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2020 Season Preview: Jeonnam Dragons

The 2019 season began as 2018 ended for Jeonnam with poor results and patchy performances. The Dragons recruited Brazilian Fabiano Soares with the hope he would bring some flair to the team, but things didn’t exactly go to plan. His replacement, Jeon Kyung-jun, saw things improve toward the end of the season, but not quite enough to sneak into the playoffs. Joshua Higgins assesses whether or not Jeonnam can make the next step this year in his 2020 season preview. 

Last Season

13 W 9 D 14 L 6th place

What Happened?

Following the disappointing 2018 season that lead to the Dragons dropping down the second division for the first time in their history, expectation was high for them to bounce back at the first time of asking. Things didn’t exactly go to plan after a slow start from a new look team that recorded only five wins from their first 15 games. The team was chopped and changed almost weekly with Brazilian manager Fabiano Soares seemingly unsure of his best team or formation. It was clear Soares was brought in to play the attacking and expressive football Brazilians are famous for (especially to Koreans), but with no clear identity and no sign of things improving, the board decided to replace him with native Jeon Kyung-jun in July with the team in 8th place.

The new manager bounce proved true for Jeon and results steadily improved. The team played with more purpose, perhaps due to better communication with the majority of the team. Despite what will be described by most as a disappointing campaign, the Dragons can take some positives from the fact they were fairly close to the playoff places.

Notable Moves

The Dragons have had a mass clear out this winter with dozens of players moving to potential rivals. Most notably last season’s top scorer Bruno Baio making the sideways move to Daejeon Hana Citizen FC. The overall theme of Jeonnam's transfer window seems to be out with the old and in with the new, quite literally. More experienced players have been moved on with an emphasis on youth becoming clear as the winter break wears on. Due to many of the new players being fairly unknown, it’s difficult to say whether or not the Dragon’s team is any better or worse because of their transfer dealings.

Key Player

The Dragons have brought in largely unknown Brazilian attacking midfielder Rodolfo to try to and address the lack of goal scoring threats on the roster. Jeonnam scored just 43 goals in K league 2 last season, the same number as bottom side Seoul E-land. It is yet to be seen whether Rodolfo can set Korea alight, but he does have technical ability, finds space well between defensive and midfield lines, and isn’t scared to shoot.

Young Player to Watch

Looking at the new recruits for the 2020 season it is clear the Dragons are putting faith in youth this year. A large number of players have come from either universities or directly from high schools, and it’s unclear how big a role they will play. The newcomers will likely be squad players with the hope of bringing energy and some fire to games that Jeonnam have been severely lacking in previous seasons.

Perhaps Jeon has been unimpressed by older, better paid, players who would go through the motions and wouldn’t fight for the badge. The fans will hope these young players have the hunger to prove themselves to the rest of K League, even if their goal isn’t to stay with the Dragons, but to move on to more well-respected clubs in the future.

Biggest Question

Can Jeonnam make a promotion push?

The Dragons enjoyed a fairly successful run to end the 2019 season after sacking Fabiano, so fans and the club will be hoping the new manager bounce continues into the new decade. But with so many senior players moving on to new pastures, that feat may be difficult to achieve. It may turn out that a promotion push is beyond the current crop of players and manager and that Jeonnam are entering a transitional period; bringing young players together to build something that will be able to challenge in the coming years. Despite big changes in personnel, the minimum acceptable finish is likely to be in the playoffs.

Reason to Watch

Jeonnam can learn lessons from rivals Gwangju when it comes to getting promoted, with the latter needing an additional season after relegation for new players to settle following the mass exodus of players as they entered K2. If the Dragons can create cohesion quickly in this new look team, then they have a good chance of being in contention for the top of the table come the end of 2020.

Clubs in crisis all over the world usually produce a few promising youth players due to increased opportunities. After seemingly putting faith in youth this season, it will be interesting to see if a few young players take their opportunity and set K2 alight.

Last season, Jeonnam were capable of winning in the big games, but also of completely collapsing against “lesser” teams. Perhaps this year they can be a little more consistent.

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