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2021 Season Review: Ansan Greeners

 


Consecutive seventh-placed finishes in the KL2 cement Ansan Greeners’ place as part of the K League furniture; however inconsistency and another managerial change marred a season that began with so much promise but quickly unravelled.

 

It is difficult to justify a place in the casual observer’s time for a piece reviewing a season in which a second-tier side finished lower mid-table, yet as with any club, there is always a plethora of tales beneath the surface that without record, threaten to fade only into the foggy memory of the match regular. In a season that has seen the well-equipped but still only eight seasons old Anyang finally look like they might do the unthinkable and rise to KL1, 2021 might well go down as a marker for Ansan to have established a similar platform for a potential future attack on the play-off places.

Insignificantly Important

A glance across the 2021 league best players will not find a single Greeners representative in the best XI and only once did an Ansan player pick up the Player of the Round accolade, being the stand-out star of the season Lee Sang-min. However, there is a general trend of season-on-season improvement for this side since its 2017 inception, when the KL2 title-holding Ansan Mugunghwa moved their tenure to Asan. A points per game return of 1.19 is the second highest across Ansan’s five KL2 campaigns, a degree of season-on-season improvement reminiscent of Suwon FC who have now established themselves firmly in the top flight. This came about despite the resignation of manager Kim Gil-sik in August and the consistent absences of two of Ansan’s most creative forces in Asnawi and Canhoto.

Thus, while Ansan’s season looks like another making-up-the-numbers campaign, it may yet prove significant moving forward.  The opportunity for three KL2 sides to be promoted in 2022, along with the absence of inevitable league winners Gimcheon Sangmu, next season should be one of establishing Ansan as a serious play-off contender. Other clubs representing the flotsam on the tide of former K League giants such as Daejeon and Jeonnam may well also have their sights on a similar tilt at making 2022 mean something, but statistically, the Green Wolves at least find themselves in a good space. 

Interim manager Min Dong-seong spurs on the Greeners.

Cup Disappointment

In spite of all this, Ansan’s season produced yet another head scratching cup exit. With a potential glamour tie against eventual Champions League finalists Pohang on the cards, Kim Gil-sik opted to put out a reserve side that were duly dispatched at home by the visiting Asan. The fact that financial rewards do exist, particularly for sides whose main benefactor is the local tax-payer and sponsorship, make such cup ambivalence even more infuriating. The final would eventually feature a KL2 outfit in Jeonnam, and with the efforts of lower league outfits Hwaseong (Semis) and Daejeon Korail (Final) in 2019 still fresh in the memory, new coach Jo Min-kuk must put more investment into the KFA Cup.

Wonder Goals

With a goals per game rate of just over one per game, the second lowest in the league, Ansan were poor in attack. Eight of the thirty-seven goals scored were also from the spot, yet the Green Wolves managed to amass a solid set of goal of the season contenders. Take a look and decide for yourself (click the links for the goals). Lee Jun-hee’s dribble into the box and delightfully floated curled finish got the Green Wolves off to the perfect start back in February against eventual champions Gimcheon. Choi Geon-joo finished off a well worked team move amidst a packed Busan defence in April, calmly placing Kim Ryun-do’s knock-down into the top left corner from outside of the box. Min Jun-yeong produced an absolute howitzer against Bucheon later in the month, sealing a one-nil win with a thirty-five yard strike. Santiago made his only notable contribution in a Green Wolves shirt with almost his first kick on his debut, superbly controlling the ball on his chest before spinning and volleying it into the Anyang net from well outside the opposition box, opening the scoring in a three-two Line 4 Derby win in May. And just for a bit of fun, Ansan’s penultimate goal of the season was a wonderfully slotted pea-roller into the bottom left from perennial K-League journeyman, Robson Duarte. Take your pick for goal of the season!

Santiago celebrates after his wonder strike against Anyang.

Kim Gil-Sik’s Resignation  

After an indifferent first season at the helm in 2020, Ansan’s start to the 2021 campaign raised Kim Gil-sik’s managerial stock significiantly. After losing more key players during the winter, Ansan started the campaign brightly, picking up seventeen points from the first eleven matches as well as progressing in the FA Cup. This included two Line 4 Derby wins over Anyang, and placed the Green Wolves firmly in contention for the play-offs (see this hopeful article from May).  If this was a small peak of optimism, the following months would be a massive chasm of despair as Ansan picked up just fourteen points from the next nineteen matches, as well as being dumped out of the cup at home to Asan. Such a poor run of form would lead to Kim Gil-sik tending his resignation in mid-September, taking full responsibility for the situation as the Greeners languished in ninth. Part of the reason for the poor run of form could be attributed to heavy squad rotation with at least four changes being made to the starting line-up each match. A deeper analysis of the situation is covered in this late August article.  

