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The Four Pohang Returnees That Feel Like Signings

Despite a number of first-team injuries, Pohang Steelers have managed to maintain their second-place spot in the K League 1 table. Pohang Steelers columnist Zeno Jo takes a deep dive into the four first-team players that have missed significant time due to injury, investigating what their injuries are, looking at their roles when healthy, who has stepped up in their space, and what the team might look like once they return. Additionally, manager Kim Gi-dong's reference to upcoming injury returnees as signings will be looked into.

Disclaimer: For the purposes of this article, we'll only be talking about players that are injured after the closure of the transfer deadline, which was on Wednesday, July 20. 

In an interview with FourFourTwo Korea, Kim Gi-dong was quoted saying, "Players like Kim Jong-woo, Sim Sang-min and Jung Jae-hee must return [from injury] and I think that their return will be like recruitment." The title of the article says that Kim Gi-dong sees the players returning from injury as no different compared to incoming transfers.

Since the interview, Shin Kwang-hoon has joined the list of injured players, with Kim Yong-hwan (minor knee issue) and Go Young-joon (knee injury on international duty) also spending some time away. To explain how important these four players' returns will be, we must first make sense of their absence by looking into how long they have been injured and what the believed nature of their injury is.  

The Injured List

Jung Jae-hee had cemented himself as the team's go-to right winger before falling to a left hamstring injury. He had started all five matches before his injury, scoring two goals. He was substituted on for Kim In-sung in the team's 2-0 win over Gwangju FC on April 8, but was taken back off after just six minutes for Lee Ho-jae. This was due to a hamstring tear that is rumored to be over 10 centimeters. In his absence, Kim Gi-dong has opted for captain Kim Seung-dae or Kim In-sung. Jung is focusing on indoor training, and it is believed that a return against FC Seoul is difficult.

Kim Jong-woo, as most know, was Pohang's Shin Jin-ho replacement. Since Shin left and Kim came, the two players have missed significant time for their respective clubs. Kim's last action on the field was against Ulsan Hyundai on April 22. He was substituted in at the stroke of halftime and finished the match with no real issues. According to Sports Donga, Kim was originally diagnosed with a bone bruise. Bone bruises typically heal in one or two months, but after examination, a fracture was detected. With Kim Jong-woo, Pohang were unbeaten with four wins and four draws. 

While Oberdan's midfield partner in crime was out, the manager has picked Kim Jun-ho, Lee Seung-mo or Han Chan-hee. Kim has returned to training with the team and is expected back soon, with the upcoming match against FC Seoul being targeted for a return. 

Sim Sang-min had experienced a disappointing 2022 campaign, which saw him lose his vice-captaincy to the in-form Heo Yong-jun. There were murmurs of a move away from Pohang, but come the start of the season, Sim was the team's starting left-back. He started all 16 matches from the start before suffering a right knee injury. 

Luckily, Kim Gi-dong and Pohang Steelers fans have enjoyed successful performances from Wanderson at left-back. Including the match where Sim was substituted for him in the match against Gwangju, Wanderson has played nine times as left back, winning five, drawing two and losing two in that span. Similarly to Jung Jae-hee, he is focusing on recovering through indoor training. A return against FC Seoul is deemed difficult, but he should return to full training with the team afterward.

Shin Kwang-hoon is the team's most experienced player. At 36, he's past his best years, but he has still been a useful utility man for Pohang. He's traditionally a right-back but has also shown the ability to play as a defensive midfielder. While the other three on this list are members of the first team, Shin's injury is one that has affected the depth of the team, if anything else. Park Seung-wook has been the go-to right back for the team since the start of the season, but as Shin and, more recently, Kim Yong-hwan have become injured, the team has been struggling for fitness through some stretches. Shin's injury is a left knee issue but in the process of recovery, he had continued to struggle for fitness, delaying his return. Similarly to Kim Jong-woo, he is expected to target the match against FC Seoul.

Since You've Been Gone...

While we know who has replaced the spots of the injured players, it is important to take a look at the bigger picture. 

Initially, the injury of Jung Jae-hee meant that more game time was given to under-22 option Cho Jae-hun. Previously, Kim In-sung or Kim Seung-dae would come on for Jung, offering their trademark speed and line-breaking abilities respectively. While Cho can be exciting at times, the 2003-born winger, who still has two seasons after this year as an under-22 option, can be shaky and uncertain in possession. Jung's upcoming return means that Kim Gi-dong can go back to using Kim In-sung and Kim Seung-dae off of the bench. 

Kim Jong-woo's injury spelled disaster for Pohang. The attacking midfielder-turned-defensive midfielder was the perfect compliment to Oberdan in Pohang's 4-2-3-1. The club's unbeaten run came to an end not long after his injury. The next man up was Lee Seung-mo, with Kim Gi-dong's son Kim Jun-ho also making a few appearances. Before this season, Kim had just six professional appearances, and while he has gotten better, his spot in the team had room for improvement. Trading Lee Seung-mo and bringing in Han Chan-hee has provided the team with a more experienced and technically gifted midfielder that is closer to Kim Jong-woo. 

Sim's injury created the perfect opportunity for Wanderson, a Pohang veteran himself, to play well. Wanderson struggled for match fitness early in the year, but after Sim's injury, the team needed him to step up. His performance in the team's 4-2 win over Jeju United was the highlight of his season, as he scored once and assisted once, both just a minute apart. After the match, Wanderson spoke in an interview with Best Eleven, where he said that since returning to Pohang for his third stint, his form is slowly beginning to return to what it was in 2019. He also said that he is no longer having issues with his knees, which had 

Shin Kwang-hoon's absence, as mentioned before, has affected the depth more than it has the first team. His return would mean that the team gets not just another useful utility man back, but also a leader in the locker room.

"If without teeth, then with gums."

For the past month or so, voices around Korean football have referred to Pohang's July with that analogy. Even with the large number of first-team injuries, they managed three wins, one draw and one loss in the month. This is of course thanks to performances from replacements, as well as other players who have stepped up. 

In the month of August, this team regains four of its lost teeth. Their returns will without a doubt raise the average quality of the team. In the month of July, Kim Gi-dong made use of all five substitutions just once, perhaps due to a lack of quality on the bench. Against Jeju and Jeonbuk, there were three and four U-22 substitutes respectively. 

Sim Sang-min's return means Wanderson could play as an attacker, giving Baek Sung-dong, Kim In-sung and Kim Seung-dae a rest when needed. Jung Jae-hee's return would offer a similar result to the return of Sim, as it adds another attacker. Kim Jong-woo's return expands Pohang's midfield options. Oberdan thrives when paired with a creative and forward-thinking midfielder, which is also present in Han Chan-hee. Kim coming back gives the Steelers another option. 

The match against FC Seoul and the following FA Cup fixture at Jeju United won't provide the best look for what a full-strength Pohang will be. It might take until August 13, when they host Gwangju FC.

Kim Gi-dong views the returns of these four players as new signings because they come at a time when quality depth will be crucial. The FA Cup, pre-split K League 1 race, AFC Champions League and the Asian Games will all take place in the following two months. Finishing in the top four is well within Pohang's grasp. It would be the first time since the 2019 and 2020 seasons that they will have done so, but a full-strength Pohang will have their sights set on their rivals Ulsan Hyundai, who at the time of writing this article sit 12 points above them.  


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