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The Rebirth in Form of Gangwon FC

With the Bears currently enjoying the summer resurgence promised by manager Choi Yong-soo, it’s worth considering the platform for survival the provincial club has built for itself. K League United columnist Nathan Sartain examines Gangwon’s new state of play, and why there’s reason to be excited.

When Gangwon lost 4-1 away to Incheon, in a game they actually dominated in terms of shots taken, things looked to be turning bleak. It was the Bears’ 5th consecutive winless outing in all competitions, their 8th loss of the season, and in many ways a match which emphasised the growing woes facing the team on the pitch. It could be said that it felt like nothing could be done to fix the form of the side unless it involved a major overhaul, and such luxuries are seldom afforded mid-season, when the risks could still conceivably outweigh the rewards.

But then came the clash with Jeju. A 4-2 win so tension-relieving in the way everything seemed to click, it brought out the raw emotion of the players - who had never lacked effort, just the points to show for it - carrying with it the air of potential change. A 2-0 triumph away to Seongnam (the first Gangwon win of the season on the road) followed… maybe things genuinely were going to turn around?

Even after a 2-1 loss to Ulsan, one that saw individual moments of either opposition quality or self-inflicted clumsiness outweigh the palpable fight shown, there was cause for optimism. Seemingly, Gangwon were no longer an outfit who could be turned over by their opposition, and no matter anyone else’s strengths, there would at least be an adequate battle on the pitch.

Driven by this new confidence, and a sense of attacking freedom, the Bears subsequently secured two consecutive victories. The first, a 3-2 win at home to Gimcheon, was nervy in a game management sense, but showcased the power of Yang Hyun-jun’s wing partnership with Kim Dae-won in noteworthy fashion. Then, a 4-2 away success against Suwon FC shone a light on the developing dynamics of the entire squad, while also effectively displaying the individual flurries of brilliance that will remain key to Gangwon’s future success.

Now with four wins out of their last five matches, it’s unarguable that Gangwon are in a far healthier position than they were just a month ago. Ahead of the side’s return to league competition after the EAFF E-1 Football Championship break, here are the key things that have made the provincial side a team to keep an eye on, rather than worry about.

Attacking Resurgence

It’s no secret that putting away chances hasn’t been Gangwon’s strong suit over the last 18 months. In the 2021 season they were the third lowest scoring team (managing 41 goals), firing blanks in 12 of their 38 league matches. Then, this year looked to be following a similar trend, with just 16 goals scored in the Bears’ first 17 games.

Yet that all changed dramatically, and fast. In their last five matches, Gangwon have managed 14 goals, just two shy of their overall number in league competition prior to this run. Of course, part of this is thanks to some statistical over performance, but regardless of that, such a drastic increase is well worth applauding.

Plus, the improvements are certainly noticeable. There have been moments this campaign the Bears have seemingly had the brakes on, unwilling to push forward and score that extra goal. Against Suwon Samsung Bluewings in May, they failed to up their intensity when having a man advantage, looking at times more likely to concede than score. On other occasions, like when Gangwon faced Incheon in their embarrassing 4-1 defeat, there was a noticeable aspect of complete and utter wastefulness, with 24 overall shots failing to be converted into more substantial threats (aside from Kim Dae-won’s effort). That’s not the case anymore, and although there are still chances spurned - these are humans after all - there’s a newfound, exciting creativity to the provincial club’s play which is paying dividends.

The Yang Hyun-jun & Kim Dae-won Show

It’s unsurprising to those who have watched Gangwon recently, that a lot of this recent attacking upturn has to do with the form of star player Kim Dae-won, and rising prospect Yang Hyun-jun. To highlight that, it’s worth mentioning that the pairing have had 14 goal contributions between them in the last 5 games (10 for Kim Dae-won, 4 for Yang Hyun-jun).

Continuing, while that fact may be emphatic enough to highlight just how important Choi Yong-soo’s wingers have been of late, there’s much more to their games too. Both Yang and Kim are skilful; able to create chances out of nothing, or through unrelenting endeavour. With their positive attitudes, they also possess the right determination to help dig the team out of tricky situations with a goal or assist. And for fans, they are just really entertaining to watch in a counter-attacking system, with their speed, smart dribbling and composure assets that allow for exciting flashes when hitting teams on the break.

