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2019 Season Review: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

2019 Season Review: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

In a season of transition for the club, in addition to the threat of credible opposition for the first time in years, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors managed to retain their K League 1 crown by the narrowest of margins, making it their third league title in a row and seventh overall. It was not all smooth sailing for the recrowned champions, however, and there is still plenty to address in the upcoming off-season.

What Went Well

No title is won on luck but Jeonbuk did find themselves in the unusual position of their destiny out of their hands on the final day of the K League 1 season. To have clocked this trophy up to good fortune would be to ignore the other 37 matches that kept them in with a chance of reclaiming their crown in the first place and for that praise must be given to this side and coaching staff for their triumph in what was a transitional and potentially tricky season after the departure of long-serving manager Choi Kang-hee.

The title was claimed after a well-drilled and formidable Ulsan Hyundai outfit pushed the champions' resolve all the way to wire before falling at the final hurdle. Jeonbuk manager José Morais and his team knew they had to win in Round 38 and hope for an Ulsan defeat but they kept up their end of the bargain when it mattered most. It shows that despite the slight regression this season, this Jeonbuk side still retain their mettle, making for one of the more memorable final days in recent K League history.

[LISTEN: Final Weekend Recap]

What Didn't Go Well

The pre-season predictions of a 'treble' always seemed somewhat farfetched and manufactured purely for soundbite purposes but there is no doubt that the team should have fared better in the AFC Champions League, the trophy that this club and the fanbase crave. Jeonbuk limped out on penalties to Shanghai SIPG, despite initially taking the lead in both legs. The late implosion was further compounded with scenes of Jeonbuk manager José Morais being sent to the stands for his protests before being later joined by Moon Seon-min.

This leads to a larger problem. While often disliked by neutrals regardless, this iteration of Jeonbuk proved to be far less likeable than seasons past. Not only did the team and players feature high in the fouling and disciplinary charts, but their on-field demeanour looked far more fraught than supporters have seen in previous campaigns. Tempers often flared, mostly to the detriment of the side, moving them away from the colder, machine-like proficiency which they had previously employed to pick sides apart.

Finally, one of the biggest issues with this side was its lack of strike power. While Jeonbuk did still score the most in the league, they were forced to rely on 40-year-old Lee Dong-gook for the season run-in due to injuries and mid-season player departures. However, they were only three goals off their record-breaking tally from last season, so perhaps it is more of a case of perception. Chances often felt squandered compounded by the aforementioned flaring of frustration. There was generally a lingering sense that this team should be performing better and quite often opposition teams sensed this as well.

Young Player of the Year

Goalkeeper Song Beom-keun followed up on his impressive debut season with an improved showing in 2019, boasting statistics that not only rivalled but arguably bettered the crowned 'best goalkeeper' Jo Hyeon-woo from Daegu FC. Song was thrust into the number one role last year in his first professional season after notable mistakes from the two 'keepers before him in the pecking order. Once handed the gloves, he looked there to stay.

At the start of 2019, Jeonbuk signed a more experienced goalkeeper in Lee Bum-young, which threatened Song's potential playing time. However, after effectively picking up a season-ending injury in his first training session, Lee was ruled out and Song was entrusted once more. This campaign has seen Jeonbuk tested far more defensively, and their goalkeeper has had far more to do than in his debut campaign. He has continued to rise to meet the challenges thrown at him though and should soon be hoping to make a step up to the senior national team as his profile carries on growing.

Rumours have suggested a move to the J.League could be on the cards after 15th placed Sagan Tosu expressed interest in the goalkeeper's services. Being a U22 player, Song's salary is currently capped in the K League and he could stand to earn more overseas, yet he will soon be eligible for a senior contract at Jeonbuk and the club should do everything they can to keep him in Jeonju. By staying he would also continue to feature in the AFC Champions League and stay on the national team radar. It remains to be seen if these reports will yet amount to anything.

Team MVP

Until his departure in the summer to China, striker Kim Shin-wook was on course to be Jeonbuk's key player this season, adapting well to the new manager's methods and reaping the rewards in front of goal. However, his transfer to Shanghai Shenhua to link up with former manager Choi Kang-hee left a void to be filled as most of Jeonbuk's outfield struggled to match the standards they had set the season prior.

Therefore, Jeonbuk's MVP candidate this year could only be Moon Seon-min. Moon joined from Incheon United in the pre-season and there was curiosity regarding where he would fit into a team already with proven wingers. There was also the concern that he would be unable to make the step up from Incheon yet any worries were quickly shrugged off.

Moon scored ten goals and made ten assists in the league this season. The last Jeonbuk player to do so was Lee Dong-gook in 2011. His efforts won him accolades at the K League awards and a recall to the Korean National Team for the EAFF E-1 Championships. Potentially buoyed on by his looming military service in January, Moon seized upon what he clearly felt would be his best chance at silverware and helped drag the reigning champions through matches with his blinding pace and mazy runs that tormented opposition defences.

Some of his less desirable traits remain, such as his wastefulness and tendency to get riled up but, in a Jeonbuk side that looked far more human than in previous seasons, Moon often stepped up and delivered. He will certainly be a big loss next season when he moves to Sangju Sangmu,

Most Disappointing Player

Tiago Alves once again had a season of frustration having stayed at the club with the hope of the new manager José Morais reevaluating his talents after having fallen somewhat out of favour last season due to poor form. Unfortunately, things never really got started for the winger. He came into the season with an injury and, after recovering, failed to make an impact in the games that he featured in. Rumours and reports of discontent at the club manifested shortly before he was quietly loaned out to J.League side Sagan Tosu in the summer for the remainder of the season, where he only made four appearances.

Tiago will return to Jeonju this winter but it seems unlikely he will feature in the plans for the new campaign. When he arrived in 2018, there was much promise about the heights he could reach. However, with each passing season, that six-month spell in Seongnam in 2016, when he wowed crowds across the division with his skill, looks increasingly like the exception to the trend.

Most Important Decision of the Off-Season

While they are champions once more, this iteration of Jeonbuk is undoubtedly in need of strengthening, especially with the departures of winger Moon Seon-min and centre-back Kwon Kyung-won to Sangju Sangmu. Replacements for both of these will be required. Furthermore, with Kim Shin-wook replacement Samuel Rosa also having left the club, José Morais needs to procure a striker once more, potentially two, and ideally players who would need little time to adapt to the K League.

With their first match of 2020 being at home to J.League champions Yokohama F. Marinos in the AFC Champions League early February, not to mention title rivals Ulsan Hyundai likely also to strengthen, Jeonbuk need to press on with their transfer activity if they are to be ready for what is set to be another testing campaign.

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