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2023 Preview: Gwangju FC Are Back, But Better Than Ever?

Gwangju FC are back in the big time after a season's hiatus and they are returning as the defending K League 2 Champions, but can the Griffins maintain their top-flight position come the end of the 2023 season? K League United columnist Clint Jones takes a look at the South Jeolla side's chances as they return to K League 1.

2022 was a surprisingly fantastic year for Gwangju FC. Initially, the season was expected to be one of consolidation for the South Jeolla side following relegation from the K League 1 in 2021. A major rebuild of the squad was required, with the likes of talisman Um Won-sang leaving the club during the winter, whilst the Yellows had gambled on Lee Jeong-hyo as their new manager. The former Busan IPark defender was making his managerial debut after having been the assistant manager at both Seongnam and Jeju United. However, despite the cautious predictions, Gwangju would go on and dominate the league. Having initially taken the lead of K League 2 in Gameweek 9, they returned to the top in Gameweek 12 and never relented their grip on the top spot to win their second K League 2 title in three years. The champions achieved a winning margin of twelve points ahead of the runners-up Daejeon Hana Citizen, whilst setting a K League 2 record points tally of 86 points from their 40-game campaign.

However, it looks as if the Griffins and Lee Jeong-hyo will need to repeat the feat of the previous season should they wish to maintain their position in K League 1 and avoid adding to their reputation of being a “yo-yo club” within Korean football, with another rebuild required during this winter transfer window.

Transfers In and Out

The biggest blow to Gwangju’s initial hopes of survival was the loss of star player Reis to Jeju United. The Brazilian left-sided forward was crucial to Gwangju’s drive to the second-tier title and promotion with his twelve goals and four assists during his campaign, as well as playing more league minutes than any other Gwangju player in 2022. In addition, his compatriot and fellow mononym Mike, who occupied the opposite side of the Yellows’ attack, has returned to his homeland with Clube de Regatas Brasil, with the Brazilian having contributed four goals and two assists during his 2022 campaign with Gwangju. Further departures from the spine of the championship-winning team in the forms of centre-back Kim Hyun-hun to Suwon FC and influential central midfielder Kim Jong-woo to Pohang Steelers have further hampered Gwangju’s potential hopes of maintaining their position in the top division.

Despite the losses in key personnel from the promotion-winning squad, Lee Jeong-hyo has dabbled into the transfer market to hopefully fill the gaps in the side. Former Albanian under-21 player Jasir Asani looks primed to become Gwangju’s key person on the flanks and fill the hole left by the departing Mike, with the 27-year-old right winger brought in from Kisvárda FC, where he scored three goals in four games during the Hungarian side’s adventure in the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Europa Conference League. Gwangju returned to the successful source of Brazilian football by bringing in yet another Brazilian to fill their ranks. The 29-year-old left winger Thomás has been brought in from Chapecoense and is hoped to occupy the hole in the attack that Reis has left. The winger is no stranger to playing outside of his homeland with Thomás having a loan spell at Seattle Sounders in 2015, and spending four years in Greek football with a successful stint with Apollon Smyrnis and a season with Atromitos. Last season in Brazil’s Série B, Thomás scored twice and assisted twice in his fifteen games played with the Verdão.

To strengthen their defence following the loss of Kim Hyun-hun, Gwangju has also brought in 29-year-old Dutch centre-back Timo Letschert from Danish side Lyngby. A former product of the famed Ajax academy, the six-foot-two player has acquired a wealth of experience during his career, playing the majority of it in the Eredivisie for the likes of Groningen, Roda JC, Utrecht, and AZ Alkmaar, whilst also having spells at fallen German giants Hamburger SV and the Italian side Sassuolo. Importantly, the Griffins have also secured the permanent transfer of centre-forward Lee Gun-hee from Seoul E-Land, who had a successful loan period with Gwangju during the 2022 season where he scored six goals and assisted once in his fifteen games with the club. Furthermore, they have strengthened their squad depth up front by bringing in experienced striker Shin Chang-moo from K League 1 side Gangwon.

The Current Squad

If Gwangju is to avoid relegation back to K League 2, they need to hope that their new foreign signings can quickly blend with the remnants of their 2022 promotion-winning side. More will certainly be expected from their talented Brazilian forward Sandro Lima who arrived at the club during the summer transfer window of 2022 from Turkish side Gençlerbirliği. His seven goals and four assists from his nineteen games towards the end of the campaign had a positive impact on Gwangju’s quest for the K League 2 title, and he’ll be fully expected to add to that tally going into the new season and establish strong connections with the new attacking talents brought in. Whilst Gwangju’s bright young talent Eom Ji-sung will be looking to enhance his reputation as he will compete in the top flight for the first time in his career. With admiring glances from K League 1 sides already being made towards the youngster, keeping the 20-year-old forward at the Gwangju Football Stadium for the upcoming season has been a coup in itself. He should get a lot of game time being able to fulfil the league’s under-22 slot in the team, and if he maintains his current upward trajectory, he might well add to the sole cap he earned from the senior national team in January 2022.

Whereas the Australian defender Aaron Calver will be a key player in marshalling the centre of defence (and hopefully chip in with the odd goal in set pieces) by continuing his excellent form going into his second season in Korean football. His partnership with Letschert will be critical for Gwangju’s hopes for the upcoming season, with the relative outsiders to the Korean game aiming to provide a new defensive order to keep K League 1 sides at bay. Certainly, Gwangju’s defence was their strongest point during the 2022 season by conceding just 32 goals throughout the campaign, with the side employing a strong backline to allow the more advanced players to run havoc. In addition to Calver, the vast experience of attacking full-back Lee Eu-ddeum may become a valuable asset in providing strong leadership to a squad that is perhaps inexperienced in playing in the K League 1. The 33-year-old has played in the K League 1 for the club before during Gwangju’s previous two stints in the top flight, and will be a valuable outlet for Gwangju’s attack having made nine assists and scored two goals during the 2022 season.

The Yellows in Peril?

Certainly, it could be considered that Gwangju are favourites for making an instant return back whence they came, especially considering that a number of key players have departed from the club and the inexperience of Lee Jeong-hyo as a manager at this level. However, history is certainly on the Yellows’ side with the club having never been instantly relegated from the K League 1 following promotion into the league with the club often struggling with the dreaded “second-season syndrome”. Whilst Lee Jeong-hyo has already proved the doubters wrong when he first arrived at the Gwangju Football Stadium in 2022, he’ll be hungry to add to his growing reputation by keeping the Griffins in the top flight, and with his philosophy of having a strong and hard-working defensive structure, the team from South Korea's sixth-largest city will be a very difficult team to break down. However, a potential weak point could be their strength in depth, especially in the full-back positions, and a few key injuries in key positions may be disastrous to Gwangju’s hopes of staying in the division.

Gwangju are back amongst the elite of Korean football, and are they better than ever? Well, they will need their new signings to bed in quickly into the established system if they are to have a chance. However, with a potentially solid core, a new and exciting looking forward line-up, and a manager with a growing reputation, it’s very possible that the Griffins could be the K League 1’s surprise package of the season and match the feat of 2020 when they finished in the top six.

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