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Ulsan Hyundai 2020 Season Review: Same old story? Not quite

So much was different about the 2020 K League season -- the curtailed calendar, the branded masks, the restrained applause from the checkerboard stands. But for Ulsan fans there was a real sense of déjà vu as Kim Do-hoon's Horangi dominated much of the regular season before coming apart at the seams post split. This time though, the familiar tale of an Ulsan collapse had one big continental twist.

K League 1: 2nd
Korean FA Cup: Runners-up
AFC Champions League: Winners

What Went Well

As was the case last year, Ulsan got so much right on and off the field in 2020. 

In the off-season, Kim Do-hoon faced the tough task of replacing both the 2019 league MVP Kim Bo-kyung and midfield playmaker Mix Diskerud. Kim managed it though, as vastly experienced signings Yoon Bit-garam and Lee Chung-yong bedded in quickly and helped to form an even more dynamic midfield engine room than the one they lost.

When the season finally kicked off in May, the Horangi got off to a flyer, particularly away from home where they dropped only two points in their first nine games. 

There were statement wins over Sangju and Pohang. There were dramatic late goals against Suwon Bluewings and Busan IPark. And there were gritty one-nils against Seongnam and Gangwon. 

Ulsan looked the archetypal title winners -- able to perform in every which way, but always getting a positive result.


What Didn't Go Well

That was until they felt the sharp end of the huge luminous-green thorn in their side -- Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. 

Jose Morais' team looked distinctly human early on in the campaign, but still managed to nick the goals they needed to stay in touch with their more emphatic Hyundai brethren.

So when it came to the head-to-head clashes, Ulsan really needed to take some points to put daylight between themselves and Jeonbuk. 

Of course, they didn't -- not once. 

In the shortened 27-game season, Ulsan faced Jeonbuk three times, and handed their rivals all nine points. Fingers were pointed at Kim Do-hoon after every defeat, perhaps rightfully so, as he overegged and overthought his lineups, then overdid his apologies in the post-match press conferences.

However, Kim was also let down by some individual errors from his players -- another hallmark of the Horangi in the big games. 

Former Jeonbuk defender Kim Ki-hee didn't exactly endear himself to the Munsu faithful when he got himself sent off for a horrific challenge just twenty minutes into the first Hyundai Derby. Then in November the conspiracy theorists were out in full force after the same player's weak header let Jeonbuk's Mo Barrow in to score what proved to be the title-deciding goal.

Ulsan's runaway top scorer, Junior Negrao, summed up the Horangi's domestic collapse best. He said Ulsan "lost it on the details -- the tiny details". And, of course, those tiny details can define seasons at the top of the table.

And so Kim Do-hoon showed again this year that he is a good manager, with one (big) asterisk. There is some blame to be shared around, but it is hard to defend a manager whose team gives up top spot in the final weeks of the season two years in a row.

Having said that, Kim could yet turn these harsh lessons into future success, but it won't be at Ulsan. As the whistle blew on the final day and Ulsan trudged off the field empty-handed again, the club had already made up its mind -- Kim's contract would not be renewed.


The Cups

As if to rub salt into their wounds, Ulsan would face Jeonbuk for a fourth and fifth time in 2020 in a two-legged FA Cup Final barely a week after losing the title. 

It was more of the same to be honest -- the Horangi looked full of grit and fight, but they were only really butting up against the robotically regimented Green Warrior defence.

Junior et al. missed chances in a first leg draw before the Horangi finally got their noses in front early in the second meeting. However, Jeonbuk staged a trademark comeback in front of their home crowd to condemn Kim Do-hoon's weary side to a second runners-up ceremony in a week.

And then cam time for the resumption of the Asian Champions League -- the continent's premier competition, but not as we know it. The tournament restarted in a condensed format in Qatar with just three days between fixtures up until the semifinal round.

We now know that Kim Do-hoon had already learned of his fate before his squad and staff donned their facemasks and boarded the flight to Doha, which makes Ulsan's ultimate triumph all the more satisfying.

From the opening kick off, the heavy legs and frustrated faces of the Ulsan players vanished under the desert sun. The likes of Yoon Bit-garam and Kim Ki-hee seemed to regenerate before our eyes. Junior had shaken off the niggles that dogged him in those final weeks of the domestic campaign, while substitute goalkeeper Jo Su-huk, thrust between the sticks due to Cho Hyun-woo's COVID diagnosis, made the most of his month in the limelight.

