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2020 Season Preview: Gangwon FC

Gangwon FC head into the new campaign with something of a new-look squad and seeking to build on last year's top-half finish. Manager Kim Byung-soo received the plaudits for the way his side played last year as a possession-based team and, had it not have been for injuries, may well have finished even higher than sixth. Is 'Byung-soo Ball' rolling towards AFC Champions League qualification? Associate Editor Paul Neat looks ahead to the new season.

Last Season

14W-14D-8L, 6th

What Happened?

Gangwon's sixth-place finish can be attributed to the form and injuries of Kim Ji-hyun and Cho Jae-wan in some shape or form. Had both Kim and Cho remained fit for the whole season, Gangwon may well have pipped FC Seoul to third place. The pair were in excellent form in the first half of the season, bagging 18 goals between them before suffering season-ending injuries. Although Kim Byung-soo's men soldiered on without them, they ran out of steam towards the tail-end of the campaign, winning just three times in their last 15 matches. Without a prolific goalscorer to replace Kim and Cho, Gangwon's goals were spread out among Lee Hyun-sik and Lee Young-jae with six, and Jung Jo-gook with five. Before departing, Uroš Đerić managed just four goals in an orange shirt last season.

Notable Moves

Gangwon have had a bit of a clear-out over the winter. Jung Jo-gook, Valentinos, Kim Ho-jun, and Yun Suk-young, as well as a whole host of others, have all left with Kim Byung-soo looking to rebuild. The additions of Kim Seung-dae and Ko Mu-yeol from Jeonbuk, and Lim Chae-min from Seongnam, represent sensible acquisitions. 'Linebreaker' Kim Seung-dae's versatility and ability to score goals wherever he plays will be a major plus, and should help with the fluidity of "Byung-soo Ball".

Gangwon boasted the unwanted record of having the worst goals-against tally in the top half of the division after shipping 58, Seoul and Pohang were next with 49. Lim Chae-min from Seongnam, then, is another astute signing. Lim was part of an extremely tight defence last term, and goalkeeper Lee Beom-soo will provide competition for young custodian Lee Gwang-yeon. Brother of Jeonbuk's Lee Beom-young, and follows in his older brother's footsteps by joining Gangwon. In 2019, despite Gyeongnam suffering relegation, Lee proved himself to be a more than capable shot-stopper.

Ko Mu-yeol is another sensible acquisition for Gangwon. Ko's career stagnated somewhat before joining Asan Mugunghwa as part of his mandatory military service where the former K League Young Player of the Year scored 18 goals in 52 appearances, 12 of which came last year as the former Pohang forward finished the season as Asan's top scorer.

Key Player 

Kim Ji-hyun

Kim Ji-hyun at the 2019 K League Awards Ceremony
Despite having his season cut short through injury, striker Kim Ji-hyun finished the season as Gangwon's top scorer with 10 goals. Kim's last match of the season was in mid-September, a 2-0 win over Jeju United, during which he scored both goals. But with Kim Byung-soo fine-tuning his Gangwon squad, Kim Ji-hyun has been given the number nine shirt and looks set to be a key player this season. He can play down the middle as an out and out striker, or out wide in a front three and can even be deployed from central midfield, as was the case in Gangwon's win over FC Seoul in Round 19, scoring a rebounded Han Kook-young strike.  With Gangwon seeking further progress and possible AFC Champions League qualification, Kim should be a key figure for the Chuncheon-based side.

Young Player to Watch

Lee Gwang-yeon

Lee was ever-present for Korea Republic U20 in the team's run to the World Cup Final
Goalkeeper Lee Gwang-yeon rose to stardom following Korea U20s' run to the 2019 U20 FIFA World Cup Final in Poland, playing in every match as the young Taeguk Warriors caught the nation's imagination. Before the World Cup, Lee had yet to make a first-team appearance for Gangwon but was given his K League bow by manager Kim Byung-soo in Gangwon's crazy 5-4 comeback win at home to Pohang Steelers. It began to look as though the night wasn't going all too well for Lee and Gangwon after finding themselves 4-0 down with just 54 minutes on the clock. But after that win, Lee went on to make a further eight appearances. Following the departures of Ham Seok-min and Kim Ho-jun, Lee may be afforded more time between the sticks in 2020. Lee Beom-soo has also arrived, signing on a free after departing Gyeongnam, but the number one spot is definitely up for grabs at Songam Sports Town and it will be interesting to see if Lee Gwang-yeon can be relied upon up for long stretches this early in his fledgling career.

Biggest Question 

Can Kim Byung-soo take Gangwon to that next level?

Last year Gangwon equalled their highest-ever K League 1 finish by securing sixth place, repeating that of 2017. However, with the amount of quality which the team possesses, and with Kim Byung-soo leading the charge, Gangwon appear to have what it takes to knock on the door of the top four. The pressure will be on Pohang to earn a third-straight top four finish and it's unknown how Daegu will fair following the departure of Andre and with Lee Byung-geun in caretaker charge. Interestingly, Gangwon have just one foreign player in their ranks, Japanese defender Takahiro Nakazato. Uroš Đerić, Nemanja Bilbija, and Stelios Valentinos were all allowed to depart last season.

Reason to Watch 

Gangwon have a lot of the ball. In fact, last season no team in K League had more possession. Lead by talented young manager Kim Byung-soo, Gangwon have ambition and and will feel as though 2020 is the year in which the club really kicks on. 

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