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Pohang's Best Eleven Through an Up-And-Down First Eleven

 

The first rotation of the K League 1's round robin has come to an end, with all 12 teams meeting each other at least once. Despite the mixed recent form — one win, two draws and two losses — Pohang Steelers are third in the table. Pohang Steelers columnist Zeno Jo looks back at all 11 matches that the Steelers have played, picking the best performer from each.


The First Eleven Matches: Highs and Lows

Through the first 9 matches of the season, the Steelers were the only remaining unbeaten team in K League 1. Their five wins and four draws meant they had 19 points and stood at second, behind defending champions Ulsan Hyundai. Kim Jong-woo, the Shin Jin-ho replacement, was playing well. Sim Sang-min was quieting his doubters after a questionable 2022 campaign. Zeca, the club's biggest signing in recent history, was contributing effectively even if he wasn't scoring goals.

It's now a crucial point early on in the season, as the Steelers will look to prevent a three-game losing streak. In order to look forward to how we can win in the future, looking back at who inspired us with great performances through our first 11 matches is a good start.

Round 1 vs Daegu FC (H) 3-2 Win: Ho-jae Magic

In just the third season of his professional career, Lee Ho-jae has already had a handful of magical moments. In 2021 against Gwangju FC, he came off the bench with 14 minutes remaining and scored a brace to secure a 3-2 come-from-behind victory. In 2022, he again came off the bench to score a late goal to secure a draw against rivals Ulsan Hyundai. This time, he once again came off the bench in the 78th minute and scored twice for a come-from-behind victory against Daegu FC. 

Before the season, Lee Ho-jae's role in the squad this year was riddled with question marks. It looked as though he may leave on loan at one point, but with less than a month before the transfer window shut, he made it clear that he belonged in Pohang.

Round 2 vs Suwon FC (A) 2-1 Win: Go Young-joon

It's still a shock to many Pohang fans that Go Young-joon is a U-22 player. The role that he plays within the team's tactics and his individual talents mean that he'd still be picked if he wasn't U-22. His effectiveness on the pitch can be seen in the buildup to his goal that broke the deadlock. A Sim Sang-min cross that found the head of Baek Sung-dong eventually landed at Go's feet. His paciness means that he can easily lose defenders, and find himself in advantageous positions for second-chance opportunities.

Just minutes after his goal, Go's pace earned him another goalscoring opportunity, though his shot was directed just wide of the post as the Suwon FC defenders closed in on him. Go is, arguably, the most important player in Pohang's tactics. Not only does he satisfy the U-22 substitution rules, he's also become a mainstay as the team's attacking midfielder in Kim Gi-dong's 4-2-3-1, and also has the flexibility to play at a few other positions.

Round 3 vs Daejeon Hana Citizen (A) 0-0 Draw: Park Chan-yong And the (Rest of the) Defense

Ha Chang-rae's 35th-minute early dismissal after a last-man foul on Lee Hyeon-sik didn't just mean the captain's armband needed a new owner for the rest of the match, it meant the entire team had to play defense together. It's hard to pinpoint who was the man of the hour (or so, there was around 63 minutes total played after Ha's red card) in Pohang's stand against a Daejeon team that was red-hot in their return to K League 1. They scored five goals in their first two matches back in Korea's top flight. Hwang In-jae showed safe hands but wasn't tested nearly as much as he should have been, while Park Seung-wook and Park Chan-yong showed great defensive ability. 

After going a man down so early, it's hard to judge individual performances, but it's easiest to point to Ha's center-back partner, Park Chan-yong.

Round 4 vs Gangwon FC (H) 1-1 Draw: Ho-jae Magic Strikes Again

They say that lightning doesn't strike the same place twice. Lee Ho-jae may not be as quick or as dangerous as lightning, but he did strike the Steelyard twice already this season. After inspiring the team in a comeback win off the bench in Round 1 against Daegu, Lee came off the bench again to secure points for Pohang. This time, Lee's presence as an extra attacker in the box alongside Zeca gave him a goalscoring opportunity early, barely three minutes after he was substituted on.

