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2019 Season Preview: Ulsan Hyundai

Ulsan Hyundai will begin the new season full of hope and expectations as manager Kim Do-hoon has used the transfer window to improve an already exciting squad. The Southeastern giants, nicknamed the Horangi (Tigers), will be hungry to get their hands on silverware again after losing the FA Cup final last season, and look to be in a strong position to challenge for the K League title.

Last Season

3rd place -  W17 D12 L9   

What Happened?

The positivity around the club was palpable going into the final weeks of the 2018 season, thanks to the entertaining approach Ulsan adopted throughout the campaign. But, as the saying goes "the more things change, the more they stay the same". Despite being second highest scorers in the league, thanks mainly to the inspired signing of Junior Negrao, Ulsan finished just a point and a place better off than in 2017, but minus the silverware, thanks to a forgettable display in the FA Cup final.

There are signs though that Kim Do-hoon's side are going to be a force to be reckoned with in 2019. They may have been pipped to the runners-up spot by surprise package Gyeongnam FC, but finishing third was still enough for a place in the Asian Champions League. The Horangi have also had an impressive offseason, attracting some quality players while keeping most of their already talented squad in place. Looking back, the Ulsan faithful may ultimately see 2018 as the transitional year that paved the way for the successes of 2019 and beyond.

Notable Moves

IN

Kim Bo-kyung (Attacking Midfielder)

In one of the biggest moves this winter, former Cardiff City and Jeonbuk midfielder Kim Bo-kyung has returned to the K League on loan, after his current employers Kashiwa Reysol were relegated to Japan's second tier. The signing is seen as quite the coup for the Tigers, as Kim has the experience and quality to light up any game with his uncanny ability to find the right pass at the right time. The link up with strikers Junior and Joo Min-kyu could be explosive.

(Kim Bo-kyung made an impressive debut in the ACL playoff victory over Perak FA)

Dave Bulthuis (Centre back)

The 28-year-old Dutch defender arrives from Heerenveen with something of a hard man reputation.  He certainly isn't afraid of a tackle and has shown during his time at Nuernberg and Utrecht that he is just the kind of player needed when backs are against the wall. This may spill over into the odd reckless challenge, but if Bulthuis can adapt to the less physical style of the K League while using his experience to dominate opposition attackers, then Ulsan may have found the ideal replacement for fan-favourite Richard Windbichler.

Joo Min-kyu (Attacker)

K League fans may be forgiven for forgetting about the former Seoul E-land striker, as he had a very quiet 2018 by his own standards. Injuries meant that Joo started just eight times last year while completing his military service at Sangju Sangmu. But his record of 54 goals between 2015 and 2017 was still enough to land him a move to one of the K League's big boys. The 28-year-old will most likely play second fiddle to Junior, but his physical style and aerial ability will hopefully mix things up in an attack that was, at times, over-reliant on the Brazilian marksman.

OUT

Han Seung-kyu (Attacking Midfielder)

In the only real disappointment of the transfer window, as far as Tiger's fans are concerned, last year's Young Player of the Year has moved to top-of-the-table rivals Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. Han made a total of 40 appearances in two seasons with Ulsan and caught the eye of K League fans with a couple of fantastic strikes against FC Seoul and Suwon Bluewings. Although Kim Do-hoon does not lack options in the attacking midfield department, Han is sure to be missed, not only because of his technical ability, but also because of his U23 status.

Lee Jong-ho (Attacker)

A nightmare knee injury meant "Lee Jong-horangi" saw just over 90 minutes of first-team action last season. It is understandable then that the former Jeonnam favourite has been loaned out to regain his match fitness at J2 outfit Nagasaki V-Varen. Ulsan fans will hope he gets the first-team action he needs and will bring his trademark tiger claw celebration back to Munsu Stadium soon.

Lee Young-jae (Midfielder)

The diminutive midfield playmaker always found it hard to nail down a place in Ulsan's starting lineup. So after the arrival of Shin Jin-ho from FC Seoul, it was perhaps the right time for the academy product to move on. Lee moves to last year's runners-up Gyeongnam along with winger Kim Seung-jun. Both players will be remembered fondly at Ulsan for their breakthrough performances in the 2017 FA Cup triumph.

Key Player

Junior Negrao (Attacker)

I feel I have run out of superlatives to describe this shaven-headed sharpshooter. But the impact of his goal-scoring antics last season cannot be overstated. Junior took Ulsan from a team who scored just 42 goals in 2017 to one that finished 2018 as second highest scorers with 63. Had it not been for the incredible displays from Uros Deric and Marcao, he would have been nailed on for the Player of the Year award.

(Junior bagged 27 goals in 39 appearances last season)

And looking forward to 2019, Ulsan will need more of the same. Kim Do-hoon has made some excellent signings in midfield and defence, but he seems happy to rest most of the goal-scoring burden squarely on Junior's shoulders. Players like Hwang Il-soo, Joo Min-kyu, and new club captain Lee Keun-ho may all be capable of reaching double figures, but that is unlikely to be enough if Junior hits a rocky patch. I do expect the manager to use his Asian player slot to provide more back-up for his prize striker, but Ulsan will certainly need the 32-year-old Brazilian to stay fit and in form if they are to have a successful campaign.

Young Player to Watch

This really is anyone's guess at the moment, as Ulsan have put the emphasis on experience rather than youth these days. Last season's breakout star, Han Seung-gyu has moved on, while most other U23 players that saw first-team action in 2018 have been farmed out on loan. That leaves a new crop of youngsters with the opportunity to impress, especially early on in the season when Ulsan will have to balance both domestic and continental commitments.

I will have to stick my neck out on this one and go for Park Ha-bin. The 21-year-old local lad has been on the scoresheet several times during preseason and could see first-team action sooner rather than later. Park looks to be an attacking midfielder very much in the mold of Han Seung-gyu;  he's tidy in possession and arrives late in the box to seize on any loose balls and low crosses. If the youngster can come anywhere close to imitating the impact of Han last season, then Ulsan may have added an element of surprise to their already impressive attack.   

Biggest Question

Can they go the distance?

Expectations for this team are building, but there are still some lingering concerns. When the going got tough last season, the Horangi were often found wanting, especially against their top half rivals. In fact Ulsan gave up 19 league points from winning positions last season - including last-minute equalizers against Jeonbuk, Gyeongnam, and Suwon Bluewings. The fact they won just five games away from home all season (less than Gangwon and Sangju) but drew nine goes to show why they were unable to mount any kind of serious challenge to Jeonbuk. This coupled with the way they ran out of ideas in both the ACL loss at Suwon and the FA Cup final has led many to question whether the team can turn promise into success.

Kim Do-hoon has moved to address the problems of last campaign by adding a new-look central defensive partnership of Dave Bulthuis and Yun Young-sun. And all credit needs to go to the club who have yet again backed their man in the transfer window. In my opinion, Ulsan do now have the squad to compete, but it remains to be seen if Kim Do-hoon has the tactical nous needed to grind out results in when it comes to the crunch.

Reason to Watch

If anyone can rival Jeonbuk and their new, "interesting" managerial hire, then on paper it looks like it's going to be Ulsan Hyundai. They are blessed with pace, strength, and experience in all departments, and in US International Mix Diskerud they have one of the best playmakers in the league.

Ulsan also have the uncanny ability to be involved in late drama at both ends of the pitch, so if you do make it to Munsu stadium for a game, you are bound to a ding-dong battle right up until the final whistle. 

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