Kim Dae-won in particular has been a revelation, even if it’s his younger contemporary who has been garnering attention for his rapid development, and headline-grabbing performance against Tottenham. With 9 goals and a league high 7 assists, the 25-year-old has become something of a figurehead in recent months, leading by example with everything from communication to output. Nobody expects such a massive upswing in returns for the forward to continue - 10 of his goal contributions for the year have came in the last five matches - but even just some retention of current consistencies will stand the whole team in good stead going into the latter stages of the season.

Choi Yong-soo’s Tactical Tweaks & a Note About Wing-Backs

When Dino Islamovic suffered his unfortunate injury in the opening portion of the season, Choi Yong-soo was thrown into a tactical dilemma he struggled to figure out. With an underperforming, then sidelined, Lee Jeong-hyeop, his favoured 3-4-3 formation often turned into the 3-5-2 commonly seen at the start of the 48-year-old's tenure, and during his time with FC Seoul. 

However, the reasons why such a system was axed at Gangwon in the first place soon became clear.

In a 3-4-3, both Yang Hyun-jun and Kim Dae-won have the freedom to stretch the pitch, swap sides when needed, and supply/receive balls to/from the target man. In a 3-5-2, particularly when there’s an absence of a Lee Jeong-hyeop, or Dino Islamovic, that changes, harming the narrower forwards as they are largely unable to play in a way that best suits them. Additionally, the extra body in midfield doesn’t seem to massively improve defensive numbers, or help in the build-up phase.

With all that in mind, it’s easy to see why the tactical tweak to redeploy the 3-4-3 formation has brought with it improved results for the Bears. Although there is one aspect to the system that has become increasingly important: the role of Gangwon’s wing-backs.

At the moment, the WB pairing are a perfect mix of age and experience, raw and refined. 22-year-old Kim Jin-ho, on the right-hand side, is smart at linking up play with his fellow youngster Yang Hyun-jun, strong on the overlap, keen to put balls into the box, and can ease the right forward’s defensive responsibilities. 31-year-old Jung Seung-yong, on the other flank, does a similar type of job, though is largely a more reliable defender, and is more astute at occasionally filling in at the centre of the pitch. Combined, the two are a solid duo, together bridging the gap that once seemed to be evident between Gangwon's defence and attack.

The Honourable Mentions

Before finishing up, it’s fair to give props to some other names who have helped Gangwon during their revival of form. As, while it’s easy to wax lyrical about star players, it still does a disservice to contributors in other areas.

Seo Min-woo: Versatile enough to play basically anywhere on the pitch, Seo Min-woo has come into his own this year as Gangwon’s reliable hand. A strong passer, he often thrives in the centre of midfield, and is more than able to get stuck in, or cover for another player, whenever needed.

Yu Sang-hun: Replacing Lee Bum-soo was going to be a difficult task, yet Yu Sang-hun has proven himself a perfect successor. Sure, there have been some errors, but the 33-year-old has been a difference maker in key moments during games, which is all you could really ask for.

Lee Jeong-hyeop
: At times, Lee Jeong-hyeop draws some unfair criticism. He isn't the most clinical of strikers, or indeed a player who can single-handedly win a match for his team. What he is, though, is an effective forward who provides an out ball for teammates, is willing to battle, and can be a mentor to younger players. Add to that his recent goal contributions, and you have a senior player capable of reliably stepping in whenever called upon.

Kim Dong-hyun: Starting to suit his role as club captain, Kim Dong-hyun has stepped up a gear recently. Far more defensively sound, the South Korean international is proving his worth to the side through his aggressiveness and calm movement of the ball.

Balša Sekulić: Averaging a goal every 72 minutes at the moment, Sekulić has been a welcome addition to Gangwon's attack. Once his fitness is fully up to scratch, the 24-year-old can turn into a real force as the side's target man.

Final Thoughts

There’s reason to be hopeful about Gangwon going forward. Defensive instability is still a concern (the Bears have conceded at least two goals in all but one of their last 7 matches), but Choi Yong-soo appears to have found a formula worth sticking to. After all, it's one that brings out the best of his exciting forward players, while striking a fairer balance between clearly defined roles, and the allowance of unpredictable moments of individual brilliance.

There will now be some tricky tests in the coming weeks, with fixtures against Ulsan, Jeonbuk and Pohang on the horizon. Nevertheless, if Gangwon can come out of the next period relatively unscathed, they may just have a chance of achieving their ambitions of finishing in the top-half.

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