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Filling your Captain's Boots: How Can Gangwon FC Replace Kim Dong-hyun?

With captain Kim Dong-hyun heading to Gimcheon next year, and Gangwon generally struggling last season with depth in the middle of the park, it could be time for a revamp. K League United columnist Nathan Sartain looks at how the Bears’ have already explored the market for central midfield reinforcements, in addition to how the club may already have other solutions to any arising concerns staring them in the face.

How do you temporarily replace your captain? It’s a difficult question, and one which opens itself up to a multitude of answers. You could go for a short-term solution, passing the armband on to another worthy squad member while dipping into the loan market (or utilising squad depth, if you have an adequate replacement) to cover for your missing body. You may opt to promote a young player into the fold, nurturing their development to ensure there’s greater competition for places when your captain does return. You could even go down a seemingly dramatic route, using the situation to overhaul a facet of your team.

For Gangwon FC, the latter option may just be the correct one. With Kim Dong-hyun all set for his temporary move to Gimcheon as part of his military duties, the Bears have a chance to reflect on the centre-midfield position at the club as a whole, and look at how their captain’s impending departure gives them a chance for a complete reset. The signing of Ikromjon Alibaev, a man stylistically different from Kim Dong-hyun, suggests they may already be doing so.

The existing depth issue

While Kim Dong-hyun’s military exit rightly most likely expedited the search for reinforcements, central midfield depth was already an issue needing addressing at Gangwon. With Han Kook-young’s recurring injury woes, the Bears ended up so scarce of CM/DM options last year, young centre-back Kevin Jansson became a regular deputy in front of, not as part of, the defence. As it turns out, the Swede performed better in central midfield than he did elsewhere, but ideally you have enough alternatives in your squad to not need to take this risk in the first place.

To return to Han Kook-young, he becomes an interesting point of deliberation going forward for manager Choi Yong-soo. When fit, he is inarguably Gangwon’s finest central midfielder. But those occasions aren’t as frequent as they used to be. In fact, this year the 32-year-old only managed 325 in-game minutes (way down from 2989 in 2021), a number by far the lowest out of the club’s first-team players in this position. So can the Bears continue to trust Han Kook-young going forward? History suggests they can, and that this season was an outlier in lack of availability for the midfielder despite his unenviable historical injury record, but by the same token it's probably wise the provincial club continue their searches for more bodies.

In summary, for the vast majority of 2022, Gangwon had four natural central midfielders at their disposal, plus one player learning how to play there. Thus, more options are necessary (despite some moves already being made), regardless of whether these incomings actually replace anyone. Otherwise, the Bears may begin to struggle if they are to face any sort of injury crisis.

The Kim Dong-hyun departure dilemma

To preface the rest of this article, it’ll be a consideration of Gangwon’s current options to fill the gap left by their captain, either directly or indirectly. Seo Min-woo will not be considered a potential replacement here, due to the fact he has been a first team mainstay in 2022. Neither will Han Kook-young, as when available it’s fair to bet he’ll be heavily involved with the team.

Ikromjon Alibaev: a welcome K League Return?

Moving early in the transfer market, Gangwon signed Ikromjon Alibaev to immediately bolster their options in the middle of the pitch. The 28-year-old has previous experience working with Choi Yong-soo, having played under him at FC Seoul, and will likely be asked to perform the same role Yuki Kobayashi briefly had this year. As such, Alibaev isn’t a straight replacement for Kim Dong-hyun, but instead someone who gives Choi Yong-soo more tactical options, as well as a more diverse pool of players to choose from.

Looking on the surface level, in the 2019 season, when Alibaev’s performances at FC Seoul under Choi Yong-soo's management were at their apex, the Uzbekistan international managed three goals, and five assists. A recreation of this type of creative output would be welcome at Gangwon - only Seo Min-woo racked up an assist last season from central midfield, and only Hwang Mun-ki can match Alibaev’s 2019 goal tally - taking some of the burden away from star players Kim Dae-won and Yang Hyun-jun while offering something not currently available to the team.

