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2021 Jeju United Season Preview


After just one season in the second division, Jeju United return to the top flight on the heels of their first league title in thirty years.  The islanders finished 2020 unbeaten in their final fifteen matches to clinch the crown by a six point margin over Suwon FC, who also won promotion back to K League 1 through the playoffs.  There has not been a lot of significant change in the off-season, which was to be expected, but a few key arrivals in recent days could see Jeju hovering around the top six if they can rekindle the chemistry which saw them dominate last campaign.  KLU's Branko Belan previews what's ahead for Nam Ki-il's men.

Last Season

18W, 6D, 3L, K League 2 champions; automatic promotion

What Happened?

Just about everything that could have gone right for the islanders last season, did.  The first steps were taken following the 2019 campaign, when Nam Ki-il was brought in as the new manager, and the team's board of directors received a massive re-shuffling.  A host of new signings were lured to the club and it seemed the team would simply hit the ground running.  However, things did not get off to the best start.  Following a three match winless streak, including losses to Jeonnam Dragons and Daejeon Hana Citizen to open the season, things took a turn for the better in their first-ever rivalry match against Bucheon FC 1995, when Joo Min-kyu's injury time header secured them their first three pointer of the season, and things started to look up from there.

They would go their next eight matches without defeat before falling to Daejeon for a second time, a match in which captain Lee Chang-min saw red for a rash challenge.  That loss at the end of July would be their last of the season, as they virtually ran the table all the way to the league title, winning all but four of their remaining fixtures, all of which ended in draws against Jeonnam Dragons, Suwon FC, Gyeongnam FC and, Ansan Greeners.

Nam Ki-il won Manager of the Year; Lee Dong-ryul won Young Player of the Year; Kim Young-wook led the league in assists, and seven players were named to the league's Best XI at the end of the season.  Jeju finished second in goals scored and had the league's best defense, conceding only 23 times in 27 matches.


Notable Moves

There have not been a lot of new faces to come into the team this off-season, but two notable additions could prove beneficial as Jeju look to make an instant impact on their return to K League 1.  Yeo Reum was recently signed from Gwangju FC, where he wore the captain's armband last season.  Aside from his military service, he had spent his entire career there before making the move to the island.  He made twenty appearances for Gwangju last season and overall has played 103 matches in the top division (including his time with Sangju Sangmu, with four goals and five assists to his credit.

Nam Ki-il is no stranger to him, either, as he played under him when the manager was there and got the team promoted for the 2015 season.  

Another potentially intriguing signing is that of Lee Jung-moon from Daejeon Hana Citizen.  Lee spent the past two seasons with his now-former club and amassed 47 appearances across all competitions over that period.  While primarily a defensive midfielder, he showed last year he is capable of playing multiple positions, and even played as a striker.  It must also be noted that he was part of the Korean national team for the U-20 World Cup when the event was held in Korea, so he is no stranger to facing top competition.

There were a few notable departures in this window as Elías Aguilar, who had spent the second half of the season on loan at Incheon United, made the move permanent.  He played for the islanders 29 times, scoring four goals with six assists.  Valentinos Sielis also opted for new surroundings, as he will play for Busan IPark in 2021.  He injured his neck in pre-season last year, and never really got back to the kind of form which could have made him a regular first-team player, but the acquisition of Kim Oh-gyu in the summer quashed any chance he may have had in doing so.  Several other players were loaned out, including Baek Seung-woo who will spend a year with Gimpo Citizen in K4, and Baek Dong-gyu, who will play for FC Anyang.

Key Player

Jung Woon

Jung Woon was named to the K League 2 Best XI in 2020. It's the second such honor in his career.
One of the biggest reasons for Jeju's turnaround last season was the return of Jung Woon from Gimpo Citizen in K4.  Prior to his departure in June 2018, the islanders were in contention in K League 1, sitting third in the league table heading into the World Cup break.  His leaving coincided with the club's dip in form, which saw them endure a long winless run through the summer and into the fall.  Jeju would still finish in the top six that year, but it couldn't mask the concerns over a leaky defense, as Jeju shipped a whopping 72 goals in 2019 on their way to relegation for the first time in club history.

Not only did his return provide stability on the pitch, but his experience also rubbed off on the younger players.  He successfully made the transition from left back to center back, allowing Nam Ki-il a lot more freedom with his lineup selections.  It provided for better rotation throughout the side, and allowed the team to remain fresh while managing a tight schedule.  Jung also scored some very critical goals late in the season to maintain the team's title push when it looked as though they might slip towards the end of the campaign.  He will be an essential part of Jeju's success once again in 2021.

Young Player to Watch

Lee Dong-ryul

Lee Dong-ryul's contributions were a bit reason for the islanders' championship success.
Lee Dong-ryul had a massive breakout year in 2020.  Despite only playing in fourteen matches, he still managed five goals and three assists on his way to winning the Young Player of the Year award in K League 2.  He is still just twenty years old, but last season played with the maturity of a player who has been playing professionally for a number of years.  His goals were always scored at critical times in critical matches, and it looks as though he will be a lock for the U-22 roster spot again this season.

He has quick pace down the right which made him a constant threat for opposing defenders last year.  How he will fare stepping up a division remains to be seen, but he did see more action toward the end of his rookie season, so knowing he can play well with the players around them and that the group as a whole has really good chemistry, it should give him the confidence to have another strong year.  

Biggest Question for 2021

Nam Ki-il is confident Jeju will have a successful season in 2021.
Can Jeju challenge for the top six?

It is no secret that the other teams in the division have done quite a bit to strengthen their squads ahead of the new season, but that doesn't always lead to results.  One of the reasons why Jeju was so successful last year, almost to the point of dominant, is because they play together so well.  It also seems that last year brought a complete overhaul in the team culture and that put them in a position to get the results they needed week in and week out once things started functioning.

Nam Ki-il is a very competent manager and he knows how to get the most out of his players.  His tactical awareness and knowledge of how to use his squad was another factor in why the side was able to clinch the title early.  There is a genuine feeling since he arrived that he is also a coach who cares deeply about his players and wants every ounce of work out of them to achieve their goals.  He is the type of manager players not only listen to but follow.  

The captains of the squad remain unchanged this year, as Lee Chang-min will wear the captain's armband once again, while Ahn Hyun-beom and Kwon Han-jin will take up their roles as assistant captains.  Not only does it show trust in the players, but it also shows that the squad has a kind of continuity that had been lacking in recent years.  The arrival of Yeo will also help, as he is another experienced veteran who can contribute a lot to the group as a whole.

Reason to Watch

Gong Min-hyun had a breakout year in 2020 with nine goals and three assists.
Jeju were an exciting outfit to watch last season, as they were among the leaders in team goals scored.  Gong Min-hyun perhaps more than any other player offensively was a pleasant surprise, and he will be bursting at the seams to start scoring in bunches again this season.  If Joo Min-kyu can stay healthy, Jeju have a lot of scoring potential up top.

Jung Jo-gook has remained with the team after a legendary career and is now the team's attack coach, which is something opposing teams will have to be wary of in 2021.  "The Patriot" played 392 matches in his K League career and is part of a very select group of players in K League history with at least 150 attack points (goals and assists combined).  He decided to stay with the club owing to his admiration and willingness to continue to learn from the manager and that is something that can only benefit the team as a whole.

The team is well balanced and plays smart defensively and showed themselves to be very effective moving forward, especially building out of the back.  The squad is deep; any number of players are capable of stepping in and getting the job done.  They made the right moves over the winter by loaning out certain players so that they could play elsewhere while keeping the nucleus of the team together, which should ensure a quality brand of football in K League 1 this year.     




  

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