Ulsan bounded along through the packed schedule, wearing down their opposition and scoring morale-boosting late goals. Bjorn Johnsen finally made an impact when called upon, as did a lot of Ulsan's other fringe characters.

They needed some luck on their way to the final, most notably against a considerably fresher Vissel Kobe in the semifinal. But for once, the Horangi were scoring at important times, and, most importantly, Kim Do-hoon's selections and substitutions were having the desired effect. The much-maligned manger was finally getting some attention for the right reasons. 

And this, for me, was the true joy of Ulsan's second continental title. This was not a victory despite Kim Do-hoon, it was a victory because of him. Lifting the ACL trophy was just reward for four years of hard work, heartbreak and determination. 

The 2-1 win over Persepolis in the final showed that Ulsan could overcome their mental barriers. It was fantastic to see the players lift the silverware their efforts deserved, but there was a special kind of pathos in watching an emotionally exhausted Kim Do-hoon celebrate with a quiet sense of pride, knowing it was too late to save his job, but relieved that his players could enjoy themselves at last.

Young Player of the Year

Ulsan had one of the oldest squads in the league this year, but they also had a lot of their best young talent out on loan: Oh Se-hun elected to do his military service early, while Lee Sang-min, Kim Tae-hyun and Choi Jun were all at K2 clubs for the year.

So the scene was set for one of Hyundai High School's lesser known graduates to step into the U22 spotlight. That player was versatile fullback Seol Young-woo.

The 22-year-old made his debut in the memorable 0-4 drubbing of Pohang in early June and never really looked back. He made 22 appearances in all, and looked at home on either flank in both attacking and defensive positions.

Team MVP

How do you sum up a season like the one Junior Negrao just had? Well, quite easily really -- you talk about the goals. The 33-year-old Brazilian scored 26 goals in 27 league games, giving him the best goals to game ratio of any player in K League history.

He bagged his first ever hat trick against lowly Incheon United to make it twelve goals in the Horangi's opening ten games and followed that up with a brace at his former club Daegu.

He was joint top scorer in the Asian Champions League with seven goals in nine games and also notched up a couple of goals in the FA Cup Final.

Junior's exploits in 2020 have made headlines around the world, including in his native Brazil. Having played on loan at no fewer than eight different Brazilian clubs, the media there are rightly fascinated by his late career success. "It is because I feel at home in Korea," Junior answers before flashing his trademark smile.

Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo, Romalu Lukaku, Erling Haaland: these are the only strikers in the world to score more goals in 2020 than Junior. And though he will never get the global recognition of his more illustrious counterparts, Junior Negrao's achievements this year have ensured his name will be forever remembered on Korea's south coast.

KLU Patreon

Most Important Decision of the Off-Season

In a way, Ulsan have already made their most significant decision for next year. Kim Do-hoon has left the club after four seasons in charge, two trophies and two second-place finishes. The club have replaced him with the man who coached Korea in the 2014 World Cup, a veteran of four World Cups as a player, Hong Myung-bo. The 51-year-old may be a legend of Korean football, but he is a relative novice when it comes to club management.

Hong has inherited the Horangi in very different circumstances to those Kim Do-hoon faced in 2016. While Kim had time to build a squad and learn what it takes to challenge for the K League title, Hong will be under pressure to deliver domestic success from day one. Ulsan really need to become league champions next year and the club have decided Hong is the man to take them there. 

The question is then, can Hong Myung-bo win the league in his first year while also putting his own stamp on the team?

Hong must decide quickly who stays with the squad and who moves on. He has already stated that he wants a build a younger group of Korean players, with some of the veterans on the fringes of the first team being surplus to requirements; the likes of Jeong Dong-ho, Park Joo-ho, Lee Keun-ho and Koh Myoung-jin.

But perhaps the most significant decision will be what happens to Junior Negrao. The Brazilian turned 34 today and his contract expires in the new year. There have been rumours of offers coming in from the Middle East and China, and although Junior has expressed a desire to stay with the Horangi, the signs point to Hong chasing a new, younger foreign striker to spearhead the attack. Will he be able to find the right man to fill the massive gap Junior leaves behind?

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