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2024 Season Preview: Gwangju did it, but can they do it again?


After being relegated for the third time in club history in 2022, Gwangju FC made widespread changes. It started with the front office giving a chance to a first-time manager, and ended with Gwangju FC qualifying themselves as one of Asia's 40 best teams. The 2023 season was Gwangju's best in its 14-year lifespan, and replicating that performance in 2024 will be a tall task ahead.

 

Last Season

16 wins, 11 draws, 11 losses; 3rd place 

What Happened?

The stars aligned for Gwangju, in a way. A year after being promoted from K League 2 by way of winning the title by 12 points, they've qualified for the 2024-25 AFC Champions League Elite, the most prestigious of Asia's three-tiered continental club competition. While relegation in 2021 big names like Um Won-sang and Felipe Silva leave, the 2022 and 2023 seasons saw Gwangju's stars develop into big names themselves. New arrivals like Timo Letschert and Jasir Adani led the charge to bounce back into K League 1, while Eom Ji-sung filled the Um Won-sang-sized hole in the team.

Gwangju's 2023 campaign was stylish, not too different from manager Lee Jung-hyo. They'd get valuable results, including just their second-ever wins against the likes of Jeonbuk Hyundai and Pohang Steelers, and also their first two against eventual champions Ulsan Hyundai. All the while, blossoming stars like Eom and Jung Ho-yeon attracted interest from European clubs, while a few of their older squad players would eventually be poached away.

While the names on the field are always the easiest to remember, Gwangju owes a lot of its success in 2023 to its manager. Lee and his squad have drawn comparisons to England's Brighton, managed by Roberto De Zerbi, for their attractive style of play despite spending less than other clubs might. 


Notable Moves


Lee Soon-min (to: Daejeon Hana Citizen, transfer)
Lee Soon-min was a useful player for Gwangju FC, showing a Swiss Army knife-like ability to play at multiple positions, including central and defensive midfield, center back and full back. Losing Lee is like losing two, or even three, players. Replacing him will be a difficult task for Lee Jung-hyo and co. The recently capped A team player, and part time rapper, will be well-missed by Gwangju fans and well-welcomed by Daejeon's.
 
Aaron Calver (to: Daejeon Hana Citizen, trade)
After almost two years at Gwangju, Calver will move a few hours north, where he will play for Daejeon Hana Citizen. While Daejeon, backed by the Hana Financial Group Inc., have made direct efforts to improve upon their 8th-place finish in 2023, the city-owned Gwangju FC have had trouble holding on to some of their key players. Rumors of Asani and Letschert leaving have also persisted, with European and Chinese suitors eager to open their wallets. The blow of Calver's departure will, hopefully, be lessened by the player who was brought in via trade for him... 

Byeon Jun-soo (from: Daejeon Hana Citizen, trade)
As a part of Korea Republic's U22 and U23 squads, Byron arrives with potential and promise. He tallied 15 K League 1 appearances, and will be and, while no longer a U-22 option, is a piece that the club can use to build towards a brighter future. 


Key Player 


Jasir Asani

Earlier this week, Gwangju FC made an Instagram post announcing their squad numbers. Two things stood out about the announcement: Timo Letschert didn't have a number, and Jasir Asani did. Towards the end of the 2023 season, the Albanian international was linked with a move overseas, as was the Dutch center back. Letschert is currently linked most heavily to Chinese Super League side Chengdu Rongcheng FC. In 33 matches for Gwangju, Asani had 7 goals and 4 assists, leading the team's goalscoring efforts. He will be relied upon again, particularly as a set-piece specialist, for Lee Jung-hyo's squad in 2024.

Young Player to Watch


Eom Ji-sung
While Jung Ho-yeon was last season's Young Player of the Year, the most important U-22 player to keep an eye on this season will be Eom Ji-sung. Um Won-sang joined Ulsan Hyundai the year after exhausting his U-22 eligibility, putting Eom in a similar situation. A strong 2024 could see him earn a move to a K League giant or possibly even overseas. Last season, he and Jung were linked with a move to Celtic FC. New signing and hopeful Timo Letschert replacement Alexander Popović is also a U-22 option for this season, and could be worth keeping an eye on.

Biggest Question 


Can Gwangju go back-to-back?
In its 13 years of history, Gwangju FC has never gone two consecutive seasons in the upper half of the K League 1 table. They'll try to do it in the 2024 season, but face a few hurdles. They'll need to play their brand of football without some key names like Timo Letschert and Lee Soon-min, but will also have to do it while juggling a more crowded schedule once they begin ACLE football in the fall. 

While other teams that finished in and around the top half seemed to have upgraded their squads, Gwangju's still seems to have a few gaps in it. Achieving a finish in the top six is going to be a challenge for Gwangju FC, regardless of how well they did in 2023. It's a challenge that may seem tall to Gwangju FC fans, but is something likely on the back burner for...

Reason to Watch 


Lee Jung-hyo. He's a magic man, and after Kim Gi-dong took the FC Seoul job, has become one of the last of a somewhat dying breed of talented managers at penny-pinching clubs. Much like Kim's past Pohang teams, a lot of the fun of watching Gwangju in 2024 will be watching to see what Lee Jung-hyo can achieve, and how he does it. 

He's a student of football, having traveled to England to study Premier League football just weeks after the end of last year's K League campaign. We'll see if he did all of his homework in England for the first time this year when his squad hosts Kim Gi-dong's FC Seoul at home on March 1.

He's a bit like Tony Stark in the way he's revived Gwangju post-relegation. Give him a box of scraps and he'll create an Iron Man suit. Give him this year's Gwangju FC squad and. . . we'll see what happens. 


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