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2020 Season Preview: Ulsan Hyundai

Ulsan Hyundai are back at Munsu Stadium with a rebuilt squad chock-full of talent. Despite the final day collapse that saw them finish runners-up last season, the club have kept faith with manager Kim Do-hoon. Can he prove his doubters wrong and finally bring a trophy back to the southeast coast? Ulsan columnist Daniel Croydon gives his thoughts ahead of Ulsan's 2020 K League 1 campaign.

What Happened Last Season?

23 Wins / 10 Draws /  5 Losses , 2nd in K League 1

The Horangi (Tigers) made significant investments in the lead up to the 2019 season and were rewarded with much improved results, particularly against their fellow top-half teams, giving them control of top spot for large stretches of the campaign.

However, as the two horse race with Jeonbuk hotted up, manager Kim Do-hoon's tendency for self destruction came to the fore yet again. First, an irate Kim talked himself into a five-match touchline ban during the crucial Autumn run-in; then he failed to take any points from two crunch East Coast Derbies with Pohang Steelers.

Ulsan ultimately let their nerves get the better of them. They may have lost out on their first title since 2005 by the finest of margins -- a single goal scored -- but it is hard to be too critical of the only team to come close to matching Jeonbuk in the last three years. Looking towards the delayed 2020 season, Kim Do-hoon has one year left on his contract to put things right. The club have certainly provided him with another strong squad. The question is, has Kim learnt the necessary lessons to take his team one better this time? 

Notable Moves

Ulsan Hyundai knew they would lose some key players at the end of 2019; both Kim Bo-kyung and Mix Diskerud finished their loan spells with the club, and it quickly became clear that neither would be signing permanent deals.  Two other first-team regulars, Park Yong-woo and Lee Myeong-jae, started their military service in Sangju, meaning the Horangi would need to make major moves in the transfer market for the second year running.

Lee Chung-yong (Attacking midfielder/winger)
And moves don't come bigger than this one. While it was always going to be tough to replace Kim Bo-kyung after his stunning contribution last year, Ulsan made a huge statement of intent by bringing the "Blue Dragon" back to Korea.

Lee Chung-yong has been one of the most recognisable players in Korean football for the last decade or so, having moved to England in 2009 where he made over 200 appearances during spells at Bolton and Crystal Palace. Lee's return was made all the sweeter by the fact that Ulsan's title-rivals Jeonbuk failed in their own attempt to sign a former Premier League star in Ki Sung-yueng.

Lee obviously brings with him a wealth of experience that he can pass on to up and coming talents like Lee Sang-heon and Lee Dong-gyeong, but he is also guaranteed to put bums on seats across the K League (when that is possible again).

Bjorn Johnsen (Striker)
Elsewhere, Kim Do-hoon opted to fill the foreigner slot vacated by Diskerud with another US-Norwegian, Bjorn Johnsen.  The 6'5" striker was signed from AZ Alkmaar after being linked to several clubs in the English Championship.  Johnsen finished second-top scorer in the Eredevise back in 2017/18 with ADO Den Haag, and has sixteen caps and five goals for Norway.  He will provide much-needed competition for Junior Negrao upfront.

Jo Hyeon-woo (Goalkeeper)
In one of the more surprising moves of the transfer window, Ulsan replaced one Korean international 'keeper with another. Kim Seung-gyu returned to Japan after only six months and one awful throw-in on the southeast coast. His replacement is Kim's current national team understudy and K League poster-boy, Jo Hyeon-woo.

Jo shot to stardom thanks to his heroics in Korea's shock win over Germany at the 2018 World Cup.  He had been consistently linked with a switch to Europe ever since, but when the move never materialised, Jo let his deal at Daegu run out, allowing Ulsan to snap up the 28-year-old shot stopper on a free.

Other notable signings include defender Kim Kee-hee, who recently won the MLS Cup with the Seattle Sounders; and Won Du-jae, the MVP at January's AFC U-23 Championship. Stalwart midfielders Yoon Bit-garam and Koh Myeong-jin, who have 420 K League 1 appearances between them, add depth to Kim Do-hoon's squad, while 2018 Asian Champions League winner, Jung Seung-hyun, has returned to the club as part of a truly formidable-looking back line.

Key Player 

Shin Jin-ho (Midfielder)
Shin Jin-ho is an experienced box-to-box midfielder with outstanding set piece delivery
After losing three key members of the midfield that took the team so close to the title last year, Ulsan will be looking to one of their forgotten men to lead them this campaign.  Shin Jin-ho was signed last winter after a standout 2018 at FC Seoul. The 31-year-old settled quickly in Ulsan, contributing a goal and four assists in 24 appearances before a season-ending knee injury in October meant he had to watch from the sidelines as the title race heated up.