This past year at Pakhtakor has seen the 28-year-old continue to demonstrate his abilities, too. Alibaev averaged, per 90 minutes, a respectable 0.59 key passes, 9.25 passes to the final third, 8.88 progressive passes, 3 assists, and 8.66 recoveries. Those numbers put him either above, or close to, Gangwon’s other central midfielders in these metrics, and show some indications of a player intent on collecting the ball, and getting it forward. Of course, the Uzbek was playing in his home country in 2022, not Korea, making it harder to draw conclusions from these figures, but the signs are there that Alibaev's reunion with Choi Yong-soo could prove fruitful, particularly given the provincial club's occasional absence of creativity in midfield last season.

In conclusion, Ikromjon Alibaev looks to be an astute acquisition. Not only does it give Gangwon an intriguing option in the centre of the pitch, but it allows for more tactical flexibility, and a way for the Bears to play more progressively. Granted, the 28-year-old’s defensive output isn’t the best, but if partnering him with someone like Seo Min-woo or Kevin Jansson, Choi Yong-soo could well manage to strike a successful, exciting balance in his squad.

Kevin Jansson - the wildcard option?

As alluded to earlier, Kevin Jansson was a bit of a surprise package in midfield this year. The positional switch was a risk that shouldn’t have needed taking purely from a squad depth standpoint, yet one that proved to be the refresh the 22-year-old needed having previously struggled to stamp his authority on the Gangwon lineup. Was he perfect? Far from it, though as a young prospect in a new country, the Swede showed himself to be someone certainly worth trusting.

Notably, despite his background as a centre-half, Jansson boasted better progressive passing numbers than his two main counterparts (Seo Min-woo and Kim Dong-hyun), managed more progressive runs, and completed more offensive duels per 90. In fact, generally the 22-year-old performed worse in defensive metrics - such as successful defensive actions per 90, interceptions per 90, and shots blocked per 90, than his fellow midfielders, showing part of the picture on how much he changed stylistically when moved further up the pitch.

So, what makes Kevin Jansson a wildcard option to replace Kim Dong-hyun? Put simply, it’s because nobody expected the Swede to be as effective as he has been in central midfield. At 6’2 he’s a commanding presence, but the 22-year-old is, importantly, technically gifted too, someone able to pick out a teammate with a calm maturity. As such, Jansson’s own impressive personal balance between defence (per 90, he averages 9.44 successful defensive actions and 7.18 defensive duels), and other aspects of his game like build-up play (he averages 7.02 passes to the final third, and 3.23 offensive duels, again per 90), make him a multifaceted option ready to mount a serious challenge for a consistent starting spot in 2023.

The Kim Dae-woo solution

If Gangwon don’t want to dip their toes in the domestic market for a direct replacement for Kim Dong-hyun, Choi Yong-soo could do worse than turn towards Kim Dae-woo. The 22-year-old first broke through under Kim Byung-soo, and while he didn’t quite have the same impact this year as he did in his debut season, there was still enough promise shown for Kim to be factored into proceedings going forward.

In defence, the youngster is energetic, often hunting players down, unafraid of putting a tackle in. He involves himself in, per 90 minutes, approximately 9.2 defensive duels (54.5% are successful), and completes an average of 4.68 interceptions, in addition to 7.19 recoveries (also per 90). These are similar figures to Kim Dong-hyun’s - granted Gangwon’s captain has a larger sample of games to analyse - and help demonstrate the type of effort Kim Dae-woo puts in for the team.

Another positive is the fact that the 22-year-old is decent going forward. Per 90, Kim Dae-woo completes 2.84 dribbles, competes in 6.86 offensive duels, and averages 0.84 touches in the opposition box. Kim Dong-hyun cannot beat any of these numbers, which point to his younger counterpart’s box-to-box qualities.

With a fresh-faced energy and determination, as well as a will to push his team on, Kim Dae-woo manages to be both similar, and different, to the departing Kim Dong-hyun. Add to that Choi Yong-soo’s liking of young players making a name for themselves in the first team, and the 22-year-old seems like an apt choice to temporarily fill the boots of Gangwon’s captain.


Despite general concerns about the depth of Gangwon’s midfield, it’s clear they have a variety of options to make up for the loss of Kim Dong-hyun's presence while he’s away at Gimcheon. Whether Choi Yong-soo opts for more attacking verve (Alibaev), continues down the slightly unconventional route (Kevin Jansson), or trusts another young domestic player to make a mark on his side (Kim Dae-woo) will be an exciting talking-point once the 2023 season draws nearer, though who knows, we may just have another surprise or two along the way first.

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