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2019 Season Review: Suwon Samsung Bluewings

Suwon Samsung Bluewings ended the 2019 season as FA Cup Winners and with a place in next year's AFC Champions League. Furthermore, Socceroos striker Adam Taggart's 20 goals earned him K League 1 Golden Boot after joining from Brisbane Roar at the start of the campaign. However, by ending the season in eighth place, the Bluewings recorded their worst league finish since 2005. Editor Paul Neat takes a look back at the Bluewings' 2019 campaign.
(image via Seoul.co.kr)

What Went Well

2019 K League 1 Record: W12 D12 L14 GF46 GA49 GD-3 Pts48 (9th)

FA Cup Winners

On the face of it, the 2019 season went rather well for Suwon Samsung Bluewings. The club became the most successful in Korean FA Cup history by securing a record fifth title which, subsequently, earned themselves a place in the AFC Champions League for 2020 after a one-year absence. Having gone trophy-less since 2016, the Big Bird faithful would perhaps have taken that had it have been offered to them before the start of the season.

Manager Lee Limsaeng certainly has his detractors but, ultimately, despite some lethargic home performances, Lee was able to add his name to the illustrious list of managers who have been able to bring silverware to Big Bird along side the likes of Kim Ho, Cha Bumkun, Kim Sunghyo, and the last manager to do so, Seo Jungwon. The Bluewings' away form was respectable too as seven of the 12 league wins came away from home, including victories over teams who went on to finish in FINAL A such as Gangwon FC and Daegu FC.

What Didn't Go Well

League Position

That said, FA Cup success doesn't tell the whole story as, by finishing the season in eighth place, Suwon recorded their worst finish in 14 years. In 2005, the Bluewings finished 10th in a 13-team K League and so, had it not have been for the FA Cup triumph, the 2019 campaign would have had a completely different complexion. Frankly speaking, said FA Cup win has given Lee Limsaeng a stay of execution because, had Suwon not overcome third tier Daejeon Korail in the two legged final, Lee himself said that he would resign as the team's manager. However, defeat against third tier opposition really ought to be enough for the board at Suwon World Cup Stadium to seriously consider whether Lee is their man to take the club forward had such a situation had manifested itself.

Overall in K League 1, Suwon's number of passes made, as well as the amount of key passes which the team made, ranks them more or less where they finished in the table but it could have been a lot better. Suwon ranked third for advances into the final third and fourth for the number of shots made, and the number of shots on target, but only 11th for shots on target inside the box and 10th for crosses. Such statistics would perhaps suggest that quality delivery from the flanks was an issue and there was an over reliance on Adam Taggart. Aside form Taggart, Suwon's next top scorer was Yeom Kihun with just six goals in the league, followed by Han Seokhee with four and two of Han's four strikes came in the 4-2 away win over Jeju United just a couple of weeks ago. Suwon's goal tally of 46 is also their worst in five years.

Home Form

In 2019 Suwon won just 12 games, their worst record since 2016. From those 12 wins only five came at home in the league, the number of home wins in 2016 was six - a season which has mirrored this current campaign in a lot of ways given that the Bluewings finished in the bottom half of the table but an FA Cup win saved the manager's job.

The five home victories came in the shape of two wins over Incheon United who finished 10th, two over Jeju United who finished bottom of the table, and one against Pohang Steelers. The FA Cup saving Suwon's season was also mirrored in their run to the final as Suwon's played the fourth, fifth and sixth round matches all at home against Pohang Steelers, Gwangju FC and National League side Gyeongju KHNP respectively, before a 3-0 extra time home win in the semi-final second leg over Hwaseong FC. Yeom Kihun's hat-trick that evening set Suwon up for the 4-0 final second leg win over Daejeon Korail to add some much-needed shine to an otherwise dreary home campaign.

Super Match

Another season passed by without Suwon winning a single Super Match. From the three meetings in 2019, Suwon took away just one point for their endeavours after a draw and two defeats. The first defeat came in the midst of bitter rivals FC Seoul's purple patch of form and was Choi Yongsoo's outfit's fifth win in seven matches. The second, however, was a different story altogether being just second win in nine matches and remains as Seoul's last win over the season. Suwon looked to be on their way to a first Super Match win in four seasons but conceded a late, late penalty to see the spoils shared. It's not just about the Super Match though as Suwon showed they were lacking something in big games, even in the FA Cup. The sixth round win over Gyeongju KHNP came via a penalty shootout and they really needed both legs to get the job done over Hwaseong and Daejeon Korail. In the league, the Bluewings managed just four wins against teams who finished above them in the table.

Young Player of the Year

Jeon Sejin

By default, Suwon's Young Player of the Year would have to be 20-year-old winger Jeon Sejin. Jeon is very highly rated at Big Bird, and given how much raw talent he has, looks set to go on to achieve great things in the game. However, with Lee Limsaeng's apparent reluctance to give chances to younger players, or inability find Jeon's best position, it has been something of an indifferent campaign for the former Maetan High School graduate. The Korean youth international has been tried as a central midfielder, a left winger, right winger, and as a centre forward without really being able to settle into one position due to his manager's indecision. However, his cameo in the FA Cup semi-final second leg proved to be pivotal, winning a penalty to help Suwon go on to win 3-0 against Hwaseong.

