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A Study: K League 1 Relegation History

Jeju United head into the last five matches of the season sitting bottom of the table. Only two teams have gone on to stave of relegation after propping up the K League 1 table heading into what was referred to as 'the split'. The 'Final Round' will begin on October 19th, and whilst those in 'Final Round A' will have eyes on silverware or those much-coveted AFC Champions League spots, for half of the teams in Final Round B, it's all about survival, and for Jeju United, history is not on their side. Editor Paul Neat takes a detailed look into the K League 1 relegation battle. 

Historically, the team which props up the table heading into the split has seldom been able to avoid the drop into the second division. Worryingly for Jeju United, only Gangwon FC in 2012 and Incheon United in 2018, have managed to do so. At present, and as the result of a 2-1 defeat to relegation rivals Gyeongnam FC in Round 33, the islanders are three points adrift of Incheon United in the relegation playoff place, but five points away from absolute safety. What can past K League 1 relegation battles tell us about Jeju, Incheon, and Gyeongnam's chances of survival?


Last Place

2012 Gangwon FC - Survived

Kim Hakbum took over midway through the 2012 season to help keep Gangwon in the first tier.
Promotion to K League 1 (then K League Classic) began in 2013 but relegation to the second tier was first introduced in 2012. Gangwon FC found themselves sitting bottom of the table heading into the split but, up until last year, were the only team to stave off relegation having found themselves in such a predicament. Gangwon were two points behind Sangju and Gwangju, who both had 27 points after 30 matches played in a 16-team league. The K League decided that Sangju Sangmu were to play in the second tier in 2013 regardless and so the army side, lead by Park Hangseo, boycotted the 'split rounds', and were relegated.

Gangwon, though, had an upturn in form and lost just one of their last five matches, and had a post-split record of seven wins, four draws and five losses from their 14-matches. The result of such form was a Gangwon side climbing to 14th, sitting four points above the drop zone. Gwangju were relegated, as too were Sangju.


2013 Daejeon Citizen - Relegated

The late Cho Jinho was appointed caretaker manager at Purple Arena and very nearly kept Citizen up.
In 2013 the K League Classic was 14-team league, and with the inception of the second tier, the K League Challenge, which was to be made up of 10 clubs, two sides from the top flight were to go down automatically and one, potentially, via the playoffs should the team which finished third-bottom lose to the K League Challenge winners. Much like in 2012, the post split schedule was each team facing one another two more times.

Heading into the split after 26 matches, Daejeon Citizen were just one point behind Gangwon in 13th, but six behind Daegu in 12th and eight behind Gyeongnam in 11th - the last team to completely avoid the relegation zone. Under the late Cho Jinho, Citizen picked up six wins and one draw from their last seven matches but headed into the split with two straight losses, and didn't start to pick up results until it was already too late. Citizen finished just five points from safety but, as valiant an effort as it was, the Purples were relegated and finished equal on points with Daegu (32) and just four behind Gangwon. Gangwon followed Daejeon into the second tier shortly after via the playoffs, losing to Sangju.

Post Split Record: WDWWWWLDLDLL

2014 Sangju Sangmu - Relegated

Key players such as Lee Keunho left midway through the season and Sangju were unable to avoid the drop.
In 2014, with a 12-team K League Classic (K League 1), the regular season was extended to 33 matches with the split taking up rounds 34 to 38 meaning that teams played just one more time against those in their respective half of the table. Sangju, becoming something of a yo-yo team having either been involved in a relegation battle or promotion race prior to 2016, were two points behind both Gyeongnam in 11th and Seongnam in 10th on 31 points.

The army team won just one post split match, drawing two and losing two and finished two points behind Gyeongnam and six behind Incheon in 10th. Seongnam went unbeaten post split with two wins and three draws and finished on 40 points, four above the playoff place and six above bottom. Gyeongnam went on to lose in the playoffs to Gwangju and were also relegated.