The match was a frustrating one from the perspective of Pohang's attack. They'd dominated the ball with 73 percent possession, recording 25 shots and 8 on target to Gangwon's 4 and 1. Better finishing could have secured three points for Pohang, but another late cameo from Lee Ho-jae secured a draw.

Round 5 vs Jeonbuk Hyundai (A) 2-1 Win: Pohang's Number 10, Baek Sung-Dong

Baek garnered lots of attention in the offseason. His decision to sign with Pohang meant he would make his K League 1 debut, having spent his career overseas in Japan or in K League 2. In an interview with Xportnews in February, Baek said that he set a personal goal of 10-15 goal contributions. He finally got started in a big match against a Jeonbuk side that have stumbled out of the gates. 

He scored the equalizer in an awkward way, his attempted half-volley shot from Shin Kwang-hoon's cross being mishit, only for it to advance the ball into a better position. After chasing the ball and setting his feet, he had just the keeper to beat and did so with composure.


The icing on the cake came later, much later than anyone expected, when Baek sent a cross into the Jeonbuk box in the 98th minute. His ball found the head of Zeca, and he himself scored his first goal with the Steelers when his header beat Jeonbuk keeper Kim Jung-hoon at the near post. 

Round 6 vs Gwangju FC (H) 2-0 Win: One of Our Own, Go Young-joon

Go Young-joon's pace earned him yet another goal, this time against a recently-promoted Gwangju side that outscored their last two opponents seven goals to zero. He started off the bench while U-22 midfielder Yoon Jae-woon made his professional debut. In the buildup to his goal, Go ran into the box at the same time as a Park Seung-wook cross, which was targeted for Zeca. He ran in almost completely unmarked, and blasted a shot that rifled in off the crossbar, leaving Gwangju keeper Kim Kyeong-min on his knees.

An argument could be made for Baek Sung-dong to be the best player in this match, but Go's instant impact off the bench — scoring just two minutes after his introduction — shows how much of an impact he makes on the field.

Round 7 vs FC Seoul (H) 1-1 Draw: Pohang's New Number 6, Kim Jong-woo

An argument could be made for a number of players for this match. Kim In-sung scored his first goal for Pohang, Sim Sang-min put in a nice cross for the assist and Ha Chang-rae put in a good shift defensively. The reason for the Kim Jong-woo pick is that he was the creative go-to player for his team in this match. Despite concerns about his stamina, he played the full 90 minutes on a rainy evening, recoding 111 touches, 82 passes, 3/5 crosses and 7/8 long balls. 
 
Na Sang-ho's free kick goal in the third minute spelled disaster for Pohang early, and if it wasn't for Kim's playmaking ability, it would have been hard to fight back against a dangerous FC Seoul team that had Hwang Ui-jo, Na Sang-ho and former Steeler Lim Sang-hyub leading the line.

Round 8 vs Ulsan Hyundai (A) 2-2 Draw: Going, Going, Go Young-joon

Pohang played some of the best football it had all season, at least through the first hour or so of the match. Taking out of consideration the blown 2-0 lead, there were a lot of positives to take away from this match. For one thing, Go Young-joon was finally starting to find the back of the net. In seasons past, he's had the reputation of a player that could get into dangerous positions, but never quite finish. 

Not even a third of the season in, Go is already one goal away from matching his highest goal tally in the league. He scored two very important goals in the draw at Ulsan Hyundai. In the first, he used his pace to break the Tigers' defensive line, timing his run to perfection to avoid being offside and then beating the reigning K League 1 goalkeeper of the year, Cho Hyun-woo. His second goal showcased his finishing ability more, as he fired a rocket of a shot from outside the box to get the better of Cho once more. 

This match could very well be looked back at as Go's coming-out match, where he established himself than way more than a U-22 player —  if he hasn't already — in the minds of football fans.

