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2019 Season Preview: Jeonnam Dragons

For the first time in their 25 year history, Jeonnam Dragons will start the K League season in the second division after being relegated from K1 in 2018. With a number of familiar faces staying on despite interest from K1 clubs, an immediate bounce back may not be as unfathomable as originally thought. 

Last Season

8W 8D 22L | 12th place and relegation from K League 1

What Happened?

2018 started with a bang as the Dragons pulled off an extremely rare win at Suwon Bluewings playing a comprehensive and tactically adept brand of football unseen in previous years. Unfortunately the bottom fell out quickly as the rest of K1 adapted to their new style of play and Jeonnam failed to adjust. Up front, the attack desperately missed 2017 leading scorers Jair and Róbert Feczesin and their 26 combined goals with no true replacements to be found. Heo Yongjoon led the way with nine, but no Jeonnam player managed double digits and the back line paid the price. Without a true threat up top, the defense was left scrambling to cover massive gaps all over the field and was routinely picked apart due to a lack of coherence or communication. With a league-worst 69 goals against and a staggering -26 goal difference, it came as no surprise that Jeonnam were the team automatically relegated to K League 2 at the end of the season. 

Notable Moves

After finishing dead last with the worst defensive record, Jeonnam's front office has predictably gone after defensive help and largely done well in their efforts. Goalkeepers Park Junhyuk and Lim Minhyeok join from Daejeon Citizen to challenge the returning Lee Hoseung for the number one spot; a competition that may well produce K2's best goalkeeping core. Veterans Lee (29) and Park (31) will presumably get the lion's share of minutes, but should the Dragons decide to focus on youth, giving 24-year-old Lim Minhyuk the majority of the starts could be a good way to build for the future. Regardless of who wins the competition, Jeonnam should have confidence in the man between the sticks.

In addition to the improved goalkeeping competition, former Melbourne Victory defender Nick Ansell was also brought in as a James Donachie replacement with the latter's loan spell ending. The 25-year-old Ansell won the double with Melbourne taking home the 2014/2015 A-League title and 2015 FFA Cup and should provide a championship pedigree sorely lacking from Jeonnam last season. He's struggled with injuries in the past, so hopefully the training staff is up for the challenge of keeping him on the field.

Perhaps more notable than any imports is the fact Jeonnam managed to keep so many of their promising players. 2018 leading goal scorer Heo Yongjun made the move to Incheon United, but several other leading men stayed on. None more important than midfield dynamo Kim Youngwook, who could have easily made a move to stay in K1. Additionally, Lee Seulchan signed a new deal, Han Chanhee will continue his development with Jeonnam, and Vedran Jugović has stayed in spite of rumors he was set to depart for another Korean club. With an above average midfield remaining and defensive reinforcements brought in, Jeonnam are unlikely to have the same defensive woes this year, but several questions remain up top as the end of the transfer window draws near.

Key Player

Coming into his tenth season with Jeonnam and playing the role of vice captain, this is unequivocally Kim Youngwook's team to guide back to the first division. Alongside Jugović and Han Chanhee, Kim Youngwook was a constant in the Dragons midfield and shined in a more advanced role in 2018. He led the team with 71 crosses, was second in passing, and contributed three goals and two assists as well. Not exactly gaudy numbers, but when considering he was also third in interceptions and second in tackles, his role becomes much more clear.

As the heartbeat of the midfield (and team for that matter), Kim Youngwook has become the leader Jeonnam needs by putting others ahead of himself. He's not likely to lead the team in too many categories, but his ability to pick out key passes and do the dirty work off the ball ensures that several other teammates can fight for the top stats. Although veteran Choi Hyojin is officially taking the armband back, he's not likely to get nearly as many minutes as Kim Youngwook and therefore the captaincy will likely remain with the midfielder for most of the season. More than any other year, this is Kim's chance to prove himself as a leader and steer the team in the direction he feels it needs.

In a more tangible sense, Youngwook will be key to Jeonnam's attack this season as the main man on set pieces. Still without an out and out goal scorer, set pieces in advanced positions remains the Dragons' best opportunity to put the ball in the back of the net, and it's a role he led the way in last year. His open play vision has translated well into dead ball situations and he's one of the best on the team at picking out teammates in dangerous positions. He'll need to be even better than he was in 2018 if Jeonnam's going to challenge for promotion. But if his trajectory of the past few years is any indication, then he should be fine.

Young Player to Watch

Returning for his fourth professional season with the club at just 21-years of age, Han Chanhee is unquestionably the young player to keep an eye on this year. A 1,000+ minute starter from the age of 18, Chanhee emerged as the engine of the Dragons attack last year and despite the lack of output from the forwards, had a solid season growing into the role. A starter in 27 of the Dragons 38 matches, he surpassed the 2,000 minute mark for the first time and led the team with 1,278 passes, 60% of which moved the ball forward. For a team that struggled in the first and final third, it was extremely important to own the middle of the pitch and Han not only helped maintain control there, but also advanced the ball at a nearly league leading rate (Jeju's Kwon Soonhyung led all midfielders at 64%).

Along with starting the majority of Jeonnam's attacks, Chanhee also contributed directly with six assists in 2018, a mark good enough for 7th in K1. His ability to read the game and pick out key passes helped him on the defensive side of the ball as well where his 39 interceptions tied him for the team lead with the more defensive midfielder Jugović. Regardless of how far up the pitch he plays, Han Chanhee has proven to be a versatile and key component to the Dragons and watching him further grow into that role is worth the price of admission in and of itself. 

Biggest Question

Can they challenge for promotion?

Heading into the off season, Jeonnam seemed primed for a fire sale that would fund the club for years and allow them to focus on developing youth. However, a surprising number of the team's core stayed on and may be enough K1 talent to push Jeonnam into the playoffs in their first season in K2. While they seem to have shored things up defensively, the biggest question mark for a promotion challenge centers around the piecemeal strike force. Perhaps playing against second division defenses will help turn some of the numerous chances Jeonnam created last year into goals, but only time will tell. Either way, Brazilian Wanderson De Macedo is going to need to step up and be more of a threat around goal in his second season with the club. There are a lot of pieces in place for the Dragons to immediately bounce back, now it's just a question of whether or not newly appointed manager Fabiano Soares Pessoa can put all of them in place to make it happen.

Reason to Watch

Because it's fun to cheer for an underdog. Even as a first time team in the second division, the Dragons are a small team from a small town with a small budget. However, they have one of the best midfields in the second division and plenty of other talented players that may be able to pull together and be better than the sum of their parts. With almost nothing to lose and less pressure on them to stay up, this might be one of the most carefree and enjoyable seasons for Jeonnam in a long time. 

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