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2020 Season Review: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

2020 K League Season Review: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
After claiming the 2019 title in dramatic circumstances, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors were once again pushed all the way by Ulsan Hyundai in another thrilling title race that saw the Green Warriors once again edge out their biggest domestic competitors to break K League records. Not only that, the North Jeolla side would go onto claim their first 'double' after winning the FA Cup for the first time in 15 years. With worsening performances on the continent though, Jeonbuk will still need to reassess for the year ahead.

What Went Well

By the end of the season, Jeonbuk had achieved a first in their decorated history; a double trophy haul for a single campaign as they lifted both the K League and FA Cup trophies. The league title also proved to be the club's eighth and also their fourth in a row, breaking Korean football records previously held by Seongnam FC. Regardless of how they got there and some of the performances on the way, there can only be plaudits given for such an achievement.

[Read: Lee Seung-gi Shines to Seal Domestic Double]

It would also be difficult to level criticism at their performances in the latter half of the season as well. Once again, when the pressure was at its highest, Jeonbuk maintained a sense of calm and let their experience shine through to pip Ulsan once more to the title, before repeating the same feat days later over two legs in the FA Cup final. While Ulsan may have had the better of every other side in the division, one draw and four losses over five meetings with Jeonbuk proved ultimately to be the difference in a title rivalry that continues to develop, particularly after last year's dramatic conclusion.

While experience undoubtedly prevailed within the squad, the summer acquisitions of Gustavo and Modou Barrow certainly helped revitalise the team after lacklustre performances early on in the campaign threatened to let Ulsan move away from them. Gustavo's impact proved immediate with a number of early goals on arrival that perhaps wained slightly towards the end of the season, but winger Barrow injected the pace and drive on the wing that had been missing since the departure of Moon Seon-min and Ricardo Lopes at the start of the year. With a now settled team, and these two players added to the roster, there is a strong foundation to build upon ahead of 2021.

What Didn't Go Well

While Jeonbuk enjoyed success on the domestic stage, what transpired on the continent was of stark contrast. Ultimately, Jeonbuk exited the competition at the group stages for just the second time in their history and the first since 2012. However, this only tells part of the story due to nature of this year's competition that was strongly affected by the COVID pandemic. With the tournament mostly being carried out in a 'bubble' in Qatar post-season, Jeonbuk headed out to the Middle-East with several injuries to key players picked up in their final few domestic games after going for broke to claim both titles. To further compound this, the team would lose two more first-team players after a COVID outbreak within the Korean National Team the week before meant they were sent back to isolate in Korea. With most of the first-choice midfield and defensive full-backs ruled out, the task of progression became far steeper for the club. While other Korean teams also suffered significant injuries prior to joining the 'bubble', Jeonbuk did not have the quality to claw back the points they needed in what was arguably the toughest group in the competition. 

[LISTEN: The 22 Teams of K League-mas]

However, while there can be some sympathy given to them for what happened in Qatar, there are few excuses that can be given for their first two group matches, which were played as scheduled before the pandemic caused the postponement. Picking up just one point from two matches left a sizable task for the team to pick back up in late November, let alone one for a depleted squad. There could no fingers pointed towards the lack of depth in those first two matches after the club had deemed it had completed all its transfer business, despite not adequately replacing Moon Seon-min and Ricardo Lopes. With the windfall received from the Lopes deal and the time before the first match, there was ample opportunity to address these areas of weakness yet no moves were made. Ultimately, Jeonbuk's 2020 AFC Champions League exit comes down to themselves and improvement will be demanded on this front from the supporters next season.

Given their questionable showings in their early Champions League matches, it was unsurprising that their opening matches also got off to a somewhat tepid start with sub-par performances and narrow victories. Part of it could have been blamed on the two-month postponement of the season start, but this was certainly not affecting their title rivals. Jeonbuk could perhaps consider themselves slightly fortuitous that the season started later as it allowed the transfer window to reopen far sooner into the season than it normally would, allowing them to address the mistakes they had made the window prior. Ultimately, they gained no advantage as all clubs were afforded the same opportunity but, if the team had kicked-off a full-length season in March as planned, they could well have found themselves trailing by more points come the summer. Winter recruitment will be key once more in 2021 if Jeonbuk are to avoid a spluttering start next season.

