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The Story of Choi Yong-soo at Gangwon FC: How 'the Eagle' Soared, Then Slumped

On the 16th November 2021, Choi Yong-soo was appointed as manager of Gangwon FC, replacing Kim Byung-soo. What followed were 19 months of triumphs, hardships and now, the resignation of the club's 9th full-time manager. K League United columnist Nathan Sartain looks back on, and recaps, Choi Yong-soo's time in charge of the Bears.

The 2021 Escape

Initially, Choi Yong-soo had one job to complete at Gangwon, and that was keeping the team in K League 1. Such an assignment was never going to be easy for the new manager, with the Bears sat in 11th place winless in six matches, but the real magnitude of the task at hand soon showed. After all, following a 0-0 draw with his former employers FC Seoul in his first game in charge, Choi Yong-soo had confirmed he would have to lead Gangwon to survival through the promotion/relegation playoff.

Going into that crucial two-legged tie with Daejeon Hana Citizen, there were some positive signs starting to emerge, though. Gangwon were now looking far more structured than they did towards the end of Kim Byung-soo's tenure, and had began to add in a little bit of an attacking edge in their 2-1 final round home victory over Seongnam. As such, thoughts of imminent relegation appeared to turn into trust that a route to safety would be found.

And it was. Despite a discouraging 1-0 defeat in the away leg of the promotion/relegation playoff, Gangwon confirmed they would be playing first division football in 2022 with a rousing 4-1 thrashing of Daejeon at home four days later. That particular victory is one always likely to be remembered as the best of Choi Yong-soo's time at the club, partly for the way his team responded to going a goal down by scoring three in five minutes.

In short, optimism could be felt again amongst Gangwon fans, all because Choi Yong-soo had delivered on his promise of survival.

A Window of Cautious Optimism

So, with their status in K League 1 confirmed for another year, it was time for Gangwon to rebuild. Defensive midfielder Kim Dong-hyun was appointed as the team's new captain, a fair number of first-team signings were made (most notably Yu Sang-hun, Lee Woong-hee, Kevin Jansson, Kim Jin-ho and Dino Islamovic), and the departures of previously important players Shin Se-gye, ex-captain Lim Chai-min, and Lee Bum-soo were finalised.

In essence, this very much felt like a new Gangwon. One fully moulded to the liking of Choi Yong-soo, and one with ambitions of comfortably avoiding the same type of danger that lingered so near just a few months prior.

At first, things went well for the new look Bears too. In the opening round of the 2022 season, Gangwon defeated Seongnam 2-0, with debutant (and goalscorer) Dino Islamovic helping make all the difference in his appearance off the bench. What followed from there was a strong defensive display against Jeju United which saw the provincial club come away with a hard-fought 0-0 draw, before a disappointing narrow 1-0 home defeat to Incheon United was rectified a week later courtesy of a comfortable 2-0 triumph over Daegu FC.

Stylistically, Choi Yong-soo's ideas were beginning to take shape, his brand of counter attacking play spearheaded by target man Dino Islamovic sharpening with each passing game. It's at this stage the Bears would predominantly set up in a 3-4-3/5-4-1 formation, and a previously bit-part youngster in Yang Hyun-jun started to get more prominent opportunities, in a show of faith that would later come back to bring manifold results.

The Honeymoon is Over

Just like in every relationship, the honeymoon period has to end, and that was a lesson Choi Yong-soo swiftly learnt. Over the next 13 games there was to be just one victory for Gangwon (a 1-0 home win against FC Seoul), and they would drop a hefty 11 points from winning positions. Suddenly, a threat of relegation seemed to loom over the Bears again, undoing the season's promising opening.

Unsurprisingly, the situation was a more complex one than the surface level suggests. Gangwon's lack of results was never down to a lack of effort, nor was it purely the fault of the manager's newly favoured 3-5-2 tactics. Instead, it was an amalgamation of a lack of self-assuredness on the pitch (especially if the opposition team scored), failures to adapt to injuries suffered by key players, and arguably inconsistent recruitment.

All in all, Choi Yong-soo found himself with a rather large challenge on his hands to reverse the squad's fortunes. His team had become one in need of urgent repair, with a 4-1 thrashing at Incheon United a defining moment in Gangwon's season in the way it highlighted the pressing nature of the club's on-field issues.

The Great Resurgence

The fix: unabated risk taking. Almost overnight, Choi Yong-soo turned Gangwon into a team willing to put the opposition under sustained pressure, unbothered by how many they may concede because of a newfound confidence they can outscore their adversaries. It was unsustainable, yes, but in the interim it brought results the Bears desperately needed.

