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2023 Preview: Can Pohang make their 50th season a magical one?

It's been an up-and-down offseason for Pohang Steelers. They finished third in K League 1, good enough for a spot in the 2023 AFC Champions League. Since then, there have been a number of outgoings, both expected and unexpected, as well as some signings that have captured the attention of fans. With the club's 50th anniversary coming on April 1, the goal isn't just to do as well as last year, it's to win it all. 

How was 2022 for the Steelers?

To sum things up, the 2022 season was above expectations for the club. After finishing ninth in K League 1 in 2021, while reaching the final of the AFC Champions League, the club was poised to do better in 2022, especially as it was the last year of manager Kim Gi-dong's contract. Thanks to great performances from captain Shin Jin-ho and striker Heo Yong-jun, the club finished in third, 13 points behind second-place Jeonbuk Hyundai and six points ahead of fourth-place Incheon United. 

New signings made their mark in a big way. As the season rolled on, Jeong Jae-hee cemented himself as Kim Gi-dong's go-to player on the right wing. Goalkeeper Yun Pyeong-guk was recruited as Kang Hyeon-mu's backup but performed when called upon. Wanderson returned to the club for his third stint and showed up when needed, both as a left back and as a left winger. Kim Seung-dae did the same, playing across the front four and joining the K League's 40 goals-40 assists club.

However, the season also came with some disappointment. After striker Borys Tashchy failed to succeed in 2021, Moses Ogbu was brought in on a free transfer from Chinese Super Leg side Wuhan Three Towns. In 15 appearances, he only managed one goal and his contract was eventually terminated on August 31. The club's FA Cup run came to an end earlier than they may have hoped as well losing 3-2 against Daegu FC in the quarterfinals.

Overall, the 2022 season is viewed as a success, as it brought the club back to the AFC Champions League.

A Few New Faces

The club moved quickly to secure transfers this offseason, something that we don't often see. Zeca, the striker that was on-loan at Daegu FC from Mirassol FC, was reported to have agreed to a transfer to Pohang Steelers before the season had even ended (Munhwa Ilbo). Brazilian defensive midfielder Oberdan Alionço de Lima, referred to as Oberdan, was also brought in with time to spare, with Futebol Interior reporting his signing to be finalized on December 9th. 

The motivation behind securing foreign player signings early in the window is a very clear reaction to what has happened with past players. Pohang has struggled with foreign players joining preseason training late, with one of the most famous examples being Manuel Palacios. When Palacios transferred to Seongnam FC in 2022, an article from Sports Genius questioned whether he had paid his fines for joining training camp late. The 2023 training camp was the first in recent memory that the club's foreign players were part of training camp from day one. 

Winger Kim In-sung joined his old enemies, with the former Ulsan Hyundai star joining from Seoul E Land. Attacking midfielder Baek Sung-dong also joined on a free transfer for his first K League 1 transfer, having spent most of his career in Japan and K League 2. Choi Hyeon-woong also joined on a free transfer, a center-back who played for Jeonbuk Hyundai's B team last season. Finally, midfielder Kim Jong-woo was brought in to replace Shin Jin-ho. 

It comes without saying that there were also notable outgoings. It seems that every year, the club has some sort of controversy with a transfer. This year, the club's hot topic transfer was Shin Jin-ho. Shin had a long and complicated saga that led to the club selling him to Incheon United. The same could be said for Lee Gwang-hyeok, a player that reportedly trained with Suwon FC before coming back to Pohang last summer. Lim Sang-hyub, a player that had a career resurgence wearing Pohang's red and black stripes, joined FC Seoul to wear a different set of red and black stripes, with the appeal of a higher wage being a no-brainer at this stage in his career. 

Apart from youth signings, Pohang's transfer activity was quick and minimal. It can be said that all incomings were brought in to fill the spots of first-team outgoings (Kim In-sung for Lim Sang-hyub, Zeca for Heo Yong-jun, etc.), but it remains to be seen whether this transfer strategy will work out. 

So Who Starts?

We'll start from the defensive third and move forward.

