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Gangwon FC - The story of their season so far

 


Generally speaking, bears are considered intimidating, occasionally threatening animals. They enjoy asserting dominance, especially amongst their fellow species, and have the scars to prove it. Ruthless predators when they wish to be, you wouldn’t want to cross a bear at the wrong time. It’s a given.

Yet, despite the room for fear and uneasiness if ever caught in a situation with a bear, they can also be quite timid creatures. Shy and rather passive, they avoid conflict and almost become the prey, rather than the predator. The same can be said for Korea’s metaphorical bears, Gangwon FC, who have endured something of a two-faced season which fits, at times, both sides of the definition of an animal which is often misunderstood.


A Shaky Start


After a packed transfer window which consisted of a rather sizeable squad overhaul for Gangwon, expectations were set reasonably high for the 2021 season. Many predicted the club to build on consecutive seasons of mid-table comfort, and in the process thrust themselves into a position which would see them potentially fighting for Champions League qualification.

 

However, reality soon set in. Ulsan mauled the Bears 5-0 on the opening day of the season, capitalising on early Gangwon wastefulness with four second-half goals, all of which came after Lim Chai-min’s sending off. It was a nightmare beginning, and one which manager Kim Byung-soo sought instant solutions for.

 

For starters, young goalkeeper Lee Gwang-yeon found himself dropped for the first home fixture of the new season, but his replacement Kim Jeong-ho did little to inspire confidence. Pohang Steelers consequently emerged victorious by three goals to one. Kim retained his place between the sticks for the meeting with Jeonbuk, though, a decision which proved unfortunate as the 23-year-old cost his team a valuable point with a calamitous error deep into stoppage time. With that being said, on the whole performances were starting to improve for the struggling side, and it seemed like it’d only be a matter of time before fortunes would start to change.


Seven Unbeaten


After three consecutive defeats, things did begin to pick up for Gangwon, albeit slowly. First came a promising point gained at the hands of Suwon Samsung Bluewings, followed by a hardworking draw at home to a resilient 10-man Seongnam, which consequently saw the Bears attain their first clean sheet of the season. Then, the win finally came.

 

It was arguably Gangwon’s most impressive outing of the campaign thus far, the Bears emerging victorious by two goals to nil amidst a sending off for Kim Dong-hyun in the middle of proceedings. Here, instead of the occasionally submissive, nervous performances, the team were confident, believing in their abilities and fully aware of when to graft, and when to zip the ball around with conviction. It was hoped that this would be a sign to come, and in some ways it was.

 

Shortly after, for example, Kim Byung-soo’s side claimed the scalp of FC Seoul, and subsequently acquired their first away victory of the year, all by being entirely pragmatic. They dug deep, essentially minimising the impact of players like Osmar and Ki Sung-yueng, before a late penalty handed the organised incarnation of a side once heralded for their commitment to free-flowing football - even if it didn’t work out - all three points. Perhaps this was the push the mid-table team needed to drive towards the top half, and their chance to prove that they could deliver on early expectations of a strong season.

 

For a short while, they did. Away to Jeju, Gangwon failed to impress in the same way they did against FC Seoul, but thanks to a smart Kim Dae-won finish, came away with a hard-earned draw. Against Daegu three days later, the trademark ‘Byung-soo ball’ made a return, with a somewhat surprising 3-0 win showing signs of a team high on confidence, belief, and with the skillset to mix it up amongst the better teams without losing their core philosophies. An FA Cup win away to Cheongju following their potentially season-defining triumph only emphasised these sentiments. The Bears were on the way up.


Back Down to Earth


Or were they? A 2-1 defeat at the hands of then struggling Suwon FC brought a sense of reality back into the situation. Sure, reliable goalkeeper Lee Bum-soo came off injured which seemed to disrupt the balance of play, and other absences, as well as fatigue were starting to catch up with a team which had otherwise started to remain consistent, but the truth still remains that Gangwon were outplayed on the day. They mightn’t have deserved to lose, in a similar fashion to an earlier game against Jeonbuk, with a goal right at the apex of the match that comes courtesy of dire defending, but in a competitive league concentration is a must.

 

That fact remained absolute in the following fixture, a turgid 1-0 loss to Gwangju which came thanks to a set-piece calamity which allowed Lee Han-do to head the ball into a practically empty net. In this game, Gangwon had 68% possession, but with only three shots on target, proved that there’s no use having the ball if you don’t know what to do with it, especially if you don’t believe that you have a chance of doing anything with it. The Bears were well and truly back down to earth, saved of embarrassment by the fact that Kim Byung-soo’s predominantly trustworthy defensive structure meant that losses were kept to a one goal margin, and that his side were never truly out of games.