Round 9 vs Suwon Samsung (H) 1-0 Win: Captain Kim

Kim Jong-woo had suffered a knee injury of some sort, meaning Lee Seung-mo started in his place. While Lee possesses his own qualities as a defensive midfielder, it was clear to see that he does not have the same influence in the midfield that Kim Jong-woo does.

After taking the lead early thanks to a rather lucky Kim Seung-dae goal, Pohang maintained the lead, but never looked too comfortable. Against a winless Suwon Samsung team, Pohang were lucky to walk away with three points. Kim Seung-dae's goal, which came after goalkeeper Yang Hyung-mo couldn't secure a grip on the ball, meant he was the pick for man of the match. 

Round 10 vs Incheon United (H) 0-2 Loss: The Big Man from Manchester, Alex Grant

In the 'Shin Jin-ho Derby', as it's been dubbed by some, Pohang and Incheon went back and forth exchanging shots in the first half. The balance would be broken when Kim In-sung received his second yellow card for a bad tackle on Gerso Hernandes, giving him an early shower and Kim Gi-dong a headache heading into halftime.

Pohang had been down a man before, but in a match where Incheon were so sound defensively and so quick offensively, they were no match. Incheon would score twice in the second half. The first goal came from Incheon pressing high and winning the numbers battle to score thanks to a fabulous Mun Ji-hwan strike. The second would come on an Incheon counter attack, when Pohang had pushed their line in their quest for an equalizer, but were caught on their heels by Gerso and Cheon Seong-hoon, the latter of which would score.

There was a lot to learn from this match for Pohang, but perhaps the biggest takeaway was that Alex Grant was one of, if not, the best defenders at the club. He had 8 clearances, won all 7 of his aerial duels, and even showed his intent to attack, pushing up the field to assist in the team's buildup. Though the match is one that every Pohang fan and player might want to forget quickly, Alex Grant's performance was noteworthy.


Round 11 vs Jeju United (A) 1-2 Loss: Baek Sung-dong

Revisiting the personal goal that he set of 10-15 goal contributions, Baek Sung-dong is on great pace. Though Pohang lost their second straight and look to bounce back in their upcoming fixtures, Baek Sung-dong again shined in the loss at Jeju, which was marred by poor finishing and an unfortunate Ha Chang-rae own goal.

Since Kim Jong-woo's injury, Baek has been the creative mastermind behind Pohang's attack, which speaks volumes about the influence that both of them have on this team.

Reflection 

If you haven't been keeping count, no need to worry. 

Go Young-joon: 3
Lee Ho-jae, Baek Sung-dong: 2
Park Chan-yong, Kim Jong-woo, Kim Seung-dae, Alex Grant: 1

From this list alone, it's easy to say that Go Young-joon has been the best player for the club. When he plays well, so does the rest of the team. This season is Go's last as a U-22 option, and he's playing the best football of his career. The Hangzhou Asian Games are coming up, and they will be one of the last chances that Go has to earn military exemption. They take place from September 19 to October 7, meaning it is also possible that he could miss Pohang's first two Champions League group stage matches, scheduled to take place between September 18 and October 4. It can also be argued that some players have hit below expectations, such as Zeca who has assisted much more than he has scored, or Kim In-sung.

If Go isn't your pick, it's likely Kim Jong-woo. 

Despite only picking him once through the first eleven matches. When Kim was healthy, he started seven out of eight matches, and Pohang won four and drew four matches. His injury lines up with Pohang's dip in form. In the six matches since, Pohang have two wins, two draws and two losses. With Kim Jong-woo, the Steelers are averaging 2.67 points and 2 points without him.

The dip in form after Kim's injury doesn't just reveal how important he is in Kim Gi-dong's style of football, it also exposes the lack of depth that he has. In years past, an injury in Kim Jong-woo's position would mean the next man up. This usually meant Lee Soo-bin, Lee Seung-mo, Park Seung-wook or Shin Kwang-hoon would play in defensive midfield. This lack of quality depth means that if the Steelers want to compete for a trophy this season, whether it be in the K League, FA Cup or the Champions League, they will have to recruit to fill the empty spaces on their bench.


FNR

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