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2021 Season Review: Jeju United

Jeju United almost did the impossible in 2021 following their K League 2 triumph last year and automatic promotion, just missing out on qualifying for next year's Asian Champions League.  After a sluggish first half to the season, the islanders picked up the pace down the stretch, first nudging into the top six on the final day of the regular season, then falling short of qualifying for continental football next season.  One thing is for sure - the future looks bright and next year will bring new goals to this aspiring group.  KLU's Branko Belan reviews the 2021 campaign.

What Went Well

Jeju United finished the season well by securing a spot in the top half of the table putting them in Final A for the playoff round, something that many thought would not be possible after just winning automatic promotion following their championship campaign in K League 2 in 2020.  They finished third among first division clubs in the second half of the season, and still had a chance of playing football in Asia once the season was done but Daegu FC's failure to win the FA Cup took that opportunity away from them.

There were still a number of reasons to feel optimistic about the season overall, as Joo Min-kyu finished 2021 as the league's top scorer with 22 goals.  Gerso Fernandes, who joined the club in the last winter transfer window from MLS side Sporting Kansas City became one of the islanders' most important players as the season progressed.

Jeju's defensive core of Kim Oh-gyu, Jung Woon, and the emerging Kim Kyung-jae held strong over the course of the season and won the Tangerines some very important matches.  Nam Ki-il got the most he could have out of his players and should have at least garnered a nomination for K League 1 Manager of the Year for his efforts but it will only serve to drive the team harder as they prepare for the new season which is just two months away.

What Didn't Go Well

The islanders started out slowly and dropped too many points from winning positions in the early part of the campaign.  In fact, they only managed to secure 22 points once the first half of the campaign was finished.  It took a bit of time for the new players to gel into the squad.  Some didn't at all, in fact.

Had Jeju beaten the teams below them in the table early in the year as they should have, they would not have had to rely on results elsewhere to determine their fate come the end of the season.  That will serve as a good lesson for them as they prepare for training camp ahead of the new year.

Young Player of the Year

Kim Bong-su

Kim Bong-su developed into a great talent for Jeju in his first season.
Kim Bong-su played an important role in Jeju United's success this year.  A product of the club's vaunted youth system, he made 28 appearances for the inslanders in 2021, scoring three goals with one assist, including two match-winning goals against FC Seoul and a one goal, one assist performance in Jeju's 4-2 victory over Pohang Steelers late in the year.

He never really seemed out of place when given a chance to play and inserted himself into the team's system and style of play admirably.  Of course, it certainly helped being able to play next to Lee Chang-min in midfield, and the influences of Ahn Hyun-beom and Jung Woo-jae also had a great impact on his speedy development this year.

With his performances, he has likely cemented a spot for himself in the starting eleven once the season gets underway.  His confidence showed through in big moments and if he is able to follow up on a successful rookie campaign, the islanders may well be ready to make the next step and qualify for Asia once again.

Team MVP

Joo Min-kyu

Joo Min-kyu credited his Golden Boot success to his manager Nam Ki-il.
Last season, Joo Min-kyu helped Jeju United claim their first league trophy in three decades.  This year, he outpaced all scorers in the first division, winning the Golden Boot with 22 goals, including five goals in Final A to finish out the season.  

When Lee Chang-min went down because of injury with the season winding to a conclusion, he donned the captain's armband and led from the front.  When Jeju needed goals, he was there to provide them.  His natural instinct in front of goal and his ability to also convert from the spot were major reasons for Jeju's success.  He earned a nomination for league MVP for his efforts and became the latest member of the K League's 100 goal club with his late winner against Suwon FC in Final A.

The frontman gave a lot of credit for his success to his manager, saying in particular that Nam Ki-il is a leader who the players can trust and follow.  

"Even over the period during the season when we went twelve matches without a win [with Jeju's placing in the table falling to ninth], he treated us the same way, with respect, trying not to burden us.  He represents the burden of the players on the pitch.  He has strong charisma and always motivates players to strive for higher goals.  Because of these qualities, we were able to reverse our fortunes later in the year," the striker concluded.

Most Disappointing Player

Oskar Zawada

Oskar Zawada (center) spent most of the season out with an ankle injury.
The Polish forward joined Jeju in the winter transfer window prior to last season, and the club paid 350,000 euros to attain his services.  There was a lot of optimism surrounding him following his arrival at the club, but he never panned out as expected.

He spent much of the season either injured, not in the squad, or on the bench.  In fact, he made only ten total appearances for the club, and registered just one assist over that span.  It is doubtful as to whether he will remain with the club.  His market value has plummeted to 200,000 euros since the beginning of the season.  

He suffered an ankle injury early in the year from which he never really recovered, and that raises significant questions about his fitness levels.  Whether he will get a second chance remains to be seen but it would be no surprise if he leaves the club in the winter.

Biggest Question in the Off-Season

Who Will Be the Number One 'Keeper in 2022?

Lee Chang-keun started the final nine matches for Jeju United in 2021.
Oh Seung-hoon was the undisputed number one goalkeeper for the team for the majority of the season.  Once he went down to injury, Lee Chang-keun, who returned from Gimcheon Sangmu after completing his military service, took his place between the sticks and finished out the season until its conclusion.

Oh is 33 years of age while Lee is 28.  Nam Ki-il could have a dilemma on his hands, and, in fact, does.  There have currently been no reports of either goalkeeper leaving the club, so will the manager opt for experience to lead from the back next year, or will he go with the younger option?  Both are capable shot stoppers but one may have to be sacrificed in the end, so as not to put a wrench into the squad.  Winter training camp will go a long way in answering this question.


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