Kim Gil-sik looks on from the touchline.

Min Dong-seong to the Rescue  

Min Dong-seong stepped in as interim manager for the remainder of the season and managed to tick the new manager bounce cliché box immediately with back to back wins against Asan and Anyang. These victories actually gave Ansan a shout of finishing in the play-offs but that was a flight of fancy. Nevertheless, more consistency to the starting XI helped the team finish strongly, and secure a seventh place finish. Min finished his Ansan tenure with a respectable 57% win rate from his seven games at the helm, making him one of the most successful managers to be at the helm of an Ansan club!

Min Dong-seong racked up an impressive win rate as Ansan manager.

Star Players

Working from the back, Ansan had a fairly solid defensive line in the early part of the season thanks to solid performances from Yeon Je-min (1.8 interceptions per game) and Song Joo-ho (4.6 clearances per game). Yeon Je-min in particular stepped into the captain’s role, taking on the number four shirt from departing captain Lee In-jae, and it will be a concern ahead of 2022 that they have to find another replacement as Yeon has departed for Anyang. Behind them, Lee Seung-bin would eventually cement his place as Ansan’s number one, after half of a season of swapping with Kim Sun-woo on a game by game basis. The second half of the season saw the end of that rotation and Seung-bin finished with seven clean sheets and the highest saves per game average in the league, demonstrating that he is the most important component in Ansan’s defence.

Moving onto the attack and Kim Ryun-do improved on his 2020 outing with nine goals and five assists. Robson Duarte surprised many pre-season detractors by finishing the season with seven goals and four assists and the highest scoring frequency in the squad with him often being deployed from the bench. His ability to drive the ball forward and get balls into the box made him Ansan’s best overall attacker for the 2021 season, and redeemed his reputation after less impressive stints at Seoul E-land and Gwangju. A lot of trust was put into the development of Choi Geon-joo after an impressive 2020, with the twenty-two year old making twenty-five appearances during the season. However he managed to net just three times, despite often displaying his technical abilities in the final third. As the only player under twenty-three to make more than twenty appearances, the club will be hoping that 2022 is finally the season we get to see his potential pay off.

Ansan’s star of the season however was Lee Sang-min. Coming in from Suwon Bluewings, he was carrying the burden of being labeled ‘not good enough’ for the KL1 having failed to establish himself in the fortress city. His performances in a green shirt should have dispelled any doubts as he came second in the league assists charts with six, and also managed to net his first four senior goals. His fitness was also impressive, missing just one league game all season, and if the Green Wolves can keep hold of him, he is clear captain material for the 2022 season.

Lee Sang-min had a fantastic 2021 season.

Asnawi Effect

The biggest talking point of Ansan’s season however comes from a player who made only fourteen appearances all season, and managed just one assist. It is of course, Indonesian sensation Asnawi Mangkualam Bahar. The twenty-two year-old made an instant impact off the pitch with Ansan shooting to the top of the KL2 Instagram follower charts. At the time of writing Ansan are the most followed K League side on social media with over 85,000 Instagram followers. By contrast, KL1 champions Jeonbuk have 56,000, Champions League finalists Pohang have 26,000. Arriving with such fanfare, (see our interview with Indosport in March), Asnawi did show his potential in the handful of games he played. However, he was impacted severely by the COVID situation, being stuck in quarantine for the first month of the season, and then going through another set of quarantine hoops as he represented Indonesia during the summer. Ansan fans, and the league itself did not get to see the best of the Suzuki Cup finalist, but his recent contract renewal promises a brighter 2022 season. His direct approach and natural ability to see space both in terms of passing and his own movement give the Green Wolves a major weapon, and after a disappointing miss from the spot in the infamous two hour match against Gimcheon, we should see Asnawi’s name appear on the score sheet before long.

Asnawi was a sensation both on and off the field.

COVID

Like entertainment and cultural outlets the world over, the K League suffered from COVID restrictions. Although ticket sales are not a vital revenue stream, nevertheless, the growing interest in the league and the potential that has was stymied by the reversion back to having no spectator’s midway through the season. There were few chances to see Asnawi play live for example, which surely has the potential to draw larger crowds should restrictions be lifted. The decision to enforce vaccine passports strictly also locked out children from attending games, which leaves a bitter taste for supporters and the potential future generation of K League fans.

New manager Jo Min-kuk has been left some solid foundations ahead of 2022, and with some proven scorers in the league, a solid midfield partnership of Lee Sang-min and Go Iwase, a reliable goalkeeper, and of course the sensation that is Asnawi, 2022 could be an exciting one for Ansan.

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