Post Split Record: WLDDL

2015 Daejeon Citizen - Relegated 

Daejeon Citizen players after an away defeat to Ulsan at the tail-end of the 2015 season.
A disastrous year for Daejeon Citizen saw the Purples suffer their second relegation in three years. Under Choi Moonsik, following the dismissal of Cho Jinho earlier in the campaign, Daejeon finished the regular season 11 points behind Busan in 11th and 22 points behind Gwangju in 10th. Post split Daejeon won two but lost their last three and finished bottom on a record low of 19 points, seven points behind Busan who failed to win a single post split game, and 23 points from safety. Busan then went on to lose to Suwon FC in the playoffs and were also relegated.

Post Split Record: LLLWW

2016 Suwon FC - Relegated

Despite the Suwon Derby win at Big Bird, Suwon FC were unable to survive their first season in the to flight.
Suwon FC's first and only stay in the top flight thus far was short-lived after going straight back down following a dramatic playoff triumph the year before. Prior to the split, Cho Dukje's side were two points behind Incheon in 11th and four points behind Suwon Bluewings in 10th and so were still in with a chance of staying up whilst also having the possibility of dragging cross-town rivals the Bluewings into the mire with them.

However, Suwon lost three, including the fourth Suwon Derby, and won just twice post split and so ended the season four points adrift of Seongnam in 11th and six points adrift of Incheon in 10th. Seongnam failed to pick up a single win post split, the only team in the bottom half to do so that year, with three losses and two draws, and lost to Gangwon in the playoffs.

Post Split Record: LWLWL

2017 Gwangju FC - Relegated

'Firefighter' Kim Hakbum was brought in but was unable to keep the South Jeolla side in K League 1.
After losing veteran striker Jung Jogook to Gangwon following a 20-goal season in 2016, Gwangju struggled for goals in his absence. Heading into the split Gwangju were 10 points behind Incheon and Sangju in 11th and 10th who were both on 33 points.

After the split Gwangju picked up two wins and a draw but lost twice and so finished five points from safety after both Sangju (11th) and Jeonnam (10th) failed to win a single split match. Incheon (11th) lost just one, drawing three before ending the season with a 2-0 win over Sangju and moved up to ninth. Sangju went on to win the playoffs versus Busan IPark and survive relegation, the first K League 1 team to win the Promotion/Relegation playoffs.

Post Split Record: LLDWW

2018 Incheon United - Survived

Incheon United players celebrate K League 1 survival in December 2018.
Perennial escape artists Incheon United became the first team since Gangwon in 2012 to avoid relegation, despite propping up the K League 1 table heading into the split rounds. Last season, the Durumi were two points behind 11th and three behind safety but ended up finishing ninth under the stewardship of Jørn Andersen who guided the Durumi to four wins from five post split. Said four wins came in succession including away wins over Gangwon, who finished 8th, and Gyeongin Derby Rivals FC Seoul.

Post Split Record: WWWWL

2019 Relegation Battle

The bottom four teams in K League 1 after 33 Rounds (image via KLeague.com)

Gyeongnam FC's win over Jeju United in Round 33 earned the Reds a five-point cushion over the automatic relegation spot, whilst Incheon's draw at home to Jeonbuk was enough to make it a three-point gap over last place and two points from safety. All three teams will compete in Final Round B and, based on results against the teams' previous encounters with teams in the current bottom half, the league table would look like this:

Gyeongnam FC   20 points
Incheon United    18 points
Jeju United          10 points

Head-to-Head Record

Incheon United      GS 7 GA 5 GD +2 Points 10
Jeju United             GS 7 GA 6 GD +1 Points 6
Gyeongnam FC      GS 7 GA 9 GD -2 Points 6

However, based on matches played between the three teams, Incheon would sit in 10th, Jeju 11th on goal difference, and Gyeongnam would be bottom of the table, despite the win over Jeju in Round 33. Interestingly, all three teams have scored seven goals against each other but Incheon have the best defensive record with just five goals conceded against their fellow strugglers.


