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2021 Season Preview: Gimcheon Sangmu FC

After relocating from Sangju and being relegated from the K League 1 as a result, Korea’s premier military team begins a fresh chapter as Gimcheon Sangmu FC in the second division. With a highly rated coach in Kim Tae-wan and a strong squad featuring several Korea internationals, Sangmu are heavy favourites to achieve automatic promotion in their first year in Gimcheon. Will they live up to expectations? Tomas Marcantonio previews. 

Last Season

13W-5D-9L, 4th (K League 1 – automatically relegated due to club relocation)

What Happened?

In their final season as Sangju Sangmu, Kim Tae-wan’s team (as always, made up of loan players completing their mandatory military service) turned a few heads with their solid performances. Although lacking the firepower of the league’s top three teams, Sangju were a well-drilled and consistent outfit that specialised in 1-0 and 2-0 victories.

Kim Tae-wan turned left back Kang Sang-woo into a prolific winger, while a solid defence marshalled by Kwon Kyung-won and keeper Lee Chang-geun ensured Sangju were one of the league’s most difficult sides to beat. In fact, Sangju only lost one game to a team outside the top three all season.

Despite winning 50% of their games before the split, poor results against Ulsan Hyundai and Pohang Steelers halted Sangju’s charge up the table. However, with their relegation already confirmed before the season kicked off, the team’s eventual fourth-place finish far exceeded expectations of fans and neutrals alike.

Notable Moves

Gimcheon Sangmu said goodbye to seven players at the tail end of last season, their military services completed after spending a year and a half with the club. The most notable departures were central defender Kim Jin-hyuk (recently confirmed as Daegu FC captain), midfielder Kim Min-hyeok (now at Seongnam FC) and winger Song Seung-min (Gwangju FC).

Cho Gue-sung scored eight goals in all competitions for Jeonbuk last season.

An already strong Sangmu squad was recently boosted by the announcement of 14 incoming players for the 2021 season. Among them are Korea international goalkeeper Gu Sung-yun (from Daegu FC), centre backs Jung Seung-hyun (Ulsan Hyundai) and Ha Chang-rae (Pohang Steelers), and Korea U23 striker Cho Gue-sung (Jeonbuk Hyundai).

The new recruits will join up with the rest of the squad on March 8th, and are likely to be eased into the team in preparation for an exodus of key players in June.

Key Players 

Kwon Kyung-won and Jung Seung-hyun

Kim Tae-wan’s teams are built on defensive solidity and organisation, evident in the sheer number of 1-0 victories chalked up last season. Despite having forwards such as Oh Se-hun and Cho Gue-sung in their ranks, then, Gimcheon’s key players could be at the other end of the field.

Kwon Kyung-won has 16 caps for the Korean national team.

Last year’s captain Kwon Kyung-won was one of the club’s standout performers in 2020. The left-sided centre back is a regular in Korean squads and already has two league titles to his name (with Jeonbuk in Korea, and Al Ahli in the UAE). Composed on the ball and boasting a fierce long-range shot, Kwon was also named in last season’s K League 1 Best XI.

Coach Kim opted to hand the club captaincy to left back Sim Sang-min this season, presumably with a mind to the second half of the season. Kwon, along with several of his teammates, will finish his military service in June.

Jung Seung-hyun made five appearances in Ulsan's historic ACL campaign last season.

Kim Tae-wan is likely to turn to Jung Seung-hyun and Ha Chang-rae to make up for the loss of his key defender in the summer. Both are quality centre backs, but Jung Seung-hyun’s experience could make him especially vital this year. Still only 26, Jung already has an ACL winner’s medal to his name, as well as experience in the top tier in Japan and international minutes with Korea. During Gimcheon’s summer transition, Jung Seung-hyun’s dependability at the back could be key to the team’s title challenge.

Young Player to Watch

Kwon Hyeok-kyu

Kwon Hyeok-kyu made 12 league starts for Busan last season.

Gimcheon have several U22 players of note this season. Oh Se-hun and Kim Bo-sub could make an impact in the early stages of the season, but both will return to their parent clubs in June. Suwon Bluewings youngsters Jeon Se-jin, Park Sang-hyuk, and Oh Hyun-gyu are also exciting talents to keep an eye on.

Busan IPark midfielder Kwon Hyeok-kyu could be the pick of the bunch, however. The rangy box-to-box midfielder made 16 appearances for Busan last season, showing plenty of promise in a poorly-organised team.

Kwon is most often deployed as an attacking midfielder, but his versatility will make him a useful squad member for Kim Tae-wan. Kwon is also able to play on the left wing, as a holding midfielder, and even as a striker. With his height (189cm) and versatility, Kwon evokes memories of Korea legend Kim Jung-woo, who scored 22 goals for Sangju during his own military service. With Kim Tae-wan nurturing his development, it’s possible that 19 year-old Kwon could be on his way to equally great feats.

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Biggest Question 

Will June’s Departures Derail the Title Challenge?

15 players will leave the club on June 23rd: (clockwise from top left) Kwon Kyung-won, Kim Bo-sub, Oh Se-hun, Lee Keun-ho, Park Yong-woo, Lee Chang-geun, Lee Myung-jae, Choi Chul-won, An Tae-hyun, Lee Sang-gi, Lee Dong-soo, Park Byung-hyun, Moon Chang-jin, Moon Seon-min, Ko Myung-seok

In all honesty, the biggest question could well have been, “Can anyone catch them?” Such is the quality of Gimcheon’s squad and their organisation under Kim Tae-wan, it’s hard to find any weaknesses in this side, or find a reason to argue that they won’t run away with the K League 2 title.

As ever, though, Kim Tae-wan will have to cope with a disruptive exodus of players in mid-season, and some of his star names are among the departures. The team’s current spine of Lee Chang-geun, Kwon Kyung-won, Park Yong-woo, Moon Seon-min, and Oh Se-hun are all off at the start of summer, leaving Kim with a big reshuffle in the not-too-distant future.

In theory, Gimcheon have enough depth to make this a non-issue. Kim Tae-wan is an old hand at easing new recruits into the team and managing a squad that is bloated at times and shallow at others. Should the team stumble during this transition, however, there may well be one or two clubs ready to make a charge for Gimcheon’s top spot.

Reason to Watch 

In the past I’ve argued that Sangmu have the potential to be every K League supporter’s second-favourite club, and that stance hasn’t changed. Manager Kim Tae-wan is one of Korea’s most highly regarded coaches, implementing a brand of football that is as tactically astute as it is easy on the eye.

With players from all across K League’s top two divisions in their ranks, even rival supporters will be keeping an eye on the development of their loaned-out players. Not to mention that this particular Gimcheon Sangmu side reads more like a Korea B team than a K League 2 outfit.

Sangmu’s only two previous seasons in the K League 2 (2013 and 2015) both ended in them winning the league and achieving automatic promotion. It’s hard to bet against them doing the same thing this time around, and all signs point to them doing it with style.

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