjoy success as a manager?

The Korean media has been very committed to focusing on José Morais' success as an assistant manager to José Mourinho at Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea, yet less keen to shed light on his actual record as a manager. Morais' recent appointments have seen him return concerningly low win ratios and even a relegation, resulting in his tenures rarely lasting more than half a season. His tactical experiments in his disastrous stint at Barnsley FC last season drew much ire from their support, with the drop to English League One looking almost inevitable as he deemed the prospect of relegation as "not a failure".

Admittedly, Jeonbuk is a very different proposition given the gulf in resources available when compared to the domestic competition. With key players and coaching staff also staying and assisting in the transition, Morais and his career could hugely benefit from doing very little for the most part. It will be in the AFC Champions League, however, where a spotlight will be shone brightest on his abilities. Failure to progress from what looks set to be a very tricky group will be unwelcome, especially given the increased investment from the board to try and reclaim their continental crown. Morais will be unable to point to a lack of resources available to him this time, and significant underachievement with one of Asia's biggest clubs would perhaps put the nail in the coffin of an underwhelming managerial career.

Reason to Watch 

Normally, the biggest draw of Jeonbuk is their attacking talent and drive going forward. The club regularly names a substitute bench that would all start for most teams in the division and the eleven selected usually deliver entertainment. However, this year is different. Perhaps the biggest draw for the neutral this season is to see how the club performs under new management. There were always doubts from some quarters that during Choi's tenure that he merely benefited from having the strongest squad in the division. Whilst that is somewhat harsh on the former manager, that theory will now be put to the test under the leadership of José Morais. Will their success continue or are they set to create an opportunity for their title rivals to benefit from?


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