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2019 Season Review: Gwangju FC

2019 couldn't have gone much better for Park Jin-seop's Gwangju as they topped KLeague 2 by a six-point margin. The Yellow's title win was unexpectedly comfortable with Felipe firing on all cylinders as challengers Busan IPark and Anyang fell away.  

What Went Well - Recruitment

Gwangju's recruitment and continuity from a strong end to last season certainly gave them a good platform to push on right from the beginning. At the season opener away to Seoul E-Land it was abundantly clear that boss Park had a wealth of attacking talent at his disposal, including young prospects Lee Hee-gyun and Eom Won-sang who really shone in the spring. While their form was inconsistent as expected from youngsters, the signing of Willyan proved to be a masterstroke earning himself accolades after a couple months of settling in. Felipe gave a glimpse of what he was capable of with a strong finish to 2018 but there were also more subtle signings that perhaps go under the radar to those who don't watch weekly.

Park Jeong-soo was a mainstay in the centre of midfield since his arrival from Gangwon. While he only mustered a solitary goal, his consistency alongside Choi Jun-hyeok provided players with more flair an opportunity to push on. When promotion looked on the cards, the board also did well to back their manager as there was an apparent lack of depth in the middle. Ratinho's arrival epitomised this as a midfielder who possessed a goal threat but also looked strong in the tackle. Further back and Rustam Ashurmatov has certainly built his pedigree, performing well with a number of central defensive partners and looking capable of performing in the top tier.

What Didn't Go Well - Defensive Disruption

Park Jin-seop was plagued by injuries and suspensions to his back four. Opting for a 4-3-2-1 formation on the whole, which worked well due to their strength on the wings, Gwangju could not find a settled back four all season long. This makes their defensive record of conceding just 31 goals in 36 games all the more impressive considering they were also one of few teams to be forced into using three goalkeepers. Lee Han-do, Ashurmatov, Jeong Jun-yeon, Kim Jin-hwan and the experienced Kim Tae-youn were also forced into weekly changes while no player managed to nail down the right back berth. Signed from Seongnam, Lee Si-young looked a versatile option early on but Yeo Bong-hun eventually slotted into an unfamiliar role.

Other second division teams may have been quietly hoping for an injury to talisman Felipe to de-rail the Yellow's season. While a lengthy layoff never matieralised, it is without doubt that the team were overly reliant on the number nine. Finishing the season as top goal scorer, Felipe expertly held up the ball to bring the wingers into play. In games where he was absent Gwangju's style of play suffered and they became predictable. Deputy striker Kim Ju-gong did improve towards the end of the season, pairing the Brazilian up top, but along with other striking options he failed to carry the same threat. In fact, Willian's good form put him on eight goals but then you have to go to left back and free-kick taker Lee Eu-ddeum to find the next top scorer on five.

[READ: How Gwangju can bridge the gap to KLeague 1]

Young Player of the Year - Kim Jeong-hwan

Gwangju boast an experienced squad but there were also plenty of youngsters to be commended throughout the season. Lim Min-hyeok stood out towards the latter stages with some eye-catching performances but I don't feel he achieved the consistency of winger Kim Jeong-hwan. With tough competition out wide from more experienced players such as Willyan or those favoured to him in national team selection like Eom Won-sang, 22-year-old Kim did well to make the starting eleven on 14 occasions. Scoring just four goals, it was more Kim's direct wing play that presumably caught the eye of his boss and allowed him to trust an inexperienced player in some big games. Running to the byline and standing the ball up for Felipe in the middle is intelligent play when so many KLeague 2 defences struggled to cope with his aerial presence. 2019 represents a breakthrough year for the starlet in terms of performance, also adding goals to his game late this season with three in his last six.

Team MVP - Felipe

Any avid second division follower could write this just as well, such was his dominance on pitches around the country. It was a shame that Felipe was absent for Gwangu's FA Cup visit to Suwon Bluewings as it would have been interesting to watch him up against better defenders, however the Yellow's undoubted talisman has surely enjoyed his move to Jeollanamdo. At 27 and having endured a journeyman existence in his native Brazil, Felipe's 26 goals in 42 games for Gwangju prove his ability at this level at least. Park Jin-seop may have an issue keeping hold of the striker who is of the mould that clubs such as Jeonbuk Hyundai, FC Seoul and Suwon Bluewings don't currently have in their arsenal. As mentioned above, Felipe's hold-up play and awareness of those around him was instrumental to Gwangju's success. With a fierce shot and the upper body strength to shield the ball from defenders, Felipe should have plenty of suitors this winter. Surprisingly left out of the official team of the season nominations, the only mark on a stellar campaign was his suspension for unsporting behaviour away to Ansan Greeners.

[LISTEN: Recapping KLeague 1's final day drama plus a look at the play-offs]

Most Disappointing Player - Cho Joo-young

A harsh decision for a squad that dominated the division from its early proceedings but Cho Joo-young has failed to make an impact since his arrival from Incheon United. Somewhat of a gamble signing having only managed two appearances up north last season, Cho must have showed ability in trials following his stint at Gimhae City to have been signed by two professional clubs. Given 10 opportunities to impress this term, mainly from the bench, Cho's single goal of the campaign came against Daejeon Citizen on the final day. The 25-year-old did not look out of place by any means, but did not show the same composure as fellow bench warmer Kim Ju-gong when given those limited chances. You would expect Cho to move on for a third consecutive year this winter, as Gwangju will presumably strengthen up front.

Most Important Decision of the Off Season - Midfield Investment

Gwangju's off season may be dominated by their move into a shiny new stadium but to avoid a repeat of their bottom-placed finish in 2017, they must invest into an ageing central midfield. Park Jeong-soo performed admirably and didn't appear to lack stamina but you have to question his ability to do so at a higher level after turning 33 in January. Alongside him, club legend Yeo Reum found himself dropped to the bench as the season progressed and judging by reaction towards him on the final day, including a sentimental substitution, his Gwangju days could be numbered. This leaves a gaping hole in midfielders who are capable of shielding the back four or playing box to box. Choi Jun-hyeok and Lim Min-hyuk are untested at the top level and while Ratinho's eight appearances looked very promising, it would unwise to form a midfield around him just yet. Gwangju's board need to invest in an experienced central midfielder with a cool head who can play the simple balls out to their pacey wingers. Park Jong-woo could fit the bill should Busan fail to gain promotion, while many clubs will be looking at relegated Jeju United's crop of talent up for grabs such as Ahn Hyun-beom or even Yoon Bit-garam if they are prepared to push the boat out.

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