Pre-split Relegation PO
Points difference between last and the Relegation Playoff before the split.
Pre-Split Safety
Points difference between last and safety before the split.
Post Split Relegation PO
Points difference between last and Relegation Playoff after the split
Post Split Safety
Points difference between last and absolute safety post split.

Historically, the average point difference between bottom and the playoff place is 5.5 points, Daejeon's 11 point difference in 2015 and Gwangju's 10 point gap affect the results and increases the average considerably. The average points difference between bottom and complete safety is 7.3 points but, again, this includes Daejeon's 22 point deficit in 2015 and Gwangju in 2017.

Taking into account the seasons where the gap between bottom and the relegation playoff place was in single digits only, as it is this season, i.e. 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2018, the average points difference is just three. Additionally, taking into account the seasons where the gap between bottom and absolute safety was in single figures only, i.e. 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2018, the average point deficit is 3.8. Incheon are two points from safety and so that statistic bodes well for the Durumi but Jeju are five points adrift and three points behind the the relegation playoff place. 

Although Incheon managed to finish 9th last season despite being bottom of the table, the deficit was only three points whereas Jeju have to make up a five-point gap. Bettering Incheon's record of four wins and one loss from last year may be the only way in which the islanders can avoid relegation. In 2012, 2016 and 2018, the gap between the bottom and absolute safety has been less than the five points which Jeju have to make up.

Relegation Playoff 

The relegation playoffs were introduced in 2013, and from that season up until 2016, it was the K League Challenge (K League 2) team which swapped places with their top tier counterparts by triumphing in the two legged Promotion/Relegation Playoff Final. This trend has since stopped as in 2017 Sangju Sangmu overcame Busan IPark on penalties, and also in 2018 when Busan IPark lost to FC Seoul 4-2 on aggregate over two legs. However, how many teams have been able to stave off relegation despite sitting in the relegation playoff place heading into the split? 

2013 Daegu FC - Automatic Relegation

Jo Hyeonwoo made 14 appearances in Daegu's 2013 relegation season.
Daegu FC were five points clear of the two automatic relegation places heading into the split but dropped to second bottom, despite a decent post-split campaign, and so were automatically relegated to K League Challenge (K League 2). Gangwon managed to narrow the five point gap and made it into the playoff place but lost to Sangju 4-2 on aggregate.

Post Split Record: DDDWLLDWDLDL

2014 Gyeongnam FC - Relegated via Playoffs

Lee Chaman (L) was in charge of Gyeongnam for just over eight months before departing in the summer of 2014.
Gyeongnam were level on points with tenth-placed Seongnam on 31 heading into the split but, after winning just one match post-split, a 3-1 home victory over Jeonnam Dragons, Gyeongnam were condemned to the dreaded promotion/relegation playoffs and lost 4-2 on aggregate to Gwangju.

Post Split Record: LLDWD

2015 Busan IPark - Relegated via Playoffs

Busan IPark were relegated in 2015 and are still seeking a return to the top division.
After two and a half years at the helm Yoon Sunghyo departed mid season allowing Denis Iwamura to take temporary charge. From 11 matches matches under Iwamura, Busan won just once and brought Choi Youngjun in to steady the ship. However, Busan knew that, given the 11-point gap between themselves and Gwangju in 10th, that the best the South Coast side could hope for was a playoff win.

IPark failed to win a single game post-split, losing three and drawing twice, and ended up 16 points adrift of safety. Busan became the first corporate-owned team to be relegated from the top tier following a 3-0 aggregate loss to Suwon FC and remain in K League 2 in 2019, seemingly set for a third attempt at promotion via the playoffs given the seven point gap behind K League 2 front runners Gwangju FC with just four matches left.

