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Can Choi Yong-soo manage to push Gangwon towards the top half?

With a forgettable 2021 now firmly in the rear view mirror, it’s time for Gangwon to prove they’re made of sturdy stuff. It’ll take a lot to move away from the woes of a relegation battle, but there’s reason to be optimistic too. K League United’s Nathan Sartain looks at the state of the Bears going into their sixth consecutive year of top-flight football.

Opening Thoughts

It’s strange how things can work sometimes. Prior to last season, before 5-0 thrashings to Ulsan, 4-1 home defeats to FC Seoul and the sacking of long-term manager Kim Byung-soo, there was hope for Gangwon. Recruitment, on the surface, looked solid, and the team were coming off the back of two respectable campaigns, one of which included a top-half finish. Yet a relegation playoff was the finale to the Bears’ 5th consecutive year of top-flight football, a cruel reminder of just how easily you can crash back down to earth.

However, as the cliché goes, in darkness there comes light. Or, in the wake of sacking of an underperforming coach comes one with genuine pedigree. Something like that, anyway. Whatever the phrase, it’s obvious that Choi Yong-soo’s appointment changed Gangwon, and without it, they may not even be in K League 1.

The Choi Yong-soo Factor (in more detail)

Although the new manager bounce is something a lot of clubs experience, there appeared to be a genuine change when Choi Yong-soo took over Gangwon. Rather than the players suddenly expressing themselves, gaining a newfound confidence and striding to a couple of key victories, the Bears, almost overnight, became a much more structured outfit. Away to FC Seoul, a game earmarked as one key for the relegation fight the club found themselves in, there was a sudden emphasis on defensive solidarity. There, the newly deployed back three limited the home side to just five attempts on goal, and helped in the completion of 18 tackles, 21 interceptions, and 17 clearances. Clearly, this was a different outfit to the one which had a depressing penchant for shipping goals.

In the next game, the attacking play started to come together too. Again, the defence was resolute, but the 2 shots on target Gangwon had mustered the week prior became 7, and the overall system looked far less rigid. There was to be a stumbling block in the form of a 1-0 first leg playoff defeat to Daejeon, where Gangwon appeared unable to present a threat to the K League 2 side once they’d fallen behind, but any worries regarding a lack of innovation were soon quelled by a phenomenal 4-1 win a few days later. It was the best of the Bears shown over the course of a frantic 90 minutes, and a performance that should serve as the blueprint for how Choi will want his team to play going forward.

Keep an eye out for the 3-5-2 of Choi Yong-soo this campaign, it may just surprise a few people.

A Low-key Window

Now, onto 2022. It’s been a winter of subtlety for the Bears, with no headline-grabbing incomings, but equally no major outgoings, yet. Yu Sang-hun and Kim Won-gun, both of whom have prior experience working under Choi Yong-soo, were the first additions, allowing for increased solidity in defence amidst the departures of Lee Bum-soo and Shin Se-gye. Neither are particularly indicative of awe-inspiring recruitment, particularly given this is a team already with a fairly old back line, but those who watched Gangwon ship 51 goals last year will agree that sometimes, needs must.

Elsewhere, there’s been some movement to address the unenviably blunt attacking play that plagued the Bears in their previous campaign. Dino Islamovic, a Montenegrin striker signed from Rosenberg, comes with something new to offer. Standing at 6’3, the target man will be a presence if nothing else, and could allow for another dimension in attack should he be chosen to link up with Kim Dae-won, a more explosive and tricky forward. With 6 league goals last season, and 4 in this campaign’s Europa Conference League qualifiers, there’s obviously some talent there. However, some scepticism will linger over the acquisition, as this isn’t exactly a club which has an overwhelmingly positive recent history with how well their marquee foreign signings have faired.

A Fresh Focus on Youth

With that being said, as important as transfer activity can be, in both enthusing and improving a squad, it’s not necessarily the be-all and end-all. There’s no substitute for strong management, and it’s in this regard that it’s worth mentioning that many younger players who didn’t get a fair chance under Kim Byung-soo, or who appeared to be slowly developing over the course of a turgid season, will also be looking to make their mark. Hwang Mun-ki, Seo Min-woo, Kim Dae-woo, Lee Gwang-yeon. Even the likes of Song Jun-seok and Park Sang-hyeok. They’ll all be desperate to impact proceedings as they unfold, and make a statement that the key to greater success for Gangwon doesn’t lie in another complete overhaul.

This idea of a clean slate was already evident from the get-go of Choi Yong-soo's tenure. U22 players, like Kim Dae-woo, were suddenly allowed to play more than just bit-part roles that allow for five substitutions, and Lee Gwang-yeon even ended up displacing the generally reliable Lee Bum-soo in goal. A fresh injection of youth, one which liberated players who were arguably being held back, helped reinvigorate a group that was beginning to look devoid of anything resembling confidence and coherence.

There should be some room for caution left, though. After all, this is largely the same group that tripped, stumbled and then nosedived into 11th place in 2021. If those allowed to play larger roles, such as Seo Min-woo, don’t keep to decent levels of consistency, problems could quickly start again for Gangwon. But faith in the younger side of the cohort should be applauded, especially if a limited transfer budget wouldn’t allow for the necessary quality to be signed.

Kim Dong-hyun - The "Korean Osmar"

It felt like a sharp, memorable quote at first, the type deployed with the sole purpose of exciting a fanbase as they look forward to a new season starting. Yet there may just be more substance behind Kim Dong-hyun’s admission that he’d like to be the “Korean Osmar” than first thought. The 24-year-old, who was only signed last year, is now the captain of Gangwon. It’s a massive show of faith in the promising defensive midfielder, especially considering he hasn’t actually played under Choi Yong-soo yet, but bold decisions can sometimes pay dividends. Plus, with Lim Chai-min looking likely to end up moving away from the provincial club in this window, why not give the armband to someone you can build the team around? How Kim Dong-hyun steps up is an intriguing talking point, and certainly adds to the excitement of the new campaign’s imminent kick off.

Final Considerations

With all that in mind, it is worth considering whether Gangwon really do have what it takes to move up the league table. They may have done well in previous years, nestling into a sweet spot of mid-table comfort, but 2021 proved that they have regressed, and they’ve shown little in the form of ambition when it comes with keeping up with teams who used to be competition. The likes of Suwon FC, who already emphasised their talents in the second-half of last season, could further improve with the exciting arrival of Lee Seung-woo, and decent depth options like Shin Se-gye. Objectively, the Bears have one of the league’s weaker squads on paper, and so it’ll be a challenge to avoid another relegation battle.

However, football is no fun if laced with negativity, and so it’s worth ending on a positive note. Choi Yong-soo has already shown he’s up for a challenge, he took on one that seemed difficult to succeed with during the side’s darkest moment last year after all, and with a trust in youth, we could see Gangwon become the surprise package, as opposed to relegation prospects.

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