Young Player of the Year

Cho Gue-sung

Meeting the criteria for this award within this Jeonbuk side is Cho Gue-sung, although the young striker may also rue some of his performances in the first half of the season when he looks back at 2020. Brought in from FC Anyang after scoring 14 goals in K League 2, not to mention playing a role in South Korea's U23 Asian Cup triumph in January, Cho looked set to feature heavily as Jeonbuk required both a goalscoring threat and a player who would meet the U22 quota. Cho could certainly not point to a lack of opportunities for his inconsistencies this season, making 34 appearances across all competitions. However, the young forward found it difficult to make the step up while also carrying the burden of Jeonbuk's goalscoring mantle. With Gustavo coming in during the summer, it allowed Cho to relieved of some of this duty, allowing to find some consistency out on the right-wing as an inside forward. By the end of the season though, Cho had improved significantly, underlined by scoring both goals on the final day to help Jeonbuk lift the trophy. 

Next season, Cho will no longer meet the U22 criteria and therefore will have to fight for his place even more than this year. Having now had a full campaign, tasting success and playing in Asia, a full pre-season could see him up-to-speed by next March. If the striker does not make this step up by then, he could well find himself disappearing into the depths of a sizable Jeonbuk squad. Furthermore, there have been reports that Cho is currently considering taking his military service early next season at the newly rebranded Gimcheon Sangmu.

Team MVP

Son Jun-ho

Despite the controversy of claiming the league's MVP accolade ahead of Ulsan Hyundai's Junior Negrão, this should not undermine the huge influence Son Jun-ho has had on a Jeonbuk side that at times could look listless and lacking inspiration. This year saw Son fully embrace the defensive midfield role after the departure of Shin Hyung-min in the winter, seeing him not only shield the defence and contribute heavily to winning the ball back but then going onto dictate the tempo of games with his renowned passing and crossing ability. Simply put, the North Jeolla side would have finished the season without silverware were it not for Son's efforts in the centre of the pitch.

A sizable nod should also be made in the direction of Han Kyo-won whose career-best season ensured Jeonbuk found the goals required to win games but, injuries during the crucial run-in means that the MVP title goes to his teammate.

Most Disappointing Player

Choi Bo-kyung

While centre-back Choi Bo-kyung certainly did not have a horrendous season by any stretch, his place in the team early on in the campaign showed why he was always considered a backup selection. The return of Hong Jeong-ho and Kim Min-hyuk as the main centre-back pairing for the second half of 2020 only served to further underline this. Choi remains a solid option for the club to have if required, and should not dwell too heavily on his showings this season, but the backline often looked far less stable with him in it. 

Reasonable cases could also be made for Lars Veldvijk and Koo Ja-ryeong who both struggled on their arrivals at the club, yet neither were given the sufficient game time to be reasonably considered and prove their worth.

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Most Important Decision of the Off-Season

Can new manager Kim Sang-sik continue Jeonbuk's success?

Perhaps Jeonbuk's most important decision has already been decided, with manager José Morais opting not to extend beyond his two-year contract and choosing to leave the club. The board have taken the opportunity to promote assistant manager to Morais, and also to his predecessor Choi Kang-hee, Kim Sang-sik to the role of head coach. While having no managerial experience himself, Kim has been on the coaching staff for seven years, being part of the backroom staff that claimed six league titles, an FA Cup and an AFC Champions League trophy, and also becomes the first former Jeonbuk player to become a manager of the side. His promotion to the position has been welcomed by both the club and fanbase and seems to be viewed as a natural progression for a figure who has been well-trusted in Jeonju up until now. 2021 will tell if this faith is well placed. 

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