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Gangwon’s Attack is a Complex Problem Requiring a Solution

It’s easy to point fingers at Gangwon’s leaky, often extremely inconsistent defensive displays. After all, when you concede the third highest amount of goals out of any side in the division, an 11th-placed finish doesn’t sound too far fetched. But it’s an area the Bears have slightly succeeded in improving, the 51 goals conceded this year the fewest in a 38-game season since their return to K League 1 in 2017. The main issue, instead, is the opposite end of the pitch, and lies in the predictable, often blunt, attack.

Some Considerations…

On the surface, it may not appear like there are any pressing issues for Gangwon in attack. Granted, they only outscored two sides, and failed to hit the back of the net more than bottom-placed Gwangju, but they were only a handful of goals away from being amongst the league’s most competitive attacking outfits. Add to that the fact that their xG of 48.9 had them ranked at a much more respectable 8th in the table, and it feels like there is more of a finishing issue as opposed to a chance creation one. However, when you look at the profiles of who the Bears have at their disposal, as well as their actual returns, things look a little more bleak.

It should be said that this is a recruitment issue, too. Gangwon haven’t ignored the fact that their attack is lacking, they just haven’t succeeded in changing it. The most obvious example comes when looking at the end of Kim Seung-dae’s loan, and Kim Ji-hyun’s departure to Ulsan. Together, the pairing had 17 goal contributions over a combined 45 league games in 2020, helping the Bears clock in as the 5th highest scoring side in the division that year (for comparison, replacements Kim Dae-won, Vladimir Siladji, Masatoshi Ishida and Lee Jeong-hyeop managed just three more goal contributions over a larger 78 game stretch in 2021). In 2019, when goals were spread around the squad further, Kim Byung-soo was in charge of K League 1’s third most prolific outfit, his side scoring 56 times. The fact that they are nowhere near that level now is a real concern, and something which needs rectifying.

The Not-so Bad

Despite the negativity, it’s not all doom and gloom. For one, Kim Dae-won has been very impressive in his debut year at the provincial club, scoring 11 goals and assisting 5 across the league and cup. It’s arguable that Gangwon wouldn’t even be in the division without his performances at the tail-end of the year, inarguable that he was the bright point of an all too flaccid forward line. In league games involving Kim for the majority of proceedings, Gangwon scored an average of 1.08 goals per game (compared to exactly 1 without him), which does show that they were only slightly worse off without their main asset, but given the comparison size (24 games compared to 14), it’s reasonable to assume the gap could well have been larger (in the five matches Kim Dae-won failed to compete in at all, the average goals scored number drops to 0.8).

Nevertheless, a one-man team Kim Dae-won is not, and for all the positives, it’s clear they need more than just him operating at a high level. And that’s where the problems begin, because Gangwon showed repeatedly this year that they do not have another wholly trustworthy outlet at the top of the pitch.

[READ: 2021 Season Review: Gangwon FC

Of course, there is Ko Moo-yeol, a respected figure at the club who knows where the back of the net is and averaged a goal contribution every 166 minutes this season. But at the same time, it’d be wrong to hang your hopes on him. At 31, it’s arguable his finest days are behind him - his best first division goalscoring season was back in 2011 - even if he is still capable of producing moments of magic. Of course, the 14 games missed to injury this season were technically flukes - one down to a traffic accident, the other owed to an unfortunate movement on a tricky surface at Incheon - but it’s not something which inspires confidence. Ko is undeniably a quality part of the team, but there needs to be more depth to support him as he reaches a stage in his career that may see him benefit from a lessened load.

The Worries

And then there’s the real issues. Vladimir Siladji, who was brought in off the back of an impressive 19/20 season in Serbia’s first division which saw him score 16 times in 29 appearances, performed disappointly overall in K League 1. It’s worth noting that it’s never easy to adapt to a new country and league, especially in a pandemic, but both wastefulness and sloppiness were present in the 28-year-old’s performances. Although he averaged a goal contribution every 198 minutes, something not too far away from Ko Moo-yeol, his three league goals saw him reach the same total as centre-back Kim Young-bin. And he developed quite the penchant for giving the ball away, which isn’t the best example to set.

It’s here that it should be mentioned that Lee Jeong-hyeop has statistically performed worse than Siladji, who he usurped into the starting eleven upon his arrival, when helping the ball go into the back of the net. But in fairness to Lee, he hasn’t been all that bad. Although he’s managed just one goal and one assist, a return no striker would be pleased with, Gangwon’s overall attacking play did seem to improve after his signing. Hardworking and evidently motivated, the 30-year-old arguably played more than he should have, but he’s an asset that can be useful in rotation, and someone who is more than able to put a shift in when needed. Of course, the fact that he missed seven key chances doesn’t exactly scream promise, and the fact his conversation rate is 5% something that is inarguably poor, but Lee should be nowhere near first on the hit list of Choi Yong-soo.

Sharing the Load & Where Do Gangwon Go From Here?

Taking all that into account, it’s not just forwards who score (obviously), and as such there should be both praise given, and concern raised, for how Gangwon’s goals were spread out last year. In total, the provincial club had 18 different goalscorers in 2021, an impressive number no matter how it’s viewed, but especially so when considering that the Bears used 30 outfield players across the season. It means that, on average, over one in two appearing squad members notched at least one goal, a welcome statistic when it comes to padding out the rather inconsistent attack. However, aside from the aforementioned attackers, it was just Kim Young-bin, Cho Jae-wan and Kim Dae-woo who managed to score more than once in the league. That’s a bit of a worry, as ideally you’d want a few midfielders who could chip in regularly, and more of a concern when it’s considered that there likely won’t be 18 different goalscorers again this campaign. Maybe, though, the likes of Hwang Mun-ki and the aforementioned Kim Dae-woo can push on, and increase their own returns to the benefit of the whole club.

So, where do Gangwon go from here? It’s a question with multiple potential answers, but the most obvious is that they are in need of a prolific forward. They could already have what they still require, had there not been issues with An Byong-jun’s potential transfer last year, but that’s another story for another day. One thing is clear, though, free agent Park Chu-young, who himself endured a goalless season in 2021 and found himself with minor speculation over a transfer to reunite with former boss Choi Young-soo, is not who is needed. Although it does appear he won’t end up donning Orange this year anyway, the Bears do not necessarily require an ageing forward with their best days behind them. This isn’t a place to speculate on specific profiles, though, but it is worth wondering whether another young attacker, like Kim Dae-won, could be the solution. After all, nobody else quite lived up to expectations last year.

To conclude, with goalkeeper Yu Sang-hun Gangwon’s first addition of the winter, and both captain Lim Chai-min and Lee Bum-soo rumoured to be on their way out, it remains to be seen when, if at all this window, a resolution is found for the team’s attacking problem. Ultimately, other priorities may take centre stage, the Bears’ limited budget potentially meaning they’ll have to back what they currently have for a little while longer. It’s not ideal, far from it, but Choi Yong-soo has already somewhat proved that this is a team not a million miles away from the necessary consistency to move up the division’s ranks. Is there room for optimism then? Probably not, but a bit of hope won’t harm anyone.

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