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Yang Hyun-jun: Gangwon FC's Starlet Moves to Celtic

After a rather public transfer saga involving multiple twists and turns, Celtic have got their man, signing Yang Hyun-jun from Gangwon FC. But what can Hoops fans expect from the 21-year-old South Korean forward? K League United columnist Nathan Sartain reflects on Yang's time with the Bears to find the answers.

The Beginning

In 2021, Yang Hyun-jun signed for Gangwon FC as a rookie player, joining from Busan Information High School. At this time, the youngster predominantly plied his trade for the Bears' B team in the Korean fourth division, and was commonly used either as a central midfielder, or number ten. Yang racked up four goals and three assists in 21 appearances for Gangwon B, turning some important heads in the process.

When Kim Byung-soo did begin to bring Yang Hyun-jun through to the first team on the back of his B team success, however, things would change, as the current Suwon Samsung Bluewings manager believed his young prospect may be better suited on the wing, as opposed to in central areas. Why? According to this interview, it was because of the attacker's skills with forward dribbling, as well as his passing tempo.

Regarding Kim Byung-soo, who saw potential in Yang Hyun-jun from an early stage in his journey, he was sacked as Gangwon manager in November of 2021. That left a big question: Would his successor see the same bright future for the rookie winger?

The Breakout Begins

As it turns out, the answer was yes. Choi Yong-soo clearly noticed Yang Hyun-jun's talent, so quickly made inroads to involve the forward in his plans once the 2022 season rolled around. Such an opportunity was seized upon too, with the 21-year-old serving up some standout performances straightaway, earning himself one goal and three assists in his opening seven league appearances alone.

Thus, even at an early stage, it was evident the type of player Yang Hyun-jun was going to be. Fast, direct and positive are just three descriptors well-suited to sum up the winger around this period of his career, in part thanks to the attacker's penchant for driving forward with the ball, entirely unafraid of who he might have had to take on along the way. Put another way, Yang was quickly turning into a key creative outlet for a side instructed to play on the counter, and excelled when granted the freedom to make something happen of his own accord.

Unfortunately, though, this early season momentum wasn't allowed to be capitalised on fully. Injuries to both Dino Islamovic and Lee Jeong-hyeop left Gangwon without a recognised first team striker, so often Yang Hyun-jun and Kim Dae-won would double-up as the figureheads in a somewhat blunt 3-5-2 system. This in turn meant a dry patch for Choi Yong-soo's up-and-coming talent, and less of the eye-catching play seen when he had free rein on the wing.

Grabbing Headlines

By the time summer rolled around, things got much brighter, because as Gangwon regained their form, and Lee Jeong-hyeop returned, the wing partnership of Kim Dae-won and Yang Hyun-jun seamlessly solidified. It's no overstatement to say the pair subsequently became must-watch together, with both putting in consistently brilliant performances to help the once-struggling Bears shoot up the table.

Capping this period of substantial form off, Yang Hyun-jun got the nod to play against Tottenham Hotspur in a friendly as part of the K League All-Stars side. Instantly, a larger audience became exposed to the wonderkid, and where some players could struggle with the increased attention, the then 20-year-old thrived in the spotlight. Yang's substitute appearance, which essentially served as a mini amalgamation of his positive traits, arguably stole the show, given online clips of him skilfully navigating past his Premier League opposition, and at one stage even flooring Tottenham defenders, were widely shared. All that was missing that day was a goal, but they weren't to be too far away at club level.

Consistency is Key

Now, a stride had been hit, one that wouldn't really let up until the end portion of the season. In fact, just three days after the Tottenham match, Yang had his most effective performance of the year, scoring twice and grabbing an assist in Gangwon's 4-2 away win against Suwon FC. The best of these contributions came by way of a skilful backheel finish, which emphasised the growing self-belief this increasingly in-form prospect had gained. Truly, it felt like the Bears possessed a star in their ranks.

More strong showings followed, too. Notably, a goal against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors underscored Yang's improved positioning when in the box, a volley in a 1-0 win away to Incheon United highlighted the attacker's undeniably flourished technique, and the overall assuredness in his two-footed wing play - perhaps born from his futsal days - demonstrated raw ability.