In the five matches that followed their 4-1 defeat to Incheon, Gangwon scored 14 goals, conceded eight, and went on to win four games. This run, which included a particularly impressive 4-2 away victory against Suwon FC, lifted the provincial club up to 7th in the table, and excited supporters who had patiently waited to see the fruits of their team's labour come to life. Additionally, Kim Dae-won and Yang Hyun-jun had solidified an electric counter-attacking wing partnership, something which would push both players to their best professional seasons.

From this point on, Choi Yong-soo consistently kept his side picking up results. It wasn't always pretty, with 1-0 victories against Incheon and Daegu feeling like real grinds, and some losses exposing some of the flaws in the Bears' defence, but given the main priority was getting away from any precariousness, this period in time was a resounding success.

Achieving Final A

On the last day of the regular season, Gangwon even managed to confirm they would be finishing in the Final A portion of the table. They did so with a 2-1 home victory against Jeju, a game that neatly bookended the very beginning of the Bears' major upturn in form which saw them win 10 out of their last 16 pre-split matches.

And, while Choi Yong-soo only managed to lead his men to four points from those last five games, he had already firmly ensured Gangwon fans had reason to celebrate. For memories of the prior year's struggles were fading, and optimism for a bright future was standing resolute. Perhaps now, the club had a manager able to get the team competing at the top-end of the table, regardless of the resources available to him.

A Patchy Start to 2023

The winter window preceding this season didn't quite pan out as planned, however. In the midst of being unable to sign a striker, Choi Yong-soo added just three non-rookie signings to his squad (Kim Woo-seok, Yu In-soo, Ikromjon Alibaev). And although on paper that trio would address areas of the pitch that needed boosting for Gangwon, it didn't quite work out that way in reality.

With that in mind, the Bears failed to win any of their first eight games in the 2023 K League 1 season, and began to feel the absence of key cogs like Kim Dong-hyun, who is currently on loan at Gimcheon Sangmu as part of his military duties. It has to be said, not every performance was bad here - some were actually rather strong - but there was a pronounced bluntness to the attacking play on offer, and in turn a growing lack of confidence amongst players born out of the diminishing form.

So, what next? Choi Yong-soo had found himself in a similar position with Gangwon before, could he fix the issues again?

Room for Hope?

For a short while, it appeared the answer to the latter question was yes. A frantic 3-2 win against FC Seoul felt similar to last summer's 4-2 besting of Jeju that catapulted the Bears into resurgent form, where effort and execution seamlessly aligned.

Then, a few days later, after 90+ minutes of perseverant defending, a Yang Hyun-jun breakaway goal gave Choi Yong-soo's men a 1-0 victory away to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. Now things were clicking again, the tactics that were struggling to deliver any sort of impact earlier in the year suddenly producing results.

When a penalty win in the FA Cup made it three consecutive wins (and four unbeaten) for Gangwon, it would've been understandable to start believing Choi Yong-soo had found the right formula again, and could lead the Bears back towards the mid-table positions.

The End

Unfortunately, that wasn't to be. Choi Yong-soo's brand of counter attacking football that once brought success would soon begin to largely fizzle out, turn increasingly passive, and leave the Bears remaining as the league's lowest scorers, some way away from safety.

Thus, four days after a 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Jeonbuk, which extended the team's winless run in the league to eight, Choi Yong-soo's time as Gangwon manager officially came to an end, with the curtain drawn on his tenure sometime during Wednesday 14th June. This does feel like a necessary step for both parties, with the Bears - who are sat in 11th with just two victories from their opening 18 games - in need of a refresh. But that isn't to say the end of this era comes without disappointment, or questions.

Would this season have been different had Choi Yong-soo signed a striker, as he wished to, this winter? Did he too lose confidence, hence the sometimes confusing team selections? Could Gangwon have pulled off another summer revival under Cho's tutelage?

They're all intriguing points of discussion, mainly because Choi Yong-soo was a good manager for Gangwon, all things considered. He kept the club in the first division in 2021, brought through Yang Hyun-jun as a key talent, unlocked Kim Dae-won's potential, and pushed the Bears back into the top half just a year after their relegation scare. Yet 'the Eagle' couldn't find the right way to adapt to an increase in pressure (and arguably the league-wide boost in squad quality), making a clean break only fair.

Going forward, Gangwon will now be looking towards Yoon Jong-hwan to keep them afloat, hoping he can learn from the lessons his predecessor didn't fully manage to. 

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