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Gwangju FC: Bridging the gap to K League 1


Gwangju eased to the K League 2 title this year, comfortably sealing a return to the top flight after a two-year absence. With Park Jin-seop at the helm, the Yellows will want to dump their reputation as a yo-yo club. There are lessons to learn elsewhere in the K League should Gwangju's hierarchy succeed in their ambition to become established in the first division.

Factors behind their success

Even fans whose K League focus is taken by the top division will be well aware of talisman Felipe's prowess but may not have had chance to appreciate Gwangju's intricacies that saw them dominate from the beginning of the season.

Finishing six points clear of Busan IPark and 18 points from third-placed FC Anyang, the Yellows success has been built on the foundations of a solid defence conceding just 31 goals in 36 games. Losing to both Jeonnam Dragons and Daejeon Citizen in their last two games scuppered any hopes of matching Gyeongnam's record total of 79 points in 2017.

Manager Park Jin-seop's second year at the helm was not without challenge, especially trying to maintain a solid defensive record despite numerous forced changes throughout the season. Shaping up in a 4-5-1 for the majority of the campaign, Park was unable to allow regular partnerships to settle with nine defenders each clocking up over 10 appearances. Lee Eu-ddeum and Yeo Bong-hun performed admirably as make-shift full backs and the steadying influence of Lee Han-do certainly appeared to help Rustam Ashurmatov develop in his debut K League season.

[LISTEN: K League 2 playoffs and Ulsan vs Jeonbuk podcast]

Strengthening in key areas

It's been a pretty faultless season in Park Jin-seop's second year in charge and while defensive injuries and suspensions plagued the 42-year-old boss, he has had some luck on that front in midfield with Choi Jun-hyeok, Park Jeong-soo and Yeo Reum mainstays in a central three. Ousted later in the season by summer arrival Ratinho, who looks a real prospect, club legend Yeo Reum may not see too much action after his sixth year with the club. A sentimental substitution with 30 minutes remaining of the season finale at Daejeon perhaps suggests that he will leave altogether, with particular focus on him from other players in post-match celebrations in front of his adoring fans. While Ratinho appears capable of the step up, K League 1 may be a step too far for an ageing Park Jeong-soo, meaning that the board really need to back their manager to bring in a couple of new faces in the middle.

As an attacking force Gwangju really shone in 2019, almost becoming complacent at times such was the ease of their carving through opposition. That over-confidence manifested itself in the 7-1 hammering away to Anyang, which threatened to derail their season. One win in six followed but with talisman Felipe spearheading an enviable selection of wingers, Gwangju look like they could cause trouble for K League 1 defences. Looking at the stats it appears as if the Brazilian striker was working as a one-man band up top, but his deputy Kim Ju-gong grew into the role as the season wore on after a tepid start. Competition for places is never a bad thing though, and while you would expect boss Park to opt for a sole striker in the top tier, a central forward with pace would really add to their arsenal.



Following the Daegu model

Promoted in 2016, Daegu have enjoyed a couple of steady lower mid-table finishes with the cherry of an FA Cup trophy on top. Champions League appearances within three years may be an unrealistic expectation for the Yellows, but a similarity exists in Gwangju's plans to build a smaller, more suitable stadium in a bid to improve the match day experience. While juggling continental football, Daegu broke into the top six for this first time with undoubted support behind the scenes also required from those in charge in Jeollanamdo.

[READ: A study of K League 1's relegation history]

The aforementioned 2017 Gyeongnam promotion squad showed a blueprint of how to attack the league from the off without fear, winning their first four games back in the top division and surging up to second place. Both clubs show that the gap between the two professional leagues is not insurmountable. Despite a poor performance in the FA Cup against Suwon Bluewings falling to a comfortable 3-0 defeat, Gwangju should have no concerns about being out of their depth.

K League United's Daegu columnist Jung Mu-yeol added: "Success at Daegu can't be judged as an appropriate barometer, nor justification of a new football specific ground as there we so many other variables apart from the new stadium. Along with our fair share of luck, keeping the talent in the squad has enabled Daegu to play better from the beginning since the move across town."





Learning from the past

Looking back to 2017 when the Yellows managed a paltry four wins, Nam Ki-il and Kim Hak-beum's management of their last spell in the first division left them without a real force up front. The inexperienced pair of Cho Ju-young and Na Sang-ho saw them win just once on the road at local rivals Jeonnam Dragons. Probably the highlight of their 2017 campaign, Wanderson de Macedo came off the bench to bag a second-half hat-trick. In a similar vein to Felipe this year, Wanderson came and made an instant impression. However, making only 18 appearances scuppered hopes that he could drag them out of trouble in a Mugosa-like fashion.


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