GK: Between the sticks, Yun Pyeong-guk is likely the starter. He started at the beginning of the 2022 season as Kang Hyeon-mu recovered from injury, and maintained that spot until he suffered a finger injury. Hwang In-jae returned from Gimcheon Sangmu, but he's been shaky at times. Should Yun face injury troubles or a dip in form, Hwang will be the first man up.

LB/RB: Sim Sang-min and Kim Yong-hwan both stayed in Pohang, much to the surprise of some fans. Both players saw their roles in the squad diminish as the season went on, with Sim losing his vice-captaincy to the in-form Heo Yong-jun. When they didn't play, Wanderson would play on the left side, and Park Seung-wook or Shin Kwang-hoon would play on the right side. All three of those players can cover different positions, which makes it hard to say who starts. The starting fullbacks will likely change depending on the opposition, but Wanderson at left back and Park Seung-wook at right back is a likely pairing.

CB: Alex Grant and vice-captain Ha Chang-rae are the two best center backs at the club, and will be the starting pair if healthy. Park Chan-yong, who applied but was not accepted to Gimcheon Sangmu, will be on the bench with youngster Lee Gyu-baeg and new signing Choi Hyeon-woong. 

CM: In Shin Jin-ho's position, it's probably right to expect his replacement to start. Assuming Kim Jong-woo starts in central midfield, his partner will likely be Lee Seung-mo. Lee has recovered from a fractured ankle relatively quickly, and has also played as a striker in the past. If he can prove himself, new signing Oberdan could also start. In certain situations (health or opponent tactics), Shin Kwang-hoon and Park Seung-wook can also play in this position. Roh Kyung-ho and Kim Jun-ho are likely third string in this position.

AM: Go Young-joon has owned this position for what seems like the past three years, and it's likely no debate that he's the starting attacking midfielder in his last season as a U22 player. Baek Sung-dong and Kim Seung-dae can play in this position as well, as can Kim Jong-woo. Cho Jae-hun and Yun Min-ho may also see playing time.

LW/RW: Kim In-sung is the best left winger on the team, though Wanderson can move up from left back to play in his natural position. Baek Sung-dong can also play in this position, which adds to the unpredictability of this squad. At right wing, Jeong Jae-hee cemented himself as the best in the position last season and given the lack of incoming at the position, he likely is. Captain Kim Seung-dae played his best football last season in this position, so expect him to see the field as well. 

ST: Zeca is without a doubt the best striker at the club, and arguably the only top-level player at the position. He's stylistically different from Heo Yong-jun, but is a player that Kim Gi-dong clearly likes, given how quickly he was recruited. Backing him up will be Lee Ho-jae, who is no longer considered U22. Lee Seung-mo and Kim Seung-dae can also shift into this position.

Expected Best Eleven: Yun Pyeong-guk, Wanderson, Ha Chang-rae, Alex Grant, Park Seung-wook, Kim Jong-woo, Lee Seung-mo, Kim In-sung, Go Young-joon, Jeong Jae-hee, Zeca

Expected Bench: Hwang In-jae, Sim Sang-min, Shin Kwang-hoon, Cho Jae-hun, Baek Sung-dong, Kim Seung-dae, Lee Ho-jae

What Does 2023 Have in Store?

Tactically, more or less the same. Expect Kim Gi-dong to run the 4-2-3-1, though considering the number of moving pieces (Park Seung-wook, Shin Kwang-hoon, Wanderson, Kim Seung-dae and Kim Jong-woo), it might be hard to predict starting elevens. The AFC Champions League starts much later as the competition shifts to a fall-spring schedule, meaning that more focus can be put on domestic competitions. 

Though it's hard to say where exactly the club will finish, a trophy is the goal regardless of which competition it comes from. The heart says that the club will put a star next to its 50th season and win the K League, but a more realistic projection would be a Final A finish, around 4th. The club doesn't have considerable depth, but has the freedom to give playing time to a large group of youngsters, who could see playing time in the FA Cup or in the Champions League against certain sides. Though reaching the heights of the 2021 Champions League would be amazing, even a semifinal finish would be satisfying.

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