All in all, Yang Hyun-jun being trusted in such a prominent role under Choi Yong-soo paid dividends, with Gangwon going on to secure a Final A finish in the 2022 K League 1 season, and boasting some of the league's finest wide play. If there was to be a critique for the 21-year-old here, it would be regarding the decision making and finishing side of his game, but there were plenty of signs both aspects were still developing at a commendable pace.

Award Season

To commemorate such a successful breakout year, Yang Hyun-jun enjoyed a fruitful awards season. He would attain not only the K League Young Player of the Year accolade, but the KFA's same honour, once more underlining the talent of Gangwon's brightest prospect.

As a short surface level look at the statistics in Yang’s year, he ended with eight goals, and four assists. Additionally, the winger averaged 4.44 dribbles per 90, 1.94 passes to the final third per 90, 0.27 smart passes per 90, and had an accuracy of 62.92% when making a progressive pass.

In the new year, it was no surprise overseas interest began to circulate in Yang. MLS side Minnesota United got the closest to testing Gangwon's resolve by making a formal - and sizeable - bid during Korea's winter transfer window, yet that was knocked back in favour of a potential summer sale to a European club. Additionally, the 21-year-old saw his squad number at the Bears change to the number seven shirt ahead of the new K League 1 campaign, signifying his "star player" status according to the club website.

A Tough Start to 2023

2023 didn't start off in the way Yang Hyun-jun would've wanted, however. With teams more aware of how the 21-year-old plays, and more eager to nullify his threat, the 2022 KFA Men's Young Player of the Year had difficulty attaining defined consistency in a Gangwon side finding it tough to recapture their form from the year prior.

Nevertheless, that would change. After a few games of showcasing steadily increasing levels of quality, Yang Hyun-jun would get his first goal contribution of the season in Gangwon's 3-2 home win against FC Seoul, by assisting Park Sang-hyeok. It came from a signature powerful run down the left-hand side that epitomised the best of the forward-thinking winger, the smart pullback for his teammate at the end of the move equally praiseworthy too.

To make matters better, the 21-year-old followed up that performance with another solid one a few days later against Jeonbuk, in a match where his final Gangwon goal would be scored. Similar to his assist the game prior, this effort started with Yang winning the ball back and running head-on towards the opposition box. Only this time, it culminated in an excellent lobbed finish - and 96th-minute winner - courtesy of the winger himself, topping off a composed solo move perfectly.

From here though, the remainder of Yang Hyun-jun's time at Gangwon would be a mixed bag of highlights and hardship, to a fair extent because of the Bears' overall decline in form compared to 2022, in addition to their noticeable lack of attacking potency.

2023 Reflections

Overall, Yang Hyun-jun's year has been one containing metaphorical growing pains, but not without steadfast moments of quality to match. There are plenty of factors that have led to this bumpy road too, and it'd be unfair to harshly judge the player for any inconsistencies that did arrive, large or small.

After all, without Yang it's possible Gangwon would still be winless in the league this season, and it's a fact the Bears, who are the league's lowest scorers with 15 goals across 24 games, would be bottom of the league if you were to take away any of the forward's tangible contributions.

So, keeping that in mind, it is worth applying some context when looking at Yang Hyun-jun's drop in output, and less fruitful current campaign. He has been playing in a confidence-lacking side which, despite changing manager, has not managed to find the right formula so far this season. The 21-year-old cannot be accused of lacking effort, and although he has landed on the quiet side in terms of creativity as of late, there's enough reason to have faith his quality will soon shine through again.

A New Chapter

To conclude, Yang Hyun-jun now has a chance for a fresh start at Celtic, working under Brendan Rodgers, and alongside fellow countrymen Oh Hyeon-gyu and Kwon Hyeok-gyu (the latter being another new signing for the Hoops). Such conditions will no doubt help the winger to adjust, as he now vies for a place in the first team of the reigning SPFL champions.

With that being said, it's right to exercise a degree of patience when it comes to the 21-year-old. He is still on his way towards being the finished article, and while he does possess a lot of the raw qualities to make it at the top level, refinement is needed too. You're buying potential with Yang Hyun-jun, which is exciting if you let it be, because he is the type of technically gifted, direct player who will get fans off their seats, wow them with skill, and show bursts of ingenuity.

As for Gangwon, they'll look towards their new forward signings Yun Il-lok, Yago Cariello, Welinton Junior and Vitor Gabriel to guide them to safety, and rediscover a clinical edge that’s been missing this campaign.

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