Post Split Record: LDDLL

2016 Incheon United - Survived 

Lee Kihyung took over in September 2016 following Kim Dohoon's departure to Ulsan.
Under caretaker manager Lee Kyung Incheon United were two points behind Suwon Bluewings in 10th heading into the split in 2016. However, a run of three wins, a draw and just one defeat post split lifted Incheon to 10th and into safety, the first team to avoid the drop despite sitting in the relegation playoff place. As a result of saving the club form relegation, Coach Lee was given the job on a permanent basis.

Post Split Record: WLWWD

2017 Incheon United - Survived

Lee Yunpyo made 32 appearances for Incheon in 2017 as the Durumi battled to avoid the drop.
For the second season in succession, United found themselves sitting in the relegation playoff place heading into the last five matches but were level on points with Sangju in 10th and Jeonnam in 9th. In 2017, only six points separated eighth from eleventh and so, after a win, three draws and just one defeat post split, Incheon moved up to ninth with Jeonnam dropping to tenth and Sangju occupying the relegation playoff place.

Lee Kihyung again saving Incheon but then left midway through 2018 due to the team's poor league position. Sangju went on to beat Busan IPark in the playoffs to become the first team to buck the trend of K League 1 teams going down via the playoffs.

Post Split Record: WDDDL

2018 Jeonnam Dragons - Automatic Relegation

Relegation was sealed following a home defeat to Daegu FC on 24th November 2018.
Incheon were at the foot of the table after Round 33 in 2018 and so this time it was Jeonnam Dragons who sat in eleventh but just one point from safety. Post split, Jeonnam lost all six matches and finished bottom of the table, eight points adrift of the relegation place. FC Seoul's final day defeat to Sangju meant that it was the three-time K League Champions who slipped into the relegation playoff place but stayed up thanks to a 4-2 aggregate win over Busan IPark.

Post Split Record: LLLLL


Only Incheon United have managed to avoid relegation despite sitting in the relegation playoff place heading into the split, a position which Yoo Sangchul's side currently find themselves in. Four out of the seven teams which have sat in the relegation playoff place heading into the split have gone on to be relegated. In the cases of Gyeongnam and Busan in 2014 and 2015 respectively, relegation came as the result of a playoff defeat. However, Daegu FC in 2013 and Jeonnam Dragons in 2018 both fell further in the table and were relegated automatically.

Based on their form in previous great escapes, Incheon would need to do what they have done for the past three seasons and lose just one of their five remaining matches and win between one and three of those five to ensure survival.

The Final Safe Spot

In 2019 Gyeongnam are sat in tenth heading into Final Round B, the last spot in the league which guarantees the South Coast side safety. History would suggest that the Reds are poised for a third successive season back in K League 1 as, other than Gwangju in 2012, every other team which has sat in the last place above the relegation places, has gone on to survive.

2012 Gwangju FC - Relegated

Lee Seunggi, now of Jeonbuk, made 40 appearances in Gwangju's 2012 relegation season.
Despite having players such as Lee Seunggi, Kim Eunseon, and Park Gidong, in 2012 Gwangju were sat in 14th in the K League table but level on points with Sangju Sangmu. Army team Sangju eventually boycotted the league following the decision to relegate them regardless, and two points above Gangwon in 16th (last). After Sangju's withdrawal, it meant that Gwangju were on the same number of points as the team in last place, Gangwon. Gangwon's post split record was better than Gwangju's and so the South Jeolla side ended up going down with a four point deficit.


2013 Gyeongnam FC - Survived

Lee Jaeahn (R), now of Suwon FC made the most appearances for Gyeongnam in 2013.
As is the case this season, in 2013 Gyeongnam were only two points clear of the relegation zone heading into the final round of matches. But, despite the upturn in form of Daejeon and Gangwon, the Reds managed to get over the line one point clear of the relegation zone.

