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Replacing Shin Jin-ho: Pohang's Tall Task

After a few weeks of uncertainty that resulted in the player staying home from the team's training camp in Vietnam, Pohang Steelers captain Shin Jin-ho has left his boyhood club for the second time in his career. K League United columnist Zeno Jo takes a look at the process behind the midfielder's departure to Incheon United and how the club might go about life after Shin Jin-ho, a reality that many Pohang fans could not imagine after such a successful 2022 season.

Just a few months ago, Pohang Steelers ended their 2022 season on a high note. They finished third, qualifying for the AFC Champions League for the second time in three years, and had arguably the league's best midfielder at the club. At this point, fans likely could not have fathomed the possibility of their captain wearing anything other than the Steelers' horizontal red and black stripes until retirement. 

That possibility became a reality in recent weeks, with both clubs announcing Shin's transfer to Incheon United on January 20th. The transfer saga was yet another slow burn that Pohang fans are all too familiar with, a result of the club's financial approach that has resulted in key players leaving either due to transfer or breakdown contract negotiations (e.g., Song Min-kyu to Jeonbuk Hyundai, Kim Kwang-suk to Incheon United, Stanislav Iljutcenko to Jeonbuk Hyundai, etc.). 

Shin's case is a mix of the two but with him being gone now, the most important thing is to replace him as effectively as possible. To do so, we must first ask...

Who is Shin Jin-ho?

Born in the city of Guri in South Korea's Gyeonggi Province on September 7, 1988, Shin Jin-ho is a midfielder playing in the K League. He started his career with Pohang Steelers in 2011 after playing for the club's U-18s at Pohang Jecheol Technical High School. Before leaving as a free agent after the 2015 season, he had spent three seasons on loan at three different clubs in the Middle East: Qatar SC, Al-Sailiya SC and Emirates Club. 

From 2016 to 2020, Shin spent time with FC Seoul, Sangju Sangmu for military service, and then Pohang's fierce rivals Ulsan Hyundai, where he captained the team that won the 2020 AFC Champions League. After this season, he returned to his boyhood club Pohang Steelers in a window that also saw former Steeler Shin Kwang-hoon returning.

In his two seasons since returning, Shin has enjoyed great success under manager Kim Ki-dong. Without a doubt, his best play came in the 2022 season, where he scored four goals and assisted 11, en route to being named to the K League's Best Eleven and winning the Dong-a Sports Football Player of the Year award. 

In Shin Jin-ho's second rodeo with the club, he played 80 matches in all competitions, scoring six and assisting on 20 occasions. Compared to his first stint (83 games, six goals and nine assists) and his ACL-winning time at Ulsan (65 games, two goals and 10 assists), it's no wonder that many around the league have called Shin's recent times at Pohang as his career's peak. 

He was the club's captain in the 2022 season, and missed seven games due to calf injuries and suspensions, and started all but one game where he was available. His departure leaves a vacuum in terms of who sports the captain's armband, a vacuum which Kim Gi-dong looks to fill by turning to...

The Leaders that Remain at the Club

On January 10, while uncertainty about Shin's status as a Pohang player was growing, the club announced its captains for the 2023 season. Versatile attacking midfielder Kim Seung-dae, 31, was named the club's captain. He's in his third stint with his boyhood club and signed an extension in the offseason. Center-back Ha Chang-rae, 28, was named the vice-captain. He's been with Pohang since the 2018 season and has been a regular in Pohang's back four.

Apart from the captains, the club has a number of veterans, many of which can be considered club veterans. Shin Kwang-hoon (35), Sim Sang-min (29), Wanderson (33) and Kim In-sung (33) are all players that have plenty of experience playing in Korea, the first three players having spent extended amounts of time in Pohang. Sim, a left-back, was last year's vice-captain to start the season before eventually losing the role to Heo Yong-jun.

In this upcoming season, Kim Ki-dong will be relying on these players to set an example for and guide the younger players at the club. 

Tactically Replacing Shin Jin-ho 

Having covered how to replace Shin Jin-ho off the field, the next course of action is to discuss how he can be replaced on it. It's hard to understate how big of a role Shin played in Pohang's play last season. He has great creativity that allows him to play dangerous balls forward and vision that allows him to switch the ball to open up the field. He was also the team's go-to man on set pieces, taking 152 corners in the 2022 K League season. 

In terms of personnel, the club currently has two players that naturally play defensive midfield, Lee Seung-mo and new arrival Oberdan. In the past, Kim Ki-dong has also been known to use Park Seung-wook and Shin Kwang-hoon at the position, though the two typically play at right-back. Additionally, there are younger, less proven players in the position, such as Kim Jun-ho, and Roh Kyung-ho.

Just a few weeks ago, the club also had an academy graduate that played in the position, Lee Soo-bin. Lee has since completed a transfer to Jeonbuk Hyundai, affecting the depth at defensive midfield for Pohang. He would have been the ideal player to replace Shin, though moved on having not lived up to expectations. In an interview with GOAL, manager Kim Ki-dong said of Shin Jin-ho's transfer, "If I knew this was going to happen, I would not have let Lee Soo-bin go."

So who steps in?

In a rather uncharacteristic move, Pohang Steelers have moved quickly to find a replacement. As a result of Shin's transfer saga being a 'slow burn' as mentioned before, it seems as though the club was able to identify and target potential replacements. Just two days after it was reported by Sports World that Shin's move to Incheon was finalized, an article from Sports Seoul was released, detailing that Pohang would bring in Gwangju FC's Kim Jong-woo to replace him. 

In past instances of key players leaving, the club has rarely (if ever) moved this quickly. Song Min-kyu's summer switch to Jeonbuk in 2021 did not result in the club bringing in anyone at his position, despite the club still competing in the AFC Champions League. The club attempted to replace Stanislav Iljutcenko with Borys Tashchy and Moses Ogbu, though both did not last longer than one season. 

The club was able to sign Kim by meeting his release clause, which was reported by Sports Chosun to be around 300 million Korean Won, most of which was paid for by Shin Jin-ho's transfer fee which was rumored to be around 200 million. Pohang announced his signing on the 20th, the same day that Shin's departure was announced. 

Kim Jong-woo is not a perfect replacement for Shin Jin-ho. He isn't exactly a defensive midfielder, having also played as an attacking midfielder throughout his career. Despite this, Kim does possess a set of useful strengths. He has great pressing, something that Pohang can use to their advantage due to Kim Ki-dong's preferred style of play, which involves moving quickly on the counter. Even as a defensive midfielder, he possesses the ability to join the attack, both by playing passes through the defense and by dribbling in tight spaces. He's also a player that can be utilized at a number of positions and can be trusted on set pieces. 

Steelers fans don't necessarily have high hopes for Kim. He has big shoes to fill, and it remains to be seen whether the front office has played its cards right, or has planned poorly for a transfer window that, for a while, seemed so promising. 


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