Manager Kim Do-hoon surprised many by handing Shin the captaincy for the coming season. But the former Emirates Club man started to repay his boss' faith immediately by registering an assist in Ulsan's only match so far in 2020, a 1-1 draw with FC Tokyo in the Asian Champions League back at the start of February.

Shin is a box-to-box midfielder whose tenacity will compliment the more creative role expected of Yoon Bit-garam and Lee Chung-yong. If he can stay fit, Shin will be the cornerstone of the Horangi's new-look midfield.

Young Player to Watch

Lee Sang-heon (Attacking Midfield/Forward)
Lee Sang-heon (L) could surprise many this season with his eye for goal
Several standout players from Korea's successful U-23 Olympic-qualifying squad currently ply their trade at Munsu Stadium.  However, while Ulsan fans expect big things from Lee Dong-gyeong and Won Du-jae this year, both are now too old to be eligible for the team's U-22 slot.

The U-22 starter will most likely be Lee Sang-heon, a young attacking midfield who should drop neatly into the hole behind either Junior or Johnsen.  21-year-old Lee has already made 28 appearances in the topflight, most of which came during a 2018 loan spell with Jeonnam. Lee netted a credible five goals for the Dragons in that campaign, although the club were ultimately relegated to K League 2.

Elsewhere, Ulsan have brought 20 year-old defender Choi Jun back into the fold after his graduation from Yonsei University. The left back was at Ulsan's feeder school, Hyundai High, along with best friend Oh Se-hun and together they played an integral part in Korea's U-20 team reaching last year's World Cup Final.  This season may be too early for him to nail down a starting berth, but keep an eye out for Choi's wicked deliveries into the box should he take the field.

Biggest Question 

Does this new squad have enough creative spark to compete with Jeonbuk?
There is no doubt the Horangi have an outstanding spine to their first eleven. In theory the new pairing of Yoon Bitgaram and Lee Cheong-yong in midfield are just as good if not better than Mix Diskerud and Park Yong-woo. We can certainly expect rock solid defensive displays with any two of Dave Bulthuis, Yun Young-sun and Jung Seung-hyun at the back.

Bjorn Johnsen will provide competition for Junior Negrao in attack, but he may need to play out wide too
However, there is still a question mark over Ulsan's ability to unlock defences, especially from the wide areas. Last season Kim Do-hoon stuck religiously to a 4-1-4-1 formation, with two wingers cutting in to feed off the lone striker. Two players employed in these positions — Kim Bo-kyung and Hwang Il-soo ⁠— have left the club⁠ and Ulsan spent a good chunk of the off season trying to replace their pace, with fairly limited success.

Jeju's wing-forward Yun Il-lok was a great option, and looked set to join in January, but a surprise offer from Montpelier in France closed that door as quickly as it opened.  Kim Do-hoon then went as far as to offer a big money contract to fairly unknown Peruvian winger Kevin Quevedo, a transfer that would have required sacrificing two-time top scorer Junior Negrao in order to free up a foreigner slot⁠. However, the player chose to go to Brazil instead.

Of course, Kim Do-hoon always has the option of changing his tactics, perhaps employing wing backs in a 3-5-2, but that would raise a fresh set of questions about squad depth.

Overall, Ulsan have an excellent mixture of quality experienced campaigners and promising young talent. But it still remains unclear whether the squad has the balance and depth to be more than the best of the rest. It will take a little bit of magic to outperform the big green juggernaut over in Jeonju.

Reason to Watch 

After six months away, Ulsan Hyundai return home to Munsu Stadium this season. It has the honour of being one of the better-looking World Cup stadiums. The club have taken steps to improve the atmosphere in the ground by closing the upper tiers and helping vocal fans groups with safe standing areas behind the goals. If and when the stands are opened again, Ulsan really does offer one of the best matchday experiences in Korea.

On the pitch, Ulsan should be as entertaining as ever. They possess some of the most talented players in the league, but are equally well known for giving time to some of the country's best youth prospects.

Finally, if you are looking for a story, no one does drama like Kim Do-hoon's Ulsan. After years of promise and heartbreak, of coming so close to winning the title only to have it swept out from under their noses, 2020 could finally ⁠be their year. But, of course, I say that every year.     

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