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2021 Season Review: Gangwon FC


Despite a shaky season which almost saw Gangwon succumb to relegation, the Bears seem to have successfully steadied the ship somewhat following the arrival of Choi Yong-soo. But with on and off the pitch controversy still lingering over the club, KLU columnist Nathan Sartain looks at where it all went wrong (and occasionally right) over the course of the campaign.

What Went Well

It’s quite difficult to truly say what went well for Gangwon aside from the fact that they managed to dodge relegation. For a lot of reasons this campaign proved to be extremely poor for the Bears, with long-serving manager Kim Byung-soo sacked, players suspended for their off-field behaviour, and the on-the-pitch results too inconsistent to warrant automatic safety. There were some bright spots, namely an FA Cup run which saw the club reach their first semi-final, and 3-0 league wins against Daegu & Suwon Samsung Bluewings, games which defied the general quality of performances fans had to watch this year.

With that being said, the most glaring positive is the appointment of Choi Yong-soo. Of course, it’s hard to evaluate his performance as manager thus far, but his remit would have been to come in, steady the ship, and steer Gangwon to safety. He did that in dramatic fashion, helping the Bears become the first team to lose the Promotion/Relegation playoff first leg and still stay up. But just as emphatically their survival came thanks to a 4-1 home win, one which showed the capabilities this team has, or can have, should they continue to be coached well.

What Didn't Go Well

It’s much easier to talk about the negatives. For one, Gangwon have been a side who for many years have frequently nestled into the mid-table, but, due to their floundering performances, found themselves stuck in 11th this season. Such fortunes came from inconsistencies throughout the year, and some really poor thrashings at the hands of bottom-half sides Gwangju, FC Seoul and Pohang (the latter mauling of the three Kim Byung-soo’s last game in charge of the club) which left a seemingly uninspired group of players failing to find an answer to the question of automatic survival.

To go further in depth, though, problems started with the recruitment in pre-season. Although additions like Rim Chang-woo and Kim Dae-won proved to be exciting, worthwhile and a large reason why Gangwon were even able to stay in the first division, others had the opposite effect. Vladimir Siladji, the replacement for promising striker Kim Ji-hyun who departed for Ulsan, racked up the same amount of league goals as centre-back (and yellow card magnet) Kim Young-bin… a meagre total of three. Masatoshi Ishida also struggled to hit the ground running, resulting in a loan to eventual promotion/relegation playoff adversaries Daejeon, but we’ll have to continue to wonder “what if?” on that front given he has now left permanently. Signing decent players across the pitch is fine, and necessary, but when you already lacked firepower, non-prolific strikers can only get you so far.

It’s not just recruitment and two-faced performances, however. Gangwon also had their fair share of good old fashioned bad luck in 2021. Injuries to players like Ko Moo-yeol, Kim Dong-hyun, Han Kook-young and Lim Chai-min over the course of the season really put a pin in momentum, the Bears losing assets that could give anything from goals, to energy in midfield, to a bit of organisation at the back. Such woes did affect form, and forced COVID delays courtesy of an outbreak in the summer when the Bears looked like they were gaining stability didn’t help, either.

Yet, put simply, what ultimately went wrong was the fact that a squad which isn’t actually all that bad ended up in a position they could have prevented with a bit more initiative and nouse, and conviction.

Team MVP

Kim Dae-won

It was quite the debut season at the provincial club for Kim Dae-won. He was quick off the blocks, scoring two goals in his first three appearances, before maintaining a decent level of consistency over the subsequent few matches. In the opening portion of the season he totalled four goals and an assist, playing as the kind of ever-present forward who would always give defenders a tough time even if the net would fail to bulge. Despite this, the 24-year-old soon found himself limited to sporadic appearances, playing a slim total of 162 minutes in the eight league games from the 21st July to the 26th September.

When he re-emerged, things soon changed, and Kim Dae-won proved why he is Gangwon’s MVP. 2 goals and 2 assists in the final four games before the split helped the Bears get a grip of their escalating situation, his contributions aiding massively in the seven points gained during that period. And, although he was often limited in how effective he could be in the final games before the playoff, the creative forward still found himself scoring on three occasions. With 11 goals and 5 assists over 37 appearances in all competitions, Kim Dae-won has set the bar high for next campaign, a season Gangwon fans will be hoping shows the side of the 24-year-old seen at the beginning and end of 2021.

Young Player of the Season

Kim Dae-woo

It wasn’t exactly a season for young players to show themselves off in 2021, with the U22 substitute rule often meaning prospects would be limited to cameos at the beginning of matches, unable to make a proper mark. Yet Kim Dae-woo did make some semblance of impact, offering energy to a midfield which could, at times, severely lack it, and growing in maturity when called upon in key games towards the end of the campaign. The potential is clear, and Choi Yong-soo appears to be a fan.

Most Disappointing Player

Vladimir Siladji

The fact that summer signing Lee Jeong-hyeop, a striker hardly famed for being a notorious goalscorer, completely usurped Vladimir Siladji in being selected, says a lot about the Serbian’s disappointing year. Eventually failing to even make as much as the bench, his three league goals were the summation of poor performances and a real lack of attacking bite, whilst he never quite seemed to gel with his teammates. Considering Gangwon were close to the signing of K League 2 MVP An Byong-jun, Siladji serves as an emphatic reminder of how vital it is to sign the right profiles.

Most Important Decision in the Off-Season

Revitalise the squad

When injuries hit, it was glaringly evident that Gangwon lacked the sort of strength in depth required to stay in the league (they are, it could be argued, very fortunate they had Han Kook-young available for the playoff games). The likes of Seo Min-woo are promising players, and in short bursts can impact games and show themselves to be valuable, but when relied upon consistently, their lack of palpable quality shows, with the phrase “thrown into the deep end” instantly coming to mind. Should Gangwon sign reliable additions at centre back, in the centre of midfield, and up front, then players like Lee Jeong-hyeop, who offer something useful but not entirely needed in every game, can play a more effective part while someone more prolific and effective comes in, ultimately benefitting everyone.

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