From 20 appearances over all, Jeon made 13 starts and amongst players 21 or younger, ranked fourth for the number of shots made with 20, second for shots on target with 14, and joint ninth for key passes having recorded the same amount as Cho Youngwook of FC Seoul. Jeon was also part of the Korea U20 squad which reached the 2019 FIFA U20 World Cup Final in Poland. 

Team MVP

Adam Taggart

Without doubt, Suwon Bluewings' most important and most valuable player form 2019 was striker Adam Taggart. On the back of the Perth-native's form in a blue shirt, Taggart earned his way back into Socceroos reckoning and went on to score three times in World Cup qualifying this year. Taggart's 20 goals for the Bluewings was also enough to earn him the K League Golden Boot, the first Australian and only the fifth Bluewing to do so, as well as a place in the K League Best XI.

This term Suwon scored 46 goals in 38 games meaning that Taggart's 20 league strikes account for almost half (43%). Furthermore, Taggart's goals account for 15 points of Suwon's total tally of 48, the difference between finishing eighth or potentially just above the drop zone. However, given that Taggart scored nine goals against teams in the bottom three, goals that in turn went on to earn either wins or draws in said games, it could well have been the difference between survival or relegation.

Notable mentions would also have to be given to goalkeeper Noh Donggeon and Yeom Kihun who have both performed well in critical moments throughout the season. Noh cemented his place in the team after starting as second fiddle to Kim Dasol and went on to make 29 league appearances and 34 overall, whilst Yeom, in something of a cameo role coming off the bench, bagged a hat-trick in Suwon's 3-0 semi-final second leg win over Hwaseong to send the Bluewings through to the final.

Most Disappointing Player

There have been some underwhelming performances across the season from a number of players, primarily due to high expectations placed on them. However, the most disappointing performance of all was that of the manager, Lee Limsaeng. The initial appointment was underwhelming to say the very least and early performances under the former Home United gaffer left a lot to be desired. Chief upon wish was the 4-0 demolition by Jeonbuk Hyundai at the start of the campaign which did little else other than highlight Lee's tactical shortfalls. Opting to play a high defensive line against the likes of Ricardo Lopes and Moon Seonmin was tactically naive.

Square Pegs in Round Holes

Lee Limsaeng's team selections can often leave people scratching their heads. The likes of Park Hyungjin, Yeom Kihun, Jeon Sejin, and Hong Chul have all played in unnatural positions over the course of the season. Jeon Sejin, for example, a winger of just 20 years of age, began the season playing as a central midfielder alongside another winger Yeom Kihun. Korean international left back Hong Chul has also been asked to play in central midfield on the odd occasion, as has Park Hyungjin who has turned out for the Bluewings in a whole host of positions. Park, who has a J.League 1 winners medal to his name, has played as a left-sided centre back in a back three, left wing-back in a 3-5-2, left back in a back four, left and midfield in a midfield four, right back, right wing-back, right wing. In that respect, Park is just the tip of the iceberg as Lee Limsaeng doesn't appear to know how to utilise the players he had at his disposal. The lack of continuity cannot have helped matters.

Another example of this is how he handled Dejan Damjanović who, despite scoring 27 goals in all competitions in 2018, was frozen out towards the end of the season. Dejan's last league start was in the Super Match in June and didn't feature in the first team after the first leg defeat to Hwaseong in the FA Cup semi-final, despite there being a heavy reliance on Adam Taggart. The excuse was that Dejan didn't fit his style of play but, given that the former Montenegro international was the club's highest paid player, was the leading scorer and player of the year in 2018, and has over 150 K League goals to his name, finding a way to utilise Dejan will have been Lee's responsibility.

Lack of Leadership

Lee's lack of leadership contributed to something of a media circus surrounding the club at times in 2019. Prior to Elvis Sarić leaving for the Middle East in summer, club captain Yeom Kihun went on record in the press as saying that Sarić wasn't worth the money Suwon were paying him and, although it's a shame that he had to leave, selling was the right thing to do. Not only this, but Yeom chastised Dejan in public after he was seen attending a Seoul E-Land game 24 hours before the FA Cup semi-final second leg. After the first incident, Lee Limsaeng should have put a lid on players making off-key remarks in the media as it creates an image of a fractured dressing room which, ultimately, reflects poorly on the manager. Besides, the top clubs do not air their dirty laundry in public. Ulsan, Jeonbuk and Seoul will all have had things happen behind the scenes but it is all kept away from the public eye. Suwon's lack of media savviness left the club looking amateurish at times.

Most Important Decision of the Off-season

Recruitment has to be done properly in the off-season if Suwon are to compete in the league and on the continent next year. The club will therefore have to decide whether Lee Limsaeng is the right man to take the club forward and beyond the next 12 months. If they believe that he is, then the board must back him in the transfer market. Already, the Bluewings have brought in Canadian international defender Doneil Henry from Vancouver Whitecaps, so early signs suggest that the club are working hard to make the squad competitive for 2020 but Henry needs to be the first of many.

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