A Two-faced Team


By now, Gangwon were back amongst the mid-table scrum, and deservedly so. For every good performance there had been an equally poor one. For every reason to be optimistic there was one to be hesitant. Such sentiments were amplified in the Bears’ next two fixtures which showed both the best, and the worst, of the team’s 2021 incarnation.

 

First, there was a hard-earned, exciting 1-1 home draw to defending champions Jeonbuk. Go Moo-yeol’s header allowed Gangwon to take the lead, and for the most part they looked like holding on with resolute defending until a Takahiro Kunimoto equaliser set them back. It was still a strong performance, though, and gave ample room for optimism. That was until, as was becoming a common occurrence during the campaign, a deeply disappointing loss, this time at the hands of Incheon. Kim Byung-soo’s men dominated both possession and key chances, but severely lacked confidence, conviction and commitment. It felt lazy, occasionally directionless, and was a complete change from what had occurred the week before it.


Building Blocks


For a short while, though, the defeats ceased. Gangwon began to look more settled, albeit devoid of creativity - understandable given the likes of Kim Dae-won, Go Moo-yeol and Cho Jae-wan were unable to play parts in most, or all, fixtures during this period - and were still unable to find the certainty necessary in a competitive league. Draws against top-half mainstays Pohang Steelers and high-flying Ulsan were praiseworthy, whilst consecutive stalemates in fixtures with similar placed opponents (Suwon FC and FC Seoul, respectively) left a lot to be desired in spite of clean sheets.

 

Nevertheless, there was no denying that the Bears were slowly heading towards an upwards trajectory. “If you can’t win, don’t lose,” Barcelona manager Ronald Koeman said when in charge of Everton, and it’s a statement which rung true for a side which was no longer often slipping towards needless, unfortunate defeats.


Can Kim Byung-soo Deliver Top-half Football?


Before the Asian Champions League break, Gangwon once again showcased the highs and lows of their performances this season. Their FA Cup victory against Seoul E-Land was calm and assured. It had moments of fear and trepidation, sure, but the Bears had an aura about them which was often missing in a lot of prior matches. A stunning Rim Chang-woo goal capped off the performance, and highlighted a lot of the strengths in Kim Byung-soo’s side. Four days later, however, a 1-0 loss to Daegu which came at the hands of a brutally unfortunate own goal, shone a bleak light on the side’s ineffectiveness when going behind in games (for reference, Gangwon have won just one point all season when coming from behind).

 

Fortunately, the Bears’ unenviable run in failing to come out victorious in the league was soon to end. After nine fixtures without a win, Gangwon - complete with many integral players returning - pulled off an impressive 2-1 triumph against Seongnam. Here, they showed the benefit in surrendering more of the ball to the opposition by being proactive on the break, and felt generally more composed when in possession. Cho Jae-wan marked his return with a fine finish, and the consistently inconsistent Vladimir Siladji found himself on the scoresheet too.

 

With a game against the league’s bottom-placed side, Gwangju, next on the cards, and with Gangwon now sitting in ninth place and just two points away from the top-half, could Kim Byung-soo manage to sneak his team into the upper echelons of the table as the 2021 season progresses? To do so, he’ll need to rely on his players to show more of the excitingly optimistic sides to their game, as opposed to the disappointingly meagre moments that have plagued an otherwise reasonably solid, if not slightly frustratingly inconsistent campaign.


Who to Watch?

For those wanting to know who to look out for when Gangwon’s season restarts later this month, look no further.


The Reliable Hand (Lee Bum-soo)



Not only is goalkeeper Lee Bum-soo the owner of arguably the league’s finest head of hair, he’s also been largely responsible for Gangwon’s defensive improvements throughout the year. He has kept six clean sheets in twelve appearances and conceded just six goals, only ever letting more than one past him in a single game on one occasion (a 2-2 draw against Ulsan). The 30-year-old continues to be reliable between the sticks, and will look to continue his fine form as his team attempt to propel themselves forward after the break.


The Surprise Package (Seo Min-woo)



For a while this season, Seo Min-woo found himself playing in Korea’s fourth division. He played in four of Gangwon Reserves’ opening six games, and failed to feature in the first team (he did make the squad on three occasions during this time, though). However, he soon started to grow into a low-key important figure in a wafer-thin squad plagued by injuries, impressing with sharp performances against Ulsan, Suwon and Seongnam. Playing at central midfield, centre forward and on the wing, the 23-year-old is a versatile talent who may just prove himself as a vital cog in Gangwon’s machine going forward, particularly with Kim Dong-hyun off to the Olympics.


One to Watch (Kim Dae-won)


Sometimes, a player needs a point to prove to excel. Attacker Kim Dae-won finds himself with more than one as he enters a key period in his debut season as part of the Bears. With just four goals so far and a disappointing single assist, the bright and energetic 24-year-old will want to silence his doubters by gaining some level of consistency in upcoming fixtures. After failing to make the cut for the Olympics, Kim may just come back in resurgent form.

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