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Final A For Gangwon FC - How Did it Happen?

Thanks to a 2-1 win over Jeju (and Suwon FC losing to Ulsan), Gangwon have found themselves in the Final A portion of the league for the first time since 2019. Considering just how close the Bears got to relegation last year, such an achievement feels all the more important now. But how did they get here? K League United columnist Nathan Sartain examines some of the key reasons why Choi Yong-soo’s men have found themselves in the top half.

The Obvious

It’s hard to talk about Gangwon FC’s success in 2022 without mentioning Kim Dae-won and Yang Hyun-jun. The former has been the side’s most reliable commodity, managing 10 goals and 13 assists across the 32 games he featured in, all while raising the game of those around him. The latter, meanwhile, is the undisputed breakout star of the division, a fact proven by the 20-year-old’s recent call up to the Korean national team. Together, the wing partnership massively aided Gangwon’s push into the top half, and without either of the two, achieving this feat would have perhaps been unthinkable.
Similarly, it’s clear that the Bears found their way into the Final A portion of the table in large part through a massive resurgence in form that has seen the provincial club win 10 out of their last 16 games (compared with just three out of their opening 17). In the middle of this run, we detailed a lot of the key reasons why such a big reversal in fortune occurred, so it’s not worth going into detail about again, yet definitely worth mentioning.

Strength in Depth

One of the more understated areas of improvement for Gangwon this year has been in its squad players. So much so that, in actual fact, members of the team who would have been expected to have less integral roles ended up forcing their way into the starting lineup week after week, or proving that they can be useful in other areas of the pitch when required.
Nobody fits this description better than Seo Min-woo. At the beginning of the campaign, the 24-year-old deputised at central defence, putting plenty of solid shifts in. Then, to cover for Han Kook-young’s extended absence, he became a regular starter in his preferred position of centre-midfield, where he was able to show off his passing range, improved tackling, and general all-round refinement. Always reliable, Seo Min-woo showed this season that he can be vital to Gangwon’s future plans.
There’s also the surprising case of Lee Jeong-hyeop, a player who, after struggling to hit the ground running, had a resurgence of his own. A true target-man, the 31-year-old proved why he was brought into the squad last year with his performances in the second half of the regular season. Willing to do the battling that would allow for his wingers to better express themselves, the former KNT striker was a necessary focal point, occasionally changed games with his impact, and managed to chip in with a few goals (plus one assist) too.
Add to that the positive impact of loan addition Galego, a forward-thinking winger able to pop up with a brilliant goal when needed, in addition to the ongoing development of the likes of Kevin Jansson, and Choi Yong-soo is starting to shape a Gangwon side that has, or can have depending on availability, genuine strength in depth.

Responding to Defeats

Part of what makes a good team good is its ability to respond to setbacks. Gangwon have had plenty this year, whether through injuries to key players (Dino Islamovic, Han Kook-young) or negative results, but it took until the summer for the side to figure out how to fully adapt. Put more simply, the Bears had to come close to rock bottom to be able to bounce back.
It was a 4-1 loss at Incheon that seemed to be the tip of the iceberg, with Choi Yong-soo realising that results needed to change, fast. Fortunately, they did so quickly, and Gangwon soon returned to winning ways at home to Jeju thanks to an excellent attacking display. Such tactical tweaks then successfully persisted, with the coaching staff leaning on their exciting forward players to set the tone as opposed to attempting to shut opposition sides out entirely.
This, naturally, culminated in a far more confident incarnation of Gangwon FC. Highlighting this point, Choi Yong-soo’s men won every single game that would follow a defeat after that June 22nd thrashing at the hands of Incheon. To basically guarantee you’d get such a positive response whenever there was a loss stood the Bears in good stead, although the challenge will of course be to try and convert some of those defeats into draws going forward.

[READ: The Rebirth in Form of Gangwon FC]

Learning to Win Away

Before July 2nd, Gangwon had not won a single game away from home. In fact, they had picked up just four points on their travels at that point, a meagre return key that bleakly complemented the Bears’ considerable struggles.
However, once the right formula was found, fortunes drastically improved. Winning five out of their last nine away fixtures, Gangwon became a far more resilient outfit on the road, achieving success with their counter-attacking approach. They were at times the league’s entertainers in these fixtures, and games like the 4-2 triumph over Suwon, as well as the 4-0 defeating of Seongnam, highlighted the dynamic strengths of star players Kim Dae-won and Yang Hyun-jun. It’s more than fair to say that Choi Yong-soo’s men would not be where they are now without their more expressive showings away from home.

Retaining leads

At one point, Gangwon and losing leads seemed to go hand-in-hand. To contextualise this statement, the Bears dropped 11 points from winning positions in their first 15 games, a number just four less than the side's overall points haul at the time.
That too was addressed, and the provincial club managed to never drop a single point from a winning position for the rest of the season pre-split. This has a lot to do with the fact the team were generally more confident, so backed themselves to see out slim leads (six of Gangwon’s final ten wins were by a one-goal margin), but there are other factors too. For example, Choi Yong-soo didn’t necessarily instruct his team to sit back in the same manner as they would previously, but rather he would encourage them to pick up loose balls and ruthlessly hit teams on the break. This meant that often a second, or third, goal would come before a response, which would in turn allow the Bears to effectively preserve their points. Of course, there was some luck too, but Gangwon were ultimately rewarded for taking more initiative with their game management.

Conclusion & The Challenge That Awaits

Generally speaking, it’s obvious just from watching a game that this is a completely different Gangwon side to the one that almost lost its place in the first division back in December. After all, they’re more fluid in attack, slightly more comfortable at the back even if not quite solid enough yet, and there's players at the club ready to put their all into each performance.
So what next? Is achieving Final A status enough on its own? Expectations wise, definitely, though the next five games do present an interesting challenge for Choi Yong-soo and co. Just four points away from 4th, there's a real chance for the provincial club to climb even further up the table, should they get their performances right.

No matter what though, this season has been a success for Gangwon FC. Even if they don't pick up a single point in the upcoming final stretch of the campaign. But given their ability to defy expectations this year, why bet against them writing one more headline?

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