Post Split Record: DDWLLWLWLLWD

2014 Seongnam FC - Survived

Hwang Uijo (L) in action for Seongnam away to FC Seoul in 2014.
In 2014 Seongnam FC were level on points with Gyeongnam, who occupied the relegation playoff spot, and two points above Sangju at the bottom of table heading into the split. An unbeaten run throughout the split with two wins and three draws moved the Magpies up a place to 9th but level with Incheon on 40 points, four clear of the relegation playoff place and six above Sangju at the foot of the table. Seongnam went on to win the FA Cup in 2014, beating FC Seoul in the final on penalties following a 0-0 draw.

Post Split Record: WWDDD

2015 Gwangju FC - Survived
Manager Nam Ki-il (R), currently of Seongnam, guided Gwangju to safety in 2015.
Gwangju were sat comfortably in tenth place heading into the split in 2015 thanks to an 11-point cushion over Busan in 11th and a 22-point chasm of a gap between themselves and Daejeon. Post split, Gwangju won just twice, lost twice and drew once to finish in tenth but 16 points clear of the relegation playoff place and 23 above Daejeon at the foot of the table.

Post Split Record: WLLDW

2016 Suwon Samsung Bluewings - Survived

Johnathan joined Suwon midway through the 2016 season and went on to score 10 goals in 14 appearances.
Much like Seongnam did in 2014, Suwon occupied tenth place heading into the split before going on to win the FA Cup on penalties, also against FC Seoul. The Bluewings found themselves in uncharted territory and in the midst of a relegation battle heading into the split after a poor start to the season. Seo Jungwon's men were just two points above Incheon in 11th and four points above cross-town neighbours Suwon FC at the foot of the table. However, post split, the Bluewings won three and drew two to finish in seventh on 48 points, five clear of Seongnam in the relegation playoff place and nine above Suwon in 12th. Interestingly, Suwon's 48 points was more than Jeonnam and Sangju who both finished in the Championship Round of the split on 47 and 43 points respectively.

Post Split Record: DWWWD

2017 Sangju Sangmu - Survived (Playoffs)

Joo Minkyu's finished the 2017 as Sangju's top scorer with 17 league goals.
Sangju were level on points with Incheon in 11th place but had a superior goals-scored record with 36 compared to 28. Sangju's post split form did not improve, losing three and drawing twice to see them drop into the relegation playoff place. However, victory over Busan IPark on penalties kept the army side in the division. Sangju became the first team to have dropped into the relegation zone from safety post split since Gwangju in 2012.

Post Split Record: LLDLD

2018 Sangju Sangmu - Survived

Yoon Bitgaram (C) in action against FC Seoul on the final day of the 2018 season.
For the second year running, Sangju were embroiled in a relegation scrap. But, heading into Round 34, Sangju had a one-point lead over Jeonnam and a three-point lead over Incheon. Sangju stayed in 10th thanks to a 1-0 win over FC Seoul on the final day of the season. FC Seoul needed just a point from their last two games to seal survival but 1-0 losses to both Incheon and Sangju in their last two matches meant that Sangju were safe on goals scored. The deflected Yoon Bitgaram goal for Sangju in the 1-0 win over Seoul was all that separated the two sides.

Post Split Record: WLDLW


Only Gwangju in 2012 have gone on to be relegated despite sitting above the relegation zone prior to the split. In 2014 and 2016 the team in tenth, Seongnam (9th) and Suwon (7th) ended up finishing in a higher position; to do so both teams went unbeaten post split. In 2013 and 2015 both Gyeongnam and Gwangju maintained the same position.

Sangju are the only team to not win a single post-split match but still stay up. In 2017 the army side lost three and drew two to fall into the relegation playoff place but overcame Busan in the Promotion/Relegation Playoff Final. For Gyeongnam, with a two point lead over the relegation zone, this has been enough to secure survival for them before, as was the case in 2013. That season Gyeongnam lost just four from 12 post split, whilst Gwangju in 2015 lost just twice in five with one win and two draws. Kim Jongboo's side would therefore need to pick up points in at least three, ideally four of their games based on the 2013 Gyeongnam team and